By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- There have been exit interviews with Doug Armstrong where you can see the vigor and venom popping through his pores from disappointment, and there have been times where the Blues president of hockey operations and general manager was understanding of circumstances.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong just completed his 13th season
with the organization and will have an important retool on his hands.
This happened to be one of those extenuating circumstances where Armstrong was sympathetic, yet cautious, of assessing the Blues of 2020-21.
It wasn't east by any means for the Blues, who suffered the second-worst amount of injuries among the 31-team NHL this season yet made the playoffs.
It was a different-looking lineup, to say the least, especially from the one that won the Stanley Cup just two short seasons ago, due to player departure via free agency or through retirement.
Armstrong knows this will be an important off-season for the Blues and where they go after being swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Colorado Avalanche, but he still feels like the championship window is still open and will certainly retool, not rebuild this roster moving forward.
He discusses the challenges of a COVID-laced season, on that championship window, who could stay, who could go, what the team needs moving forward and a plethora of other topics:
How much do you factor in injuries/Covid this year:
Certainly that is going to play into my overall assessment of the year. I'm trying to look at it in short snippets and then a longer haul obviously. I need to find out why since COVID hit a little over a year ago that we went to the bubble and weren't able to muster the same effect that we had pre-COVID and I think this year was sort of a continuation of that. The strength of this organization is the team and we have to get back to being a better team."
Do you feel your Stanley Cup window is still open:
Well, I think when we brought in those players a couple years ago, we said we thought we had potentially a five-year window. That's Year Three of it, so I do think it's open. It's going to be difficult, obviously. The way the league works - I think we all know it - over the last decade this group has averaged a little over 103 points a season, which is commendable. And in that last decade, Colorado has had four top-four picks and I think six top-10 picks. So they're primed and I think they're going to be good for a while. I think you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, you look at their team today with the number of top-five picks, they're going to be good for a while. So the way that we have to be good is team and pact mentality, and we'll have to assess how we can get better under that format. We don't have an answer internally for MacKinnon, or McDavid, or Crosby, or Ovechkin ... these guys are No. 1 overall picks, or top picks. The way that we have to build our team and the way that we have to continue doing it is by believing in each other, supporting each other and understanding that individually we can't get it done. We have to do it as a group.
How much change do you anticipate this summer, thoughts on Jaden Schwartz:
I think this will be an active year, not only potentially here in St. Louis but around the league. Anytime you have expansion, you have teams trying to do what's best for them, whether it's not exposing players to Seattle, making trades in which they feel they're in a better spot, or just giving Seattle a list of players ... and then a flat cap for the foreseeable future. So I think it's going to be an interesting summer. Will there be a lot of change? Time will tell. I think Schwartz is a player that we talked to before the season and he was very adamant that he was comfortable waiting and I understood that. He was going through a lot of things personally and now we have until the end of July to figure out if this relationship is going to continue.
How do you assess the defense:
I think if Colton was 100 percent healthy and Gunnarsson played the whole year and Dunn didn't get hurt and we had growth in certain players. But you really have to deal with reality. This is how the season went. Players got hurt. I would say overall our defense was not to the standard that we've had in the past, and we have to be able to address that thinking health alone will fix that or maturity of younger players will fix that, or a combination of new players coming will help fix that. I certainly understand the question, but it's hard to formulate an idea of what might have been if certain things had have happened.
How did you see Krug fitting in:
Well, the power play got good at the end. It wasn't very good for half the year. So, that's Torey's game. I think one of the things is when you have injuries, players get extended to areas that they haven't done in the past. I think Torey was plus 10 or 11 this year, maybe his highest plus-minus, so I think he di a lot of good things defending that he hadn't had to do before, and I think the extended ice time probably hurt his five-on-five player or his power play. But with that being said, I think coming into a new organization in the format that he had to come in ... his wife and family not really being able to connect with people in community and on the team, it was a trying year for people coming in. That's not only for Torey, that's for everyone that switched teams. But I think he has a good future here based on his history.
On Justin Faulk and how he did so well this year:
I think in the three or four days that I've had, I look back and if I start with myself, and the coaches and the players, just looking at that group, there's three people that I think if they have the same season they had this year next year, we're going to be happy. And that's Faulk, that's Perron and that's O'Reilly. I think the rest of us, starting with myself, and the coaches and the rest of the players, we have to find a different level. Some of us have to get a lot better and some of us have to get 1-2% better. But it's amazing - if everyone gets a little bit better, what that effect will have on the entire group. But with Faulk, I think Faulk came in, he's a proud player, he has a good pedigree of being a top player. I think that he commanded the respect of his teammates with his play and this is the player that we thought we traded for and the player we expect moving forward.
On Tarasenko's season; can he ever be the same again:
Yeah, I think the season, when he got back in, it was going to be a work in progress for the year. Vladi is a tremendous competitor. He worked extremely hard off the ice to get ready, but it's still an extended amount of time off. We saw flashes of a 25-year-old Vladi Tarasenko. I know he's going to put the work in, but like any player at his age, you always have to evolve and your game has to change to stay current. Not just Vladi, but a lot of guys are going to have to evolve their game to today's NHL. But I respect Vladi, I know he works hard and he's a good human being and a good person and I know he wants the best. Part of it, going over to World Championships shows his love and passion for hockey. He wants to play.
Hoffman took a while settling in; do you see a future for him here:
I could. I certainly want to sit and take some time an talk to our entire staff. Mike is a goal scorer and I think he was certainly in the top portion of our team in points. When we needed goals, when our season was on the brink, I thought he stepped up and played. It's that communication and bonding that takes time with coaches and teammates. Sometimes you say, 'OK, I envision this player working with that guy' and it doesn't work out that way. What I was really impressed with Mike though, is that he hung in there, he battled, he worked, he waited for his opportunity and then he produced. What we asked him to do, he produced.
On Bozak and interest in bringing him back:
Yeah, I think Bozie is a good pro. I haven't got into the minutia yet on who's coming back, who's not coming back. Obviously I'm going to work with my management staff to get their assessment of our group as a whole and then we'll do individual players. I'll get some input from the coaches on their thoughts on players and we'll make a plan. But Bozie is a good pro, I've enjoyed him for three years, and if it works out, great.
On Colton Parayko's back injury, will he need surgery to be 100 percent healthy:
Yeah, I'm certainly going to leave that to Colton and the doctors to find out what's best. But I know he was able to come back and play. We had to give him the ability to get strong, regardless of how we were playing on the ice. I think you just see, he's such a dominant player with his skating and his size. The offense wasn't there (but) I think a lot of that was probably related to maybe his injury. So, I'm hoping there's no surgery involved for him. Again, once the season is over, and you let your body settle down, it'll tell you what it needs. But right now, I think that he's just going to be able to continue the rehab and get back to work.
What is Parayko's ceiling:
I think he's a top defender. I think we saw it in the World Cup in 2016. He was on that Young Guns team. The offense hasn't been there to maybe what we envisioned earlier, but he's still a great 200-foot player. To score in this league, you've got to play on the power play, and he doesn't play on the power play. Not many top point-producing players get that just five-on-five, so his job is as a 200-foot player that's asked to play two-way and take a strong defending role, and I think he's one of the best in the game at doing that.
Among the things you'll be looking for, do you need good bottom-six forwards:
I think Sundqvist is a big loss in that group. There hasn't really been a lot of turnover, quite honestly, there except for Steener. So I think we just need to get better all around, quite honestly, and we need players that have played better in the past to get to that level. It's not like we're asking 36- and 37-year-old guys to reinvent and find the fountain of youth. We're asking guys between 27 and 31 to get to the level that we know that they can play at and that would include that group that you're talking about. If we can add a different player into that mix, maybe it makes a difference, but we've seen a lot of those guys do that and have success, and I think we're going to have internal growth. A guy like Kostin, I'm high on him myself. I'm a big fan. I watched all of his games in the KHL playoffs. Neighbours had a good year. It's a difficult league for a 19-year-old. Toropchenko played good. So there has to be competition inside to push these guys. As I said, when I sit down and do the end-of-year assessment with our management staff and then our coaching staff, we'll see if we have those answers inside, or we need to go outside.
On losing Perron and three vaccinated guys turn up positive:
New York Yankee-ish. Yeah, it's not something that, quite honestly, I thought was going to happen. I thought, like everybody else, you follow the news and you see the vaccinated people and society is opening up and masks aren't necessary and people are going to restaurants and then we got hit with it. I think it's the psychological (factor) of losing a player like Perron, and then there's also that psychological factor of 'how and why' did Walker and Walman get it as vaccinated people. So it plays with your mind a little bit. It played with our mind a little bit when Vladi and Binner had the tests in Colorado. But it is what it is. I guess if I wanted to sit here and find excuses why we didn't perform to our level, we could. But nobody really cares. You are what you are, you are what your record says you are, and we were 0-4.
Were you hoping, or expected to have games postponed playoffs for COVID:
No. I didn't expect them, too. They have a business to run. They want this to end on schedule and we were told that if you get a COVID case and it's not something that's running through your whole organization ... I think the reality is you just have to push and deal with it. I never expected them to push the season back, or the playoffs back. So, no, I wasn't surprised nor did I expect it.
On the challenge of adding from outside with a flat cap and expansion draft:
There's going to be a different challenge, but it's going to be a challenge we're all going to deal with. It's talking, I think, to Mr. Stillman and Chris Zimmerman on when they think the revenues might catch up and, people they're talking to, how long the cap is going to be flat. Are players going to want to go short and then get on the gravy train when it starts to grow, or are they want to maximize now and just understand that they might get left behind when the cap grows. So it's going to be a balancing act with expansion, with the flat cap. But I think every year has its challenges. They deal you the cards, you pick them up and you start to play.
Any other surgeries planned for any players:
Not that I've talked to the trainers about. Not that I'm aware of yet. Not saying that that won't happen, but nothing that I'm aware of.
On Walman/Mikkola, did they show you enough to pencil into top-six:
I'm not sure top-six, but I think they're going to be in our top seven or eight that are going to compete for that job. Again, expansion is going to play into this, who we lose. We're going to lose somebody, that's a fact. I thought they played well. I really liked Mikkola's competitiveness. I thought in the game when we lost Bortuzzo and Faulk, he showed his willingness to be a gamer, jump in on the play, try and make some things happen offensively. Walman has got great feet. I really felt for him because he was a guy, with Colorado's speed, I think could have had a positive effect for us. So they both had good years, growing years, and we've got to continue to expand their game over the summer and get them ready for camp.
Have you spoken with Kostin:
I haven't talked to him since the season ended, but I will. He's a big horse of a player that's a second-year pro now by birth age going into the last year of his entry-level deal. He's got size, he's got power. I saw him make a couple of plays in the game that he played. He had good scoring chance his first shift and made a nice pass on a goal. There's some positive things there that we're going to have to push along. You have to have young players to have success in this league and I'm excited about his play.
Do you need net-front on both ends of ice:
Yeah, I do. I think that we weren't maybe as ... you either have to be physically competitive or you have to tie up sticks defensively, and I thought what we did this year, we took up space, but didn't take up sticks. You saw that through that whole Colorado series, the number of deflections. So (Mike) Van Ryn and the defensemen have to come up with a plan - either front those and block those more or tie up sticks because those are impossible saves for the goalie when you do neither.
How about the other end of the ice:
Yeah, I think you have to go to that area to score goals in the NHL, there's no question. Hoffman, Tarasenko, there's few players that can score from distance. You have to go into the paint to score. I think one of the areas where we need to improve is our desire to go in there and not be half-committed. I thought Colorado made it a lot more difficult on Binnington to see pucks than we made it on the Avalanche goaltenders, and that's an area that we're going to have to improve.
Do you need a retool and not rebuild:
A rebuild, I guess define rebuild. Trade everybody and pick in the top four or five for five or six years? I don't think anyone has the appetite for that today. But then I need to sit down with the ownership group, Mr. Stillman, and talk about the window that I believe we created three years ago, give him my opinion on why it's still open. Obviously he loves hockey, he's got passion for the game, he understands the game, and we can digest and make a game plan. But when you talk rebuild, that's a long, long process. We're lucky that we have a great fanbase here in St. Louis that they understand it, but it can be difficult. As I went back to like the Colorado method of having four top-four picks, that's a lot of 60-75 point seasons, 80-point seasons. It's a process that when you sit here on a May day and say, 'We're going to start a rebuild.' It sounds like it's not that bad, but when you're in Year 3 of it, and you're team has had 65, 70 points, that's a rebuild and that's what I have to talk to ownership about. If their desire is to go that way, then we'll go that way. My feeling right now is it's not necessary to take that type of Draconian step.
Anybody else going to Worlds other than Tarasenko:
Not that I'm aware of. Some of these countries, they bypass the team and go right to the player. I haven't been told of anybody else leaving.
Are you OK with Tarasenko going:
Yeah, I was. I was excited because he wanted to play. The passion is still there, the desire to continue after not playing a lot of hockey. So, obviously you're a little bit nervous because he hasn't played a lot and it's a long trip over there. But I fall back onto it that he loves the game and he wants to continue to compete and he's going to get that opportunity.
Even after Tarasenko disclosed he had a groin injury:
You'd have to ask him. The player signed off that he was 100 percent healthy and ready to go play, so I take his word for it.
Binnington/Tarasenko testing positive before morning skate of Game 2:
Well, I was getting those updates about 4:30 to 5 every morning on the previous day's COVID test. So I got that one and I actually thought they were both going to be positive, just based on we had three other guys. So, the first three I thought were going to be negative because no one was getting COVID. And then these two I thought were going to be positive because that just seemed to be the way our team was going at that point. I talked to Bill Daly and he said that there could be a tainted lab issue. They had a number of people in management and players (test positive), and the NBA had people, too. That gave us a little glimmer of hope. I talked to the player. We ran a test, we took it right to a lab there in Denver and they were cleared by 1 o'clock, so it was a hectic five or six hours. I felt bad for the players because no one ever wants to wake up, turn their phone on, and (hear), 'It's the GM or the trainer give me a call ASAP.' Then their minds start working on 'OK, how did I get this, what's going on?' You try and tell them that there could be a false positive and you just work through it. But it was a hectic six hours.
What's been the challenge of building without this roster without top picks:
Well, you have to rely on the character of your team. That's how we stayed competitive, that's how we're going to stay competitive, bringing in the right people that are willing to sacrifice for the guy beside them. Just the little nuances of the game. Putting people in good position, when you leave the ice, when they come on the ice. Being a good teammate; even though you might get the ice you want, supporting the guy that gets it. And we have to be way better at home, too. Our home record was nowhere near good enough. So, the special teams have to improve. The power play did at the end. The penalty-kill stayed consistently near the bottom. I think if you go through the first round, if you add our power play and penalty-kill, that might be the weakest in the league. So we have to improve the special teams and our five-on-five play, and to me it all just comes down to commitment to each other and an understanding of how we're built and who we are. And if we don't do it that way, we're going to have a hard time playing against teams that are getting top-end talent year after year.
On comments made about NHL Player Safety needing help:
I'm looking forward to talking to the commissioner at some point, or Bill Daly, or both. George Parros, he's got the hardest job in hockey. Going through all of this, I said, there's not enough money in hockey to have me do that job. It's an awful job, quite honestly. But I think, as a league, from the players to the owners to the coaches to the managers, we can support George and give him more insight and help him do his job. As I said, it's always going to be a job that people second-guess. but I think that as a group we can all help him out ... because that's the one thing we all agree on, is player safety. Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt. Nobody wants to see anyone miss a game. And as a league I think we can help George and his group find areas where maybe it's not as gray, it's more black and white. So it's more of a 'Support George Parros and Player Safety' than criticize them. That wasn't what I meant to do. It was more that I think that group could use assistance from everyone in hockey because nobody wants to hear ... as a fan, you don't want to wake up the next day and talk about player safety, and they don't want that. I know George. He doesn't want to talk about this either. So we have to give him the tools and the vehicles and have everyone play a brand that's not going to have Player Safety to have an input.
Did the Blues get to 85 percent on vaccinations:
I think so, yeah.
On O'Reilly as captain and how he did:
I thought he did a good job. Again, it was difficult for him and for me, quite honestly, because you're traveling but I wasn't allowed to get the leadership together to take them out for dinner, to do things that I've done in the past with that group. Craig and I, or any coach and I, would take those guys out maybe once every couple months. Everything, it was awkward. I think he did a good job. I'm excited for his leadership style and leadership skills. I know he takes a lot of pride in it, and I know he's going to work very hard this summer to make sure that we come back as a 100-percent committed team. It wasn't the easiest task coming in under this environment, and I thought he did a good job.
Are you anticipating next year being normal:
God, I hope so. This is getting old for everybody right now. Just even watching the Canadian division in the playoffs, knowing what the Bell Center would sound like, just not having fans, it's different. When you see 9,000, 6,000, 12,000 ... the energy that it brings, you forget what 18 and 20 looks like. I'm hoping - I'm not an anti-vaxer - I'm hoping everybody gets vaccinated. I think it's a smart thing to do. I think it makes our society better. I think we can move on quicker and, once we do that, we're going to get back to the things that were normal. This is abnormal, and I hope it always stays abnormal. I want to get back to normal.
Do you need to find players to match coaching style:
I think, yeah, Craig and I need to sit down and talk probably in the next couple of weeks. You've got to let the dust settle a little bit. I think emotions are a great thing, and I think they can also be a detriment. I'm going to let the dust settle. Again, I want to hear from the management staff that I work with. I want him to get a good indication from his coaches. But I think for any organization to have success, you have to evolve. I think I have to evolve as a manager, I think he has to evolve as a coach and we talked about our players have to evolve in the areas where the goals are scored from. So there are growth patterns for everyone that are necessary, but I have to be in connection with Craig. There's no sense in going out and getting a player that I envision one thing and then it's a square peg into a round hole, so he and I have to continue to work on that.
Was player development hurt by COVID:
Yeah, I would say that we'll probably look back on this and say the Europeans had an advanced-development year than the North Americans. It seemed like there were more leagues going on over there, and there were more players playing. It was difficult for the North American players, even the American Hockey League, the way it was set up it was set up with no playoffs and you played a small number of teams. The emotion of hockey is about the postseason, it's about preparing yourself to be on the perfect level to hit that and then run for a championship. It's something that we call dealt with, it's no different, but yeah there's going to be a stagnation in growth for some players for sure.
Tough for taxi squad guys this season:
Yeah, I talked to the taxi squad guys when we had our team meeting yesterday. I think that those were the players that sacrificed the most, certainly in our organization. I don't want to speak for others, but I was so impressed with our taxi squad. They came to work everyday, they did their skill work that JJ had them do, they were prepared when necessary. Some of them drove back and forth from Utica on multiple occasions just to play, so the didn't have to quarantine, and they did it with a smile on. I owe them a debt of gratitude and I said that to them in front of the team yesterday. They were true pros in a time where it could have been easy not to be that.
What was the general theme of the team meeting you had:
Yeah, it was basically that we have to get back to being a pack, we have to get back to the team, we have to be the hardest, closest, fiercest team because our competition might have acquired better players through free agency or through the draft or whatever. So, our strength has always been the team, and it's going to continue to be the team. The excitement is I know the character of the guys that are going to be able to pull that in. So that was sort of the message, that I was proud of the group, the way that they went into that Colorado-Minnesota series ... had put ourselves not in a good spot, they won those games, we looked like we were getting healthy, we looked like we were coming on and we looked like we were going to be a tough out. Then we lost a couple more players. I was disappointed that we got ourselves in that spot, too. I just think our team has its greatest success when they're committed to the guy beside them. I'm not saying that they weren't, but being 98 percent or 96 percent committed is not being 100 (percent), and for us to have success, we have to be 100.
Not going out for dinner impeded team progress:
I think it did, but again, it's not like we were the only organization that were dealing with these issues. I think we talked about Kruger, and not being able to get his family acclimated into our organization. Clifford not having the family acclimated into the organization. And there's little things that this group has done, and really, quite honestly, it starts with the alumni, and it's been the staple of St. Louis Blues hockey club and the community. They welcome these people in with open arms and make them feel great about their choice to come to St. Louis. I think our community can't wait to do that again, not only for us, but for the Cardinals. St. Louis is about community. This team is about community. It's about having pride in St. Louis and it's very difficult to do that when you can't connect with your friends and your fans. That's why I say I'm really hoping that we can get back to it, when they come back for training camp that they're able to have BBQs, and we're able to take them out golfing and we're able to do lots of things that we couldn't do to expedite why we believe and trust and love each other so much, and that's how we're going to have success.
Do you expect all of the coaching staff back:
Craig and I are going to talk about that. I think we all need to improve. I don't sense that Craig has an issue with any of his staff. Again, I haven't sat and talked to him about that yet. There's really no rush. I think we have young coaches that are getting better, getting stronger. But we do have to get our special teams better, our five-on-five has to be better. I have to sit with Craig and find out how we continue to develop our younger players so they can have a great impact on our team quickly, and how we fix some of the areas that weren't up to par this year.
On Perron contract extension and his joking comment of needing an eight-year one:
As long as I get one with him. No, David, he defies the actuary tables and we're lucky to have him. At this age, he's supposed to be going the other direction. I think Marty St. Louis might be the only player in 20-plus years that were having their best years into their 30s. I'm not surprised, though. He's passionate about the game, he works at the game, he's evolved with the game, his puck-protection skills are top level. His ability to create offense for himself is top level. He goes to the harder areas. He's here next year and as long as he wants to play, I don't know why the St. Louis Blues wouldn't want him. Eight years might be a tad long, though.