Monday, March 21, 2022

Blues boster blue line with addition of Leddy, wouldn't mortgage future for rentals

Team pays price for trade acquisition, losing Sundqvist, Walman, pick for 
veteran d-man, Witkowski; Armstrong wouldn't part with top prospects for rentals

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- The Blues were certainly one of those teams on the burner for a defenseman, particularly one that can play a top-four role on the left-hand side.

It's been an obvious need for some time.

As the market heated up the past few days for the likes of Hampus Lindholm, Ben Chiarot, Mark Giordano and others that fetched first-round picks and/or prospects, it was clearly evident that general manager Doug Armstrong wasn't going to part with any of his for, particularly, rental players. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues acquired former Red Wings, Islanders, Blackhawks defenseman
Nick Leddy on Monday to help bolster the blue line for the stretch run.

But on Monday, they were finally able to fetch one in 31-year-old veteran defenseman Nick Leddy from the Detroit Red Wings along with depth defenseman Luke Witkowski but the price via trade was big. In return, the Blues sent forward Oskar Sundqvist, defenseman Jake Walman and a 2023 second-round pick to Motown.

Leddy, who has a goal and 15 assists in 55 games with the Red Wings this season, is in the final year of a seven-year contract he signed with the New York Islanders on Feb. 24, 2015 that carries an average annual value of $5.5 million, and $7 million in salary this season. 

The Red Wings are retaining 50 percent of Leddy's remaining cap hit ($2.75 million) to make the deal work for the Blues, thus the heftier price tag sent back by the Blues.

Maybe this trade doesn't woo and wow Blues fans who currently clamor for more splashy moves for a team that, prior to Monday, was second in the Central Division at 34-18-9 and third in the Western Conference (behind Colorado and Calgary), but it does offer a boost and a need in the here and the now and with Leddy being a potential unrestricted free agent after the season, it could free up some cap space should the Blues look elsewhere, or need it to sign some of their own free agents.

"Our focus is on the rest of this year, but we've cleared up some cap space for next year," Armstrong said. "We have some young players that we think are coming. By not going in with multiple first-round picks or first and seconds and a lot of future assets, we do have some ammunition to play if we decide to at the draft or free agency."

The Blues are not tied to Leddy beyond this season, and who knows, if the Eden Prairie, Minn. native performs well and is a fit, perhaps the sides consummate a contract for beyond this season. And no, $2.75 million in free cap space doesn't sound like much with a team that spends to the ceiling regularly every season, but $2.75 million here, $2.75 million there starts to add up, and the Blues certainly have their eyes on more with this deal than just this season.

"This is a wait and see," Armstrong said. "You look at the salary cap, it's going to be flat (or) increased by $1 million ... right now, we have eight of our nine forwards coming back with David Perron being the only UFA. As I said, we have (Jake) Neighbours coming in here. A flat cap, when you don't have many expiring contracts, things are going to be tight. So we're focused on now until the end of the season, and then we're going to reassess our whole group on how we played -- what the final result was and how we can make sure we're a very competitive team next year."

So what does Leddy bring now? He can solidly and fluidly transition the puck, one of the better defensemen at retrieving pucks and moving it up ice without disruptions. He's been a player with tremendous playoff experience (121 games) and someone that's played for winners that go deep, including four conference finals.

Selected by the Minnesota Wild in the first round (No. 16) of the 2009 NHL Draft, Leddy has 352 points (66 goals, 286 assists) in 831 regular-season games for the Red Wings, Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks and 33 points (seven goals, 26 assists) in 121 Stanley Cup Playoff games; he won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2013.

"I think Nick brings experience," Armstrong said. "If you look at the last couple playoff years, his team has played into the semifinals (with the New York Islanders). His ice time last year, he was in the top three and I think the ice time between him and the other two were 12-second differentials, and the year before, he was in the top three on a team that went to the semis. He's a guy that can log big minutes in important times of the year for teams that play deep. He's a skater, he's a puck mover. I think it's a dimension that will add to our group with Scandella and Mikkola and Borts there, it's very similar players. Walman's also a skater but doesn't nearly have the experience of a player like Nick. I think it gives us an option to potentially play Nick. We have seven experienced players. Mikkola's played deep into the World Championships and won it, so he's an experienced player internationally getting experience every day. Obviously Scandella and Borts have played a lot of NHL games and the four above them with Leddy in that group now have played a lot. It gives us a different look that the coach can use depending on who he wants to pair Nick with and maybe during situations within the game."

Leddy will boost a top-four unit; he's someone that's averaged 20:37 ice time for his career.

"I think as the season progressed and we started to look for a defenseman, he was on that list of players that we've scouted intensely over the last couple of months," Armstrong said. "He's not an unknown player to the Western Conference and us, where he's played prior to the Islanders and watching him play last year. This has been a difficult season as far as the cap. If you look at the NHL salary cap, well over half the teams are at the cap or played the whole season on LTI. Our situation this year was dollar in, dollar out. When you bring a player like Nick in, we had to move out $5.5 million dollars in cap space. Detroit was able to assume half of that and the Sundqvist portion equaled 5.5 and we were able to make a deal where dollar in, dollar out."

It was apparent that the prices were too steep for some of the top defenseman that went prior to the deadline, prices Armstrong wasn't willing to pay.

According to multiple sources, Neighbours, Zach Bolduc and Scott Perunovich, three of the top prospects in the Blues' pool, were inquired about in trade talks that the Blues simply did not and do not want to part with. And Armstrong said there were others people around the league value in their system that may not have garnered much attention on the outside world.

"We rate all of our prospects and then I re-rate them after now and after the draft because people call about your guys, you know you have good players," Armstrong said. "There's been a few players this year that I got calls on that excited me. I don't want to give specific names, but we have some prospects that a lot of people might not know a lot about that do have value around the league."

The Blues could have stood pat and not done a thing and it would have been OK because realistically, unless the roster as it's constructed as is can suddenly catapult itself into the Stanley Cup conversation with improved play, one trade isn't going to realistically change that landscape. But if it does give those chances some life and a boost, then by all means give it a shot, and if it doesn't work out, then there's no commitment beyond this season.

By Armstrong doing something now is a vote of confidence by management that they feel a boost could help.

"I think it's interesting because, and this is a real positive quite honestly," Armstrong said. "I take it as a badge of honor. We're sitting here second in the division, third in the conference and the question you gave me acts like we're an awful team. We're third in the conference and we have a good team. We're not playing particularly well right now (0-1-2 the past three and 2-4-3 in March) and we have to get through that, but I believe the guys are going to get through that. And then it goes back earlier to the ... and I do read what all you guys write. I find it fascinating. We should be all-in now, and then you're going to write an article next week that they got no prospects. You can't be all-in on everything all the time."

And this is why the prices for some of the higher-end rentals was too much.

"Well, I think you want to be involved in everything," Armstrong said. "It's hard ... you wish you could play at free agency and then you wish you could play at the draft, trading capital, and you wish you could play now, trading capital. But at some point, you just can't do everything all the time. We've been a competitive team for the better part of a decade now. We were able to keep our first-round pick (in 2020) and get a good prospect in Neighbours, a player that we think should be pushing very hard for our team next year. Bolduc seems to be a very good, young player. We wanted to add to that. You can't always play in that market of giving up future first-round picks all the time, and this was a year that we didn't feel that it was important to do that. That being said, we've done it in the past for a player like (Jay) Bouwmeester, who had this playoff run and another one and then we were able to sign him. So giving up a first-round pick for a rental this year didn't seem to make (sense). And quite honestly, the quality of player in our opinion, we didn't view first-round assets as something that we wanted to give away at this time."

The Blues are losing a valuable piece to their forward group in Sundqvist, who unfortunately has not been playing healthy this season following surgeries to both hips and left knee last off-season but was a valuable piece to their 2019 Stanley Cup champion season.

But will he ever be the same again? That's a tough question to answer after three major surgeries to get back to that high-octane motor Sundqvist played with after the Blues acquired him from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2017 draft, along with a first-round pick (Klim Kostin) for Ryan Reaves.

Sundqvist will be due a new contract after the 2022-23 season.

"Sunny's been one of my favorite players quite honestly," Armstrong said. "He's always got a smile on, I've always enjoyed being around him. The last couple of years, we've spent a lot of time at the practice rink as he's been coming back and working hard from his injuries. A really good player, always going to have a great memory here as a Blue. 

"What we've seen with David Perron and other players in the past, hockey's a small world, you never know when you'll reconnect with somebody, but it was, partial was, you have to create space to make these deals, and also the role that he was playing on our team right now, with the flat cap, he wasn't in our group of nine this year and a $2.75 million cap hit, we have to make sure we're spreading that out in ways that we can put a top team on the ice. But all in all, obviously Oskar Sundqvist is going to be remembered fondly here on and off the ice. I wish him nothing but the best on the ice. Health-wise, I wish him speedy recoveries from the surgeries that he's had. I think he's going to be a good player for a long time and this organization was having him part of it than before he got here."

Sundqvist has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 41 games this season. The 27-year-old has 87 points (36 goals, 51 assists) in 270 regular-season games with the Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins since he was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round (No. 81) of the 2012 draft. He has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 36 playoff games.

Walman has scored six points (three goals, there assists) in 32 games this season. The 26-year-old has scored eight points (four goals, four assists) in 57 regular-season games since he was selected by St. Louis in the third round (No. 82) of the 2014 NHL Draft.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Oskar Sundqvist (70), part of a Stanley Cup-winning season in 2019 with
the Blues, was traded on Monday to the Detroit Red Wings.

It's weird. You just feel for the guys that get moved, whether they're with an organization for a while or it's a short stint," defenseman Torey Krug said after Monday's practice. "It's tough for guys to move to other cities and get acclimated into a new group. As far as our group's concerned, you obviously feel confident that the guys in here can do the job. We have a great team and a chance to win the Stanley Cup if we can figure some things out here. It's an anxious day for a lot. For some teams making additions or subtractions, it can be a little exciting or nerve-wracking."

Witkowksi, a 31-year-old defenseman, has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 44 games with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, and has played in one game with the Red Wings this season.

Selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the sixth round (No. 160) of the 2008 NHL Draft, Witkowski has scored 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 132 regular-season games with the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning and no points in two Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Witkowski will report to Springfield of the AHL.


  1. It's a good trade, since the Blues doesn't have much money to wiggle. Very best to Oskar to complete his rehab and Jake that I hope see more ice time with the Red Wings to show his talents which he didn't have much here .Play off hockey is different level and I hope Leddy's experience will add boost to the team. Great article as always Lou. I always enjoy reading it.

  2. For a team with very little Cap room Army did something to shake the tree and hope Blues respond and win us the Cup. Hope this wakes few others on team going thru the motions returning them to awesome team we have come to Love. Go Blues