Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Blues silent on first day of free agency, lose Schwartz, Hoffman

Team makes no moves as free agent frenzy opens for 2021; two key 
forwards sign with Seattle, Montreal; Buchnevich speaks on trade to St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- With over 140 signings totaling 272 years in contracts, more than $260 million in cap hits and $760 million-plus in actual dollars shelled out, the Blues were left out of the waters on the NHL's first day of free agency.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Jaden Schwartz (17) spent the past 10 seasons with the Blues after being
drafted in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft.

Well, in a matter of speaking, because the Blues were left out in regards to anyone coming here as of yet, but there were a few key departures.

The Blues did not dip their toes in the waters of the free agent market on the first frenzied day but will have to look to retool their roster after losing forwards Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman.

Schwartz, a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, left the Blues after 10 seasons to sign with the expansion Seattle Kraken, netting a five-year, $27.5 million contract that will pay him an average annual value of $5.5 million, a slight bump up from the $5.35 million AAV he got from the Blues in a contract he signed July 15, 2016. 

One would think the Blues would have been in on bringing the hard-working Schwartz, who had 385 points (154 goals, 231 assists) in 560 regular-season games and helped the Blues win their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019, but as much as a new challenge excites the Wilcox, Saskatchewan native, the thought of being closer to home, specifically his mother Carol, after tragically and suddenly losing his father Rick to a heart attack last November, and after the death of his sister Mandi 10 years ago, appealed to Schwartz as much, if not more.

"I think Seattle right from the get go, there was mutual interest, both from them and me," Schwartz said in a Zoom call to reporters. "My parents actually lived in Seattle for a year, a little under a year maybe. My sister did chemotherapy there, a core blood transplant. I was able to go to the city and I really liked it. I thought it was very nice. The people that we met were great, we had a lot of people helping us through a hard time. 

"I think there was just a mutual interest and the whole expansion team in a new city with a lot of buzz, a lot of people being super excited about it. If you look at Vegas and how that city has taken off in the hockey world and how exciting it is in that city. That made me think about Seattle a lot and the opportunity to get to play for a new franchise and not a lot of people get to do that. I'm super excited to join them. I knew right away that that was a place I was going to look at and I'm really happy that it got done."

Schwartz, 29, will be reunited with his Blues teammate of the past four seasons, defenseman Vince Dunn, who was chosen by the Kraken off the Blues roster last week in the expansion draft, and the two of them can bring a Cup-winning pedigree to Seattle.

"I was talking to him a little bit. I know he's excited to get down there," Schwartz said. "That was obviously a really special run we had a dream come true for me and the city of St. Louis. That's about as high as you can get in the hockey world. Obviously, you learn a lot. Even years before that, we had really good teams and you kind of learn when you don't win. Some of the struggles you had, you kind of learn from that too. ... Winning that championship was big for me personally."

The Blues also lost Hoffman, who they signed last season to a one-year, $4 million contract. Hoffman, 31, signed a three-year, $13.5 million ($4.5 million AAV) to join the Montreal Canadiens, who were also in pursuit of Hoffman before he signed with the Blues last season.

Hoffman had 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 52 games in his only season in St. Louis, and a source indicated the Blues were in the negotiations and very interested in bringing the sharpshooter back and came down to the wire with him, but the Canadiens won out this time after falling short last season.

With the free agent pool quickly diminishing and the search for another scoring left wing to play in the top six, the top remaining free agent available is Brandon Saad, who played for the Colorado Avalanche last season. And there is always the trade avenue, which is more complex and takes time to hammer out sometimes, and the Vladimir Tarasenko trade request saga looming, but the lack of activity has Blues fans already up in arms despite Armstrong indicating last week that doing what's best for the Blues doesn't necessarily have to come in grand fashion on opening day of free agency.

Could they get involved in a trade for St. Louisan Matthew Tkachuk if the possibility existed with the Calgary Flames? Or would they enter trade talks with the Buffalo Sabres for star center Jack Eichel? Or for another forward not on a radar for that matter? It wouldn't surprise if Armstrong went that route. 

"I'm not as concerned on the next couple of weeks as probably other people are," Armstrong said last Friday. "What I think we need to protect ourselves against is making a mistake right now. You get into a situation where you get nervous and all of the sudden you see long-term contracts given and you're a little uncomfortable and you do it, and then you're wondering what you did. I remember we were in this similar situation when we lost the semifinals to San Jose (in 2016) and lost some players (David Backes and Troy Brouwer), but you just have to understand it has to make sense for the organization today and tomorrow. Whether it's via free agency, whether it's via trades or whether it's via giving your young players an opportunity because you don't like what's available, you have to be honest with yourself and make sure you're doing what's best for the organization. Not just a splash-wise on the 28th or 29th but something that you can live with."

But now with Schwartz gone, Dunn gone and potentially Tyler Bozak gone after the veteran center also became a UFA on Wednesday, the Blues could be left without 11 of their 20-man roster that suited up in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. And should Tarasenko get traded, it would be 12 of 20 gone off that roster.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Mike Hoffman spent this past season with the Blues but signed a free agent
contract with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.

"It certainly has that opportunity to look different, but I don't think that's surprising," Armstrong said. "We've had very little turnover here in our core group for the better part of a decade. Now there is some turnover and we're obviously turning it over to a different group of people. You wish everything lasts forever, but it doesn't. So yeah, it does look like there is turnover now and probably in the foreseeable future."

New Blues forward Pavel Buchnevich spoke to the media for the first time since he was acquired via trade from the New York Rangers for forward Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick last week.

Buchnevich, who is in his home country of Russia for the summer and will arrive in St. Louis prior to training camp in early September, felt a trade was possible.

"I'm just happy it's happened," Buchnevich said. "... I don't need to wait anymore and I know where I will be the next four years."

Buchnevich spoke with fellow Russians Ivan Barbashev and Tarasenko and received welcome/congratulatory texts from new teammates, including Torey Krug, Brayden Schenn, David Perron and Ryan O'Reilly.

"I think it's (a) good team," Buchnevich said. "Two years ago they win Cup, I know that. Obviously they have a lot of good players. Obviously tough to play (against). A good goaltender. I hope I play a big role there and help the team (win)."

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