Monday, August 5, 2013

A look at the Blues' successful offseason

By Andrew Allsman| Posted: August 5, 2013| Contact  |

The offseason is nearly over, much to the excitement of fans around the league. Fans, who at this point last year were taking in the drama that is Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiating, are anxiously awaiting the start of Sept. training camps, and the drop of the puck on opening night. With just a month remaining before players start kicking into full gear for the season ahead, the hype is already present.

This year's offseason wasn't necessarily an eventful one around the league, but there were still some notable changes made by teams. The Blues improved their club, though their improvements were more under the radar rather than 'splashy'.

Early on in the offseason both Scott Nichol and Andy McDonald announced their retirements from hockey, and the Blues didn't have any players available to adequately fill the voids. Prospect Jori Lehtera decided to remain in the Kontinental Hockey League, much to the Blues' surprise, making the team's pursuit of free agents that much more important this year.

The Blues went into the offseason with two key goals set for their team. General manager Doug Armstrong was never going to make significant changes to his club, despite a feeling of impatience after two consecutive seasons of failed postseason performances. For Armstrong and the Blues, it was all about getting more from his players, and never about giving up on the current squad.

“The easiest thing to do is to show somebody the door, the harder thing is to find somebody that is better,” said Armstrong in May after the Blues' first round playoff loss to the L.A. Kings. “We can all clamor for a new general manager, or a new coach, or new players, but that’s the easy part, the other part is bringing in a better person than the one leaving.”

“Are we frustrated? Yeah. We have players that have produced in the past that haven’t been able to get us over the hump in the playoffs, but they’re still in those prime years. So basically, we need the home-grown talent to start producing at the most important times.”

From the get-go, it was primed to be a busy offseason for Armstrong. The Blues had seven restricted free agents to re-sign, and some improvements to make before the new campaign. Currently, all but defenseman Alex Pietrangelo have been signed, but the Pietrangelo negotiation will work itself out in the future.

While working on re-signing his current guys, Armstrong was also working the phones, as were most general managers, to see what was available for his club via trade. Armstrong explored trading Jaroslav Halak on multiple occasions, but nothing formed from the talks. It is certainly plausible to believe that Armstrong was looking for a goal scorer as well, but as he said after the season, those types of players aren't too often made available by teams. 

“The reality is that with free agency the way it is now, teams tie up those elusive, top-end goal scorers,” he said. “They draft them. (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (John) Tavares, (Steven) Stamkos were drafted by those teams. It is incumbent upon the players in this room to find out how to produce when the lights are the brightest, to score those goals.”

The need for goal scoring remained as free agency opened up in early July. The Blues, who were actively pursuing top free agent centers, struck out three times in the early days of free agency. The club attempted to land Vincent Lecavalier, Stephen Weiss, and Valtteri Filppula, but all three chose other destinations.

Finally, the Blues agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with centerman Derek Roy. The move was praised by some, mocked by others, but the reality is that the signing of Roy could pay tremendous dividends to the Blues.

Roy, a 30-year old center, has had his share of success over the years. In the past two seasons, Roy has been nothing close to his old self, but the circumstances were extenuating.

In 2010, Roy underwent surgery to repair a torn quad tendon. The injury and recovery forced Roy to miss 46 regular season games that year. In 2012, Roy had to have surgical work done on his shoulder as well. Roy, says he now feels 100%, and will likely be in a top-line role for St. Louis.

While Roy's numbers have dwindled a bit, it is hard to overlook what he has done in past years, which includes posting 65-plus points in three consecutive seasons. Roy could be a great fit with the skilled forwards of the Blues, but Armstrong is hoping the acquisition of a top center will spark some of the other players to produce. 

Essentially, the Blues could kill two birds with one stone with the Roy signing. The club hopes Roy will add some scoring to their roster, while also helping to get the most out of his linemates. For $4 million, it was a risk worth taking in Armstrong's eyes.

But Roy wasn't the Blues' only signing. 

Armstrong also brought in the always-gritty Maxim Lapierre via free agency to add more depth at center. While it's conceivable to think the Blues might try to keep the line of Cracknell, Chris Porter, and Ryan Reaves (dubbed as the CPR line) together this year, Lapierre provides the type of game that will compliment the the bottom half of the Blues' forward group and give the team more options on the bottom two lines. 

With the Lapierre and Roy signings, the Blues now have depth at center, and many different combinations for head coach Ken Hitchcock to work with in training camp and throughout the season, a luxury the club hasn't had in past years. 

The club's faith in their signings was best evidenced when they opted to trade away David Perron. Perron went to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Magnus Paajarvi, a second-round draft pick, and some extra up cap space. Paajarvi provides speed and size for the Blues, along with a distinguished set of offensive skills.

The move was a way to free up cap space after the Roy signing, as well as make the club younger, and in Armstrong's opinion, better.

“We wanted to add a player that we think fits into our organization where we are today and where we are moving forward, said Armstrong after the trade was made. "We think (Paajarvi) is just starting to enter the really good part of his career. We think he brings an element to our team that we don’t have.”

Furthermore, the Blues have completed their task of re-signing their restricted free agents, and remaining under the salary cap ceiling. Currently, the club has just Alex Pietrangelo to re-sign before their offseason is complete, and they have $7.6 million in cap space remaining. 

The long-term deals with Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester solidify the Blues' top defensive pairings for the foreseeable future, while members of the forward group such as Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart will have to earn longer deals.

The changes the Blues made this offseason are not like in years past. These moves, while perhaps more expensive than sticking to the status quo, set the Blues up for success, not only for this season, but also for seasons to come. 

The Blues are building their team in an effective, and responsible manner, while putting their team in a great position to win. Armstrong and owner Tom Stillman have found chemistry at the front office level, and Stillman's commitment to his club is a welcomed sight. For the players on the ice, it's time to prove their commitment to bringing a winning tradition to St. Louis. After this offseason, they certainly have all of the tools necessary to do so.