Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Armstrong discusses state of team, feels team can be in a good spot despite injuries

Tarasenko return imminent; Parayko, Schwartz, Bozak out indefinitely; team 
will look, listen to outside help if needed, Kostin, Toropchenko will be back

ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong's been in the NHL for 30 years and has seen everything one can imagine.

From the top of the mountain to the bottom, what he has never seen, though, even though injuries can hit a team at a moment's notice, is not only the amount of injuries the Blues have been smacked with this season but the severity of them.

And there have been a lot of them.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong talked about the state of the Blues
on Monday from injuries to what the team needs to do to stay in the hunt.

"I've been around the game for a while, this is the largest number of injuries we've had for the extent of time that they're going to be out," Armstrong said Monday before the Blues played the second of a six-game road trip against the Anaheim Ducks.

Eight of them -- yes, eight! -- are currently shelved with some form of ailment, including defenseman Colton Parayko and forwards Jaden Schwartz and Tyler Bozak, who Armstrong described as out indefinitely, meaning they could return soon, or not for a while.

They join Robert Thomas, who broke his left thumb Feb. 6 against Arizona and will be reevaluated in four weeks, which is roughly two more than originally thought; Ivan Barbashev, who sustained a hairline fracture in his left ankle Feb. 18, will be re-evauated in six weeks, and Jacob de la Rose, who left Saturday's 7-6 marathon win over San Jose with a lower-body injury, will go on injured reserve and be reevaluated in three weeks.

Carl Gunnarsson is out for the season after sustaining a right knee injury Feb. 22 against Los Angeles.

And that doesn't even account for Robert Bortuzzo, who missed time earlier this season with an upper-body injury.

"Parayko, Bozak and Schwartz are out indefinitely and we'll update that one when they return to practice," Armstrong said. "That's probably not as ominous as it sounds. With the type of injuries, they're dealing with upper body injuries and I really don't want to get specific because I want to protect the players when they return, if there's not a timeline where I think we know exactly when they're going to be back, so it could be a week, it could be two weeks, it could be longer. Those other guys, because their injuries are more direct and medical where you can say, 'OK, that's the injury, this is the timeline,' the other guys are a little bit different so we're just going to go indefinite on those guys. Obviously 'Gunny' is gone for the year. I think that wraps up the injury update on where we're at."

But not all is bad news. The good news of all this, is that Vladimir Tarasenko, who hasn't played yet this season after having a third surgery on his left shoulder Sept. 17, is on the cusp of getting back into the lineup.

"We're hoping and expect he'll return sometime on this trip, which is positive," Armstrong said. "Obviously Craig (Berube) is going to dictate the ice time. My experience in the NHL is that when a player comes back, you have to view him as ready to play. You can't dress basically, you don't want to dress 11.5 forwards. You want to dress 12 forwards and if he's ready, the player wants to play in the situation that he is. Now you've got to protect him if he's getting tired in a game or things like that. You don't want to subject him to injury, but the training that he's done and the strength that he has in his shoulder, we wouldn't put him out there if we didn't think he could perform. Now, his is a little bit different in a sense that the magnitude of time that he's been out. 

"What would we like to see? We would like to see him come back like he left, score from distance, 18-21 minute player, has the other team on their heels, generational scorer. Now we also understand too that the time has passed and there's going to be some timing issues, there's chemistry issues. Our team has changed a lot since the last time he's played. Like over 20 games, there's been a lot of turnover here. I think having him on the road the last couple trips has really helped him ... it's one thing to be at home and training, but it's another thing to be traveling with the guys. You get to know them a little bit better, especially when you're going from a bus to a hotel, from a bus to a rink or a bus to a hotel, you get to spend a lot of time. I see him with the taxi squad players. His work ethic, I think they see the power and his strength and they're in awe, which makes us a stronger organization. We're hoping he gets back and he's the old Vladi, but we also know that Rome's not build in a day and we're not going to ... we need him to be as good as he can be as quick as he can be, but we can't think that he's going to be the savior, then everyone else can exhale."

The currently have five players (Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Bozak, Gunnarsson and Barbashev) on long-term injured reserve and they account for $21.475 million in cap space. Add another $1.594 million (Thomas and de la Rose) on regular IR. Add in Schwartz and Parayko (combined $10.8 million in cap space) and that's a lot of dough on the sidelines, but the good news is once Tarasenko returns and his $7.5 million cap hit comes onto the books, they have the space to get him in comfortably now.

"The closest guy coming back is Tarasenko by a country mile," Armstrong said.

But does it beg the question of whether the Blues will be in the market to add leading up to this season's April 12 trade deadline should they seek outside help. 

The Blues are going to have players out for the longer term, and with the trade deadline roughly five weeks away, do they look to the outside, or could they even try?

"Well, no, the cap is not really that big an ... it's an issue obviously," Armstrong said. "I obviously don't want to minimize it, but we certainly have enough space now with the guys that we have on LTI, even when Vladi comes back. When Bozie comes back, we'll have enough space. Gunny's going to be on there the rest of the year. With Gunny being on the rest of the year (and) on our opening day roster, we'd be at 23 players anyways. Obviously 4-6 weeks for Barbashev and Thomas, you never know, there might be somebody ... hopefully there's nobody else on that list at that time, so the cap is a work in progress, but it's something that we just have to work around, maintain and let me put it this way, I hope we have cap issues."

It means there will be no issues, according to Armstrong with the cap when these higher-priced cap players do return, like Tarasenko and/or Bozak.

"No, no. I think with the taxi squad, we were going to be able to even with these injuries, manipulate it where we were never going to play short or be concerned," Armstrong said. "Now when everyone gets healthy, then some of these guys that are on call-up or on the taxi squad, go back down to the American Hockey League, some of these guys on the NHL roster, go back to the taxi squad making American League money. Every player coming back, there's a domino affect going the other way."

So it makes for a great challenge for the Blues to try and tread water with what they have, and that's a roster full of players now that probably wouldn't have been on the radar had they been healthy trying to keep the ship afloat. And with the flat cap probably staying this way at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future, GM's around the league are not just looking at the now but at the future also.

"I think in normal years, you could see opportunities," Armstrong said. "Right now, I think with the flat cap, you're seeing quality NHL players or players that are at least NHL average, whatever that term means, clearing waivers because people are concerned about next year's salary cap and nobody has a crystal ball, but we could be at this number for three or four more years. It's not just getting everything into this year, it's also to what we were talking about, we're hoping at some time that the only person on LTI in our group is Steen, which we've already spent on (Mike) Hoffman and Dunny (Vince Dunn). If you get too aggressive, you turn the corner and you have great health and everyone comes back, then you're in a position where you're moving guys you don't want to move in market where you might not be able to move anybody." 

So the for the time being, it'll be guys like Mackenzie MacEachern, Austin Poganski, Nathan Walker, Niko Mikkola, and de la Rose was supposed to bridge the gap until he got hurt, so that also opened up a slot on Monday for Dakota Joshua, who made his NHL debut against Anaheim and scored his first goal on his first shot.

"Yeah, I think there's no outside forces coming in," Armstrong said. We have to find a way as an organization to understand this is a great opportunity for us and find ways to manufacture points. It's all hands-on deck. The good thing too is our players aren't looking for outside people to help them. I really get a sense they believe there's enough in there and they understand too if we can get mentally and physically hardened by going through this, when these guys come back, we're going to be in a very strong frame of mind to make a very strong push. We've just got to get to that point. This certainly hardens an organization.

Obviously we've called some guys up," Armstrong said. "Dakota's going to get his first NHL game today, which there's always excitement around the team any time a guy get's his first opportunity. I felt it around the morning skate today. Guys were excited for him, he's excited to get that. We've called up (Steven) Santini and (Sam) Anas and they're actually in Los Angeles quarantining now. They've been there since last week getting daily tested in LA and when we get out there, hopefully they'll be ready to join us on this road trip at the end when we get to LA. So for the injury front and the roster activity, that's basically where we're at today.

"With the way the NHL is right now, trades are obviously difficult to make even if you wanted to use future assets to get players to come in. Most teams are in a playoff race. No one's ready to make those decisions yet. The short of it, we have to find a way to make this work. We have to ask guys to maybe play out of position, ask guys to do different things, maybe have our depth guys take a different role and different parts of the special teams. What you really want to try and protect is over-taxing your regular players because then you don't want to subject them. Rest is certainly an important factor on days off and try to get the most out of those support players coming in. You have to look at the glass half full and I'm hoping that the guys getting opportunities, the Walkers, the Joshuas tonight, the Mikkolas, the other players, the MacEacherns. Obviously (Sammy) Blais and (Zach) Sanford are getting a better look higher up the lineup. You're hoping they seize this moment maybe project their career upward and onward and they never look back."

But what about Klim Kostin, the team's 2017 first-round pick who was just named the Kontinental Hockey League's rookie of the month for February who has been shot out of a cannon recently playing for Avangard Omsk? Blues fans have been clamoring for the team to bring him back over to North America, but it's not that simple.

Yes, Kostin is on loan to the KHL and the Blues could technically bring him back at any point but they decided to let him finish out the season there (Omsk is currently starting the playoffs), then bring him here. Even so, when they bring him back here, there is the issue of getting a proper working visa in order, and that takes time, something the Blues are in the process of working on, and then there's the two-week quarantine period for travelers from abroad.

"Kostin, again, I looked it more half-full, like he's playing on a good team, they have a chance to win, they're in the playoffs, he's playing a lot, he has a North American coach who tells us he's getting better and stronger, and I don't want to say 'dominant,' but his size and power is becoming evident on a shift-by-shift basis," Armstrong said. "It's been a great experience for him. The difficult part is, we couldn't get him back at the time we needed him to, so we thought it was best to stay there and we're going to let him see it play out. But as soon as he's done, again we're working on visas to get everything in order ... and we'll see where we're at health-wise, I don't think a guy can fly from Russia to here, sit in a hotel for 14 days and then say, 'OK, you're playing tomorrow night.' I'm really not sure you're putting that player in a position to have success. I think you're putting him in that position to fail, and we're not going to do that with these young players. We'd like to get him back to North America. The short answer is, we'd love to get them back when their seasons are done, and when all their visas and other issues are put behind them."

It's been an immense challenge to get Kostin, 21, to remain mentally strong trying to get to the NHL as quickly as possible and not have him fall out of favor with being in North America and having to work up the tree and take too much time to get here, but the Blues have been certainly very patient with his progression.

"I would say (director of player development and pro scout) Tim Taylor has earned his paycheck on Klim just as a development coach, not only on the ice but off the ice, the culture, the expectations," Armstrong said. "Your best lessons usually come from adversity and failure, not success. Klim has dealt with adversity since he's been here, and I think Tim Taylor has done a great job of sort of allowing him to go through those emotions and, at the end of the day, say to him 'Nobody really cares.' People just look at you what you do on the ice, and if you're going to be successful you're going to play. So he has the ability to break it down into the rawness and realness of the industry that he's chosen, which is, you know, 'The King is dead, long live the King.' You've got to push and prod your way in there, and when you do, you have to know that someone is coming behind you trying to take your job. I think he's grown, and I really think that his year has been an excellent step in his growth."

Kostin's play on the larger ice sheet in Russia has been of great value to him, and the Blues can only hope it translates to the NHL sheet, which is narrower.

"Yeah, I'm really hoping so," Armstrong said. "In his draft year, he was slotted as a top-five player. He was a dominant player at the U-18 tournament. Then he got injured. Then he goes to the draft and he hasn't played ... so in his mind he's a top-five player and he goes at the end of that first round. I think in his mind, he wanted to get to the NHL very quickly, and I think the road has been winding for him. I think going home, and it wasn't easy for him for the first couple of months, but something clicked in him and now the analogies that they use is 'power, A to B, strong' (and) those adjectives flow to the NHL very easily. So I'm hoping he can take that (to the NHL). But again, I don't want to create an expectation where people are asking him to come back and all of a sudden be a - like OK, he played in the KHL so he's going to come back and our fans are going to think he's Brendan Shanahan on the first shift. It's going to be work, but I think at the end of the day we think this has been a very successful year for him."

Same can be said for Alexei Toropchenko, also drafted in 2017 but in the fourth round by the Blues, who sent him overseas to the KHL as well to play for Kunlun Red Star.

"Toropchenko, we're working on right now," Armstrong said. "It was very difficult to get them back from the KHL. A lot of teams just kept guys over there that were in a good situation. A) Getting them a visa was much more difficult this year than ever before. I would say both governments probably had a hand in that. Then the quarantining when they get back. Where they were in their growth, we just thought they were in good situations, they're playing big minutes, just let them keep going. Toropchenko's (season is) over now, and again, we're trying to get him back. Again, it's just the realities of the countries ... I heard ... he thinks ... they told him he may owe them some military service and it won't be long, but we're trying to push that off. But the Finns have that too, so it's not like just a Russian thing. But that was new to us. So there's just little things that get in the way all the time."

Military service? Really?

"That's what I heard," Armstrong said. "Again, I don't want to make a mountain out of a mole hill because this isn't the first time we've had stuff like this. It's just getting everything in order. It's just international -- I don't want to say 'politics' -- it's just international responsibilities people have to their home countries. Again, I've had the same thing with Finnish players, too. That's just part of their national culture."

As for Bozak, Schwartz and Parayko, it's the unknown that is haunting the Blues.
There was hope Bozak, who was smacked from a blindside hit Jan. 26 against Vegas' Mark Stone, could return sooner than later.

"Well, he's indefinite because the type of injury he has, we were hoping he was going to be playing by now," Armstrong said. "It's just not working out that way. I don't want to say something I can't back up. I can't guarantee he's going to skate on this trip, I can't guarantee he's not, I can't guarantee he's going to skate in two weeks."

As for Schwartz, the mystery looms larger because there was belief that this would only be a few days to a week or so at best.

"It happened that game and it was something obviously has taken a little bit longer to ... it's a different injury than we are normally seeing and we're trying to get to the bottom of it," Armstrong said. "It could be that he just needs time, but it wasn't something he walked into a game with. He walked into a game and then sustained an injury and came out of the game, so it was all based around one play."

Parayko hasn't seen the ice since that Monday afternoon Arizona game, and it was evident from the get-go that he wasn't playing up to his capabilities throughout the season. Something was bothering the big man.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko (55) is sidelined indefinitely with an
upper-body injury.

The Blues are praying Parayko doesn't have to go under the knife and that rest is the the best course of action.

"I think surgery is the last course of action and we're trying to stay away from that, but again, I really feel ... I'm not trying to be evasive guys," Armstrong said. "If I knew what it was, if I knew it was a broken bone, if I knew it was something we could put a timeline on, I would do it for you. It's always easier to be straightforward that way. ... I don't want to get into what the injury is because out of respect for the player. I just don't know the timeline on the injury for return."
So the players that are paid to do the heavy lifting will have to lift even more, and the guys they have here now to fill the gaps will need to help keep things steady until some healthy bodies return, and it certainly gives management, in the meantime, some great knowledge of what they have and don't have with some of this depth.

"I think that you can evaluate the growth of your younger players, the growth of your depth players, how they're taking advantage of the situation, and are they prepared for it," Armstrong said. "When you look at our April, we haven't been affected by COVID internally, but we have externally. I think 17 of our last 20 games, if you look at our schedule, are against Colorado, Vegas and Minny. So we have to put ourselves in a good spot prior to the trading deadline to make sure that we're fighting for one of those four spots. Again, I don't have a crystal ball to know, 'Are we going to get healthy? What's the health going to look like? Where are we in the standings when we're healthy?' You saw LA go on tremendous runs from the seventh and eighth seed to win the championship. You saw, I think, Nashville was the seventh seed when they went to the finals. A lot of it has to do with the health of your team and when you get healthy and when you find your groove. ... I think that if we can survive and get everybody back, we just might hit our groove right at the exact perfect time health-wise and play-wise. We've just got to get there."

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