It was no secret that the St. Louis Blues would be adding a scorer or two this offseason. General manager Doug Armstrong kicked off the NHL Entry Draft in a big way by completing two massive trades that addressed those very needs. First, he traded for power-play specialist Brayden Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for the underachieving Jori Lehtera.
The Blues made sure everyone knew how serious they were about bolstering their roster with more goal scorers by trading away the league's best enforcer in Ryan Reaves in exchange for prospect Oscar Sundqvist and the 31st pick, which they turned into promising Russian forward Klim Kostin. The rumor mill was chock-full of talk that St. Louis would continue to make splashes in free agency but over a week into the NHL free agency period, the Blues have remained relatively quiet.
The Big Splashes That Never Happened
Everyone loves when their team signs a marquee free agent. The fan base starts buzzing, their squad is in the headlines, and discussions fly all over social media. When your team is rumored to be in the running for one of those top free agents and they sign elsewhere, it leads to major disappointment and low fan morale. But, let's be honest, fans don't run teams, and if they did, there would be more trades and waiver claims than you could wrap your head around. Fans are emotionally invested and overreactive.
The reality is, bringing in a high-profile player does not guarantee your team to get to the next level. Minnesota's signing of Martin Havlat in 2009, Pittsburgh's signing of Ziggy Palffy in 2006, and Washington's addition of Kevin Shattenkirk last season are examples of when it just doesn't work out. Ask the Islanders how Alexei Yashin worked out for them. Let's not forget Blues signings of the past like Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, and 2017 Hall-of-Famer Paul Kariya that didn't get the team to places they hadn't been before.
Point being, there is more to the process than simply going out and grabbing a guy in free agency because he had success somewhere else. There's team chemistry, player-coach relationships, contract and salary cap considerations, logistics for the player's family, and whether the city a good fit for him and his personal needs? It's more complicated than it seems and while Blues fans would have loved to see Ilya Kovalchuk in a Blues sweater, Joe Thornton in blue and gold, or even Justin Williams rock the note, it was not good business for Armstrong to bring in an aging star.
Ilya Kovalchuk Won't Return to the NHL Just Yet
I know this would have been a trade scenario had it happened for the Blues, but this definitely would have qualified as a big splash for St. Louis.
Prior to the draft, I suggested that it would be worth the risk for the Blues to acquire the now-34-year-old sniper. With the prospects, extra first-round draft pick and veteran cap eaters in Lehtera or David Perron (who was ultimately selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft) to make the deal happen, it would have made sense. But the additions the Blues made on draft day marked the end of the Kovalchuk-Blues possibility.
The only real connection the Blues had to the former Devil was through assistant general manager Martin Brodeur. The two had a public falling-out after Kovalchuk bolted for his native Russia and the KHL, but the former teammates have seemingly buried the hatchet and the rumor was out that Brodeur wanted the Blues to seek out the services of the man who once scored 98 points in Atlanta.
Speculation was that if Kovalchuk returned to the NHL the Devils would sign and trade him to a suitor of his choosing. Devils general manager Ray Shero has said that there were no trade offers on the table for Kovalchuk. In fact, Shero did not even shop Kovalchuk, it was his agent Jay Grossman who was on the phones and by the end of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes he reportedly had three teams interested in acquiring his client, but deals could not be reached.
Kovalchuk will remain in the KHL for another year and due to the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, he will become an NHL unrestricted free agent in 2018. Never say never, but it doesn't look like he will wear a Blues sweater in his career.
Joe Thornton Will Stay Put in San Jose for at Least Another Year
The Blues could use help at the center position and on the top of the free agent list was 38-year-old Joe Thornton. After Patrik Berglund injured his shoulder during offseason training and was forced to undergo surgery the rumors surrounding Thornton joining the Blues really started to heat up.
With Berglund out until at least December the idea of bringing in a veteran like Thornton made sense. After all, he is only two years removed from an 82-point season and the thought of him setting up Vladimir Tarasenko is something Blues' fans dreams are made of.
Realistically was this ever going to happen? Probably not. Thornton has spent the last 12 years in San Jose and would Armstrong really use valuable cap space on a guy Thornton's age in the middle of the Blues current youth movement? The answer is no.
Thornton signed a one-year, $8 million extension with the Sharks on July 2, which also happened to be his birthday. Quite the birthday present.
Justin Williams Returns to Carolina
After the Washington Capitals fell short against the Pittsburgh Penguins again this postseason, change was imminent. They had four unrestricted free agents heading into the offseason: Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Daniel Winnik and Williams. Every player except Winnik (who is still a free agent) has taken their talents elsewhere.
The Capitals were most concerned with re-signing former Blue T.J. Oshie, who inked an eight-year, $46 million contract to remain in Washington.
Williams was an attractive option for the Blues because he is so good in the postseason. With 36 goals and 58 assists in 140 postseason games, Williams seems like a guy who could have been a quick fix for a team that only averaged two goals per game in the playoffs, which was the worst for any team that made the second round.
Not only is the former first-round pick good in the postseason, he's pretty darn good whenever he is on the ice, as he has had six straight seasons with 40 or more points and is coming off consecutive 20-plus-goal seasons. Like Schenn, Williams could have boosted the Blues' scoring woes right away.
The trouble with bringing in Williams wasn't just his age and the fact that the Blues are continuing to get younger, it was the fact that the former Conn Smythe winner had 10-15 teams interested in him prior to his signing with the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2006. The Blues were not in any position to get into any sort of bidding war with other teams. "Mr. Game 7" will make $5 million this season and $4 million in 2018-19.
The Moves The Blues Made
On July 1, the Blues made their only three moves of the free-agency period. First, they signed restricted free agent Oskar Sundqvist (acquired from Pittsburgh in the Reaves trade) to a one-year deal worth $650,000, then they added two depth forwards by signing unrestricted free agents Chris Thorburn and Beau Bennett. Thorburn signed a two-year, $1.8 million deal and Bennett signed for one year, $650,000.
Many were surprised that Pittsburgh was willing to give up their 2017 first-round pick and the promising young Swede in order to get Reaves from St. Louis. Sundqvist is only 23 and has shown major signs of improvement every season since being drafted in the third round by the Penguins in 2012.
The 6-foot-3 forward appeared in 63 regular season games for Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the American Hockey League last season, finishing third on the club with 20 goals and 46 points overall, a total that doubled from his previous season. He dressed in 10 regular season games for Pittsburgh in 2016, and Armstrong expects him to contribute in the NHL right away.
"We're hoping, with the (Patrik) Berglund injury, he can step right in and get a good look at that third-line center spot," Armstrong said. "If not, he'll certainly be in our group of 14 to start the season. Like a lot of guys, they have to push and prod to find a spot on our roster."
Even though the Blues continue to get younger, they felt the need to replace Reaves' presence on the fourth line. He stands 6-foot-3 weighs 235 pounds and likes to bring the lumber. He doesn't possess the skill set that Reaves does but if you're looking for a guy to get physical, he is the right man for the job.
He isn't afraid to drop the gloves as he was involved in 13 fights last season and has partaken in 156 in his eight-year NHL career.
"We brought in Chris Thorburn to solidify our bottom-six group after losing Ryan Reaves," Armstrong said in an interview for stlouisblues.com. "Our research says he has unbelievable character... When you have your teammates' backs all the time like Thorburn, you gain that instant respect. He's a big man—about 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds. He's a good fit for what we needed."
The 25-year-old Bennett is coming off of his best NHL season, recording career highs in every major category. He scored eight goals and had 11 helpers for 19 points with the Devils in 2016-17. He too is a draft pick of the Penguins as he was drafted in the first-round in 2010.
The California native is another big bodied forward that stands 6-foot-2, and even though he is only 25, he has playoff experience as he was a member of Pittsburgh's 2016 Stanley Cup Championship run.
Bennett is a capable scorer and brings more youth to an already young roster. He fits the mold that Armstrong and the Blues want and he will definitely contribute right away in 2017-18.
Parayko Still the Number One Priority
The highest priority for Armstrong since the start of the offseason has been to make sure they re-sign restricted free agent Colton Parayko. Locking him up is a factor behind the Blues' quiet free agency period. They want nothing to get in the way of their negotiations with the rising star.
Early on it was suggested that the 24-year-old blueliner would get a contract similar to Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere's six-year, $27 million deal that he signed on June 9. But recently, the idea that he may get a deal that is along the lines of fellow Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo's seven-year $45.5 million deal the captain signed in 2013 has been floating around.
The two sides failed to reach a deal before the July 5 arbitration deadline and many believed the Blues would file, but Parayko filed first. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement before the arbitration hearing, which will take place anywhere from July 20 to Aug. 4, the Blues will be able to choose the term of the contract at either one or two years.
While much of the fanbase took this as bad news, this is actually beneficial for both sides. Other NHL franchises will no longer be able to submit an offer sheet for Parayko, so whether it be a short-term deal decided by an arbitrator or the long term deal he deserves, Parayko will remain a Blue.
Expect a long-term deal that gives him $5-7 million per year to be announced prior to arbitration. Parayko wants to remain a Blue, get paid and wants a long-term deal.
Outlook Moving Forward
Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford told Bernie Miklasz on 101ESPN in St. Louis that Paul Stastny will be the Blues number-one center and Brayden Schenn has already been penciled in by head coach Mike Yeo as the second line's center. He also mentioned that Robbi Fabbri will also be given a chance to skate at Center next season.
Fabbri's return will be beneficial after only playing in 51 games in 2016-17 because of a season-ending knee injury that he suffered in February. Fabbri was drafted as a center, but hasn’t logged any time at the position since his OHL days in 2014-15. The Blues hope that the 21-year-old will continue to improve and translate his early NHL success at wing over to the middle
We cannot forget that the Blues regained the services of Vladimir Sobotka right before the postseason. The little guy with gumption was a huge part of the Blues' success in the series against Minnesota, winning battles in the corners, scoring in Game 1, and adding assists in Games 3 and 5. He scored another goal and added two assists in the series against Nashville and it was evident he was happy to be back.
Sobotka is not the same player that left the Blues in 2014. His offense has improved drastically while continuing to play his gritty style. He will be a key contributor from the third line next season whether it be from the wing or in the faceoff circle.
The Blues have gotten much better this offseason. The additions of Schenn, Sundqvist, and the consensus steal of the 2017 draft, Klim Kostin, give the Blues more big-bodied, offensively talented players. Along with youngsters Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford, the Blues are a deep team that could be poised to take a big step in 2017.
Jake Allen has finally proven himself to everyone. His amazing postseason run solidifies the organization's faith in him up to this point. In order for a team to make a deep playoff run, they need great goaltending. They have a guy who can lead them to the promised land and now that Allen's personal goaltending coach David Alexander is on the staff, the situation is even better for "The Snake" heading into the season.
Once the Blues re-sign Parayko, chances are the 2017 offseason is over for St. Louis. They didn't make any flashy moves after the draft but they didn't need to. Armstrong has had a plan in place for a few years now and he continues to stay the course.
Mike Yeo now has his hand-picked staff, and they get a full offseason to get organized. The future is bright in St. Louis. They are bigger, younger, faster, and above all else should be able to score more goals. For this fanbase, nothing matters unless the Cup finally comes to St. Louis. Little does the rest of the league know the Blues are quietly becoming an early darkhorse. Could they do the unthinkable? It's time to trust the process.