Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Blues extend Thomas to richest contract in franchise history

Center inks right-year extension for 65 million ($8.125M AAV); team 
signs backup goalie Greiss, veteran forward Acciari on first day of free agency

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- A busy day for the Blues culminated with some key additions and one investment that will go down in history.

First, the signings, and the biggest was the Blues signing cornerstone center Robert Thomas to an eight-year, $65 million extension, the richest contract in franchise history that carries an average annual value of $8.125 million.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Robert Thomas signed an eight-year, $65 million extension, the largest
contract in Blues history, on Wednesday. 

The 23-year-old, who set career highs in goals (20), assists (57) and points (77) last season and was heading into the final year of a bridge contract that paid him an AAV of $2.8 million.

"Yeah, I think it's pretty cool. I think being able to be in St. Louis for eight more years is so exciting," Thomas said Wednesday. "From the minute I got there, I loved St. Louis, I was welcomed by the Tkachuk family. I think that's a good family to be welcomed by. Ever since then, I've loved playing for the Blues. I love the city, I love the people and just so excited about that.

"I would say the decision kind of took a little bit. I think the main things were just how much I've loved playing in St. Louis, how much I love being a Blue. So that was a huge factor for me. This deal was able to get me there for ... I've got nine years left. That was something really important to me and my family and just that comfort level of being in one place that you and your family love is so important."

The Blues were going to have to pony up the salary for Thomas, who along with Jordan Kyrou are the next generation of players the team will build its core around.
General manager Doug Armstrong was going to have to cross this bridge at some point and did it now.

"Obviously we look at him as the centerpiece of our organization moving forward," Armstrong said. "You look at his point total as a 22-year old, I think I might have been the most points by any 22 or under player in the league last year, if not very close. It reminds me quite a bit of actually signing (Alex) Pietrangelo and (Vladimir) Tarasenko, both coming off their age 22, we signed them to long term deals, we felt they were cornerstone players and we feel that’s Robert.

"Everybody assumes risk when you do it like this and on both sides. We talked about that. Our hope is the expectation his game continues to grow and that's his too but there's also a sense that, that's a lot of money and he's got security. He's going to be able to, by signing this term at this age, he's going to be able to get back there. Now that's a million years on the way or actually nine, but he's going to have another opportunity and I know his focus is on being the best player he can be. When you look at how Craig (Berube) used him from a year ago to last year, he touches every part of our game. He's a 5-on-5 player, both sides of special teams. I think his ice time was the second most ice time of our forward group and that's all at 22. So that's only going to elevate. You look at young players that have signed at 21 or 22, mostly 22, this puts him right in that ballpark of other top young players and we think he is a top young player and because he started at 19, we were able to do a bridge deal with him too. So we have a little bit more information. A lot of these guys started at 20. He started at 19. So it gave us a chance and he's walked into a difficult situation as far as being competitive team and having to claw and fight for his own ice time. Sometimes when you're a top pick going into a different situation, you're given ice time he's had to earn it. And that's where I thought he did a fabulous job last year earning his ice time."

It's not an out with the old (Ryan O'Reilly, Tarasenko -- well, maybe?) or the guys that helped win the Stanley Cup three years ago, a team Thomas played an important role in as a 20-year-old but ushering in the next generation, as Armstrong did with Pietrangelo and Tarasenko and not all that tough to get done.

"It was relatively quick when we started to talk. But they're always difficult because … I think that the flat cap got everyone's attention," Armstrong said. "A pandemic got everyone's attention that it might not always be growing, but there's also the hope you when you hear the commissioner talk about the revenues never been better and we're hoping the world gets back to normal and continues to grow. So I think there's risk and reward on both sides. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure … money has a huge effect on this but I think it's more our organization talking about, let's put the money aside, how we think of Robert, how we think we're going to use him, where we think he fits in on the future of this franchise and over my career as a manager, you sort of step up on young players, we stepped up as I said in Dallas, I stepped up on Marty Turco at a young age, switching from Eddie Belfour to him, haven't done that in a long time and then I got here and I did it to Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko coming out of that same age 22 (season), feeling that they were players you can build your franchise around. It's a lot of pressure to put on Robert, a lot of expectations. I think he appreciates that and he's ready for that challenge."

The term on the contract will take Thomas into his early 30s (32) when he can become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, and the Blues will take Thomas' prime UFA years out of the equation. But the comfort factor and long-term stability was something Thomas didn't think he could pass up.

"I think a bit of both. I felt really comfortable being here for a long time," Thomas said. "I think the most important thing to me is winning. Every year I've been with the Blues, I've felt like we've had a great chance of winning and we've been so close. I feel like we have many, many more years to come where we're going to be in that exact situation. I think that's why it's so easy to commit to eight years."

Kyrou, who at 24 is next in line for a big contract. He, like Thomas, will be entering the final year of a $2.8 million bridge deal and will get a big increase in pay; he also set career highs in goals (27), assists (48) and points (75). 

"Yeah, I really believe and, I've told both of those players that … we haven't talked to Jordan on this yet … but moving forward, Robert and Jordan they are and they're becoming more and more the alpha males and the game is trending towards that," Armstrong said. "I think Kyrou, you saw what he did last year, heeds to be a top player for us, to be a top franchise. The question might be well, why Robert before Jordan, like the old analogy, like how do you get the horses back in the barn? One at a time. So we got one horse back in the barn and now we'll go to work."

The Blues, who are strapped by the flat salary cap that increased by $1 million to $82.5 million this season, felt they had to solidify their defense, particularly the left side, stayed within and re-signed Nick Leddy to a four-year, $16 million ($4 million AAV) contract.

The Blues, who acquired Leddy and Luke Witkowski at last year's trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings for Oskar Sundqvist, Jake Walman and a 2023 second-round pick, hit the free agent market at 11 a.m. Wednesday after finishing off a seven-year, $38.5 million contract signed with the New York Islanders in 2015. But the 31-year-old chose to remain in St. Louis, where he had two goals and eight assists in 20 regular-season games down the stretch and a goal and four assists in nine playoff games.

"I think solidifying our top four on defense was very important for us," Armstrong said. "I was very comfortable with the seven D that we had last year before we got Nick and became a little bit better balanced team with Nick and we're happy to have him back too. It's a jigsaw puzzle that's always moving. You have to make hard decisions and this is the most uncomfortable time as a manager is making hard decisions. I date myself back to my Dallas days and it was a lot better for me as a manager and a lot worse as the owner when there was no budget because I could just say 'yes' all the time. Now I have to make more decisions.

"We expected him to come in here and just based on his history, he was a 22-minute player in the playoffs with a very good Islanders team. He went to an organization ... the Islanders moved him along for cap reasons and he went to an organization that was in a different part. We looked at him as someone who we believed could come in here and solidify. He's at a proper age now with our other guys. This is an indication in the next three or four years, we're going to try and continue to build as stay as competitive as possible."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Nick Leddy (middle) remained with the Blues on Wednesday when the
defenseman inked a four-year, $16 million contract.

The Blues made three additional signings, including adding veteran goalie Thomas Greiss from the Detroit Red Wings on a one-year, $1.25 million contract plus bonuses, veteran forward Noel Acciari of the Florida Panthers on a one-year, $1.25 million contract and forward Will Bitten, acquired from the Minnesota Wild last season, signed a two-year, two-way contract.

Greiss, 36, spent the past two seasons with the Red Wings. He has played in 347 career games with Detroit, the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks and has a career goals against average of 2.72, a record of 155-120-37 and a save percentage of .912.

Acciari, 30, spent the past three seasons with the Florida Panthers and played against the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 while with the Boston Bruins; he had 46 points (27 goals, 19 assists) during his three seasons with the Panthers and was on the receiving end of a controversial non-call in Game 5 against the Blues that led to a 2-1 win over the Bruins.

Bitten played in 45 games for Springfield of the American Hockey League last season and recorded 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists). In the 2022 AHL playoffs, Bitten played in all 18 games and recorded and team-leading 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in leading the Thunderbirds to the Calder Cup Final.

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