In an offseason in which the Blues signed the NHL’s top free agent, the strangest turn of events came on Thursday as the Blues announced they had re-signed center Steve Ott to a two-year deal. But the signing of Ott wasn’t the surprise of the day. That shock came about 20 minutes later when rumors began swirling that restricted free agent Vladimir Sobotka had signed with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“I can’t confirm that he is going to the KHL,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said via conference call on Thursday.
“I believe that he has done it. All indications are that he has. We are going to proceed. If he shows up at training camp, good for us. I will have to get my dancing shoes out.”
While Armstrong was talking to the media, various reports began confirming that Sobotka had signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Omsk of the KHL. The Blues had been willing to go above three-million, but wouldn’t touch the $4 million spectrum.
“If the numbers being reported are even 80-percent correct, it makes sense for him from a financial standpoint to do this,” said Armstrong. “But I can’t control what happens in a different league.
“We can’t compete, nor should we have to compete, with the KHL,” said Armstrong.
Sobotka, 27, had been in negotiations with the Blues since before the end of the regular season. The restricted-free agent was looking for a new contract with St. Louis, and the Blues were willing to pay, providing him with a multitude of options.
“In June, we had offered him a multi-year deal. Three, four, or five of his choice, and north of $3 million. The last offers were a one-year deal at $2.7 million, or a two-year deal at $3 million. Both didn’t get it done.”
Though the Blues would like to have him back, the situation has been a tough read for some time now. The forward recently left his agent, Steve Bartlett, but it was believed that he and the Blues would be able to come to an agreement by early August after negotiations appeared to be moving along smoothly.
When the Blues learned recently that the KHL was an option that Sobotka would strongly consider, they filed for arbitration against the forward. Sobotka, who had arbitration rights, chose not to file. The arbitration date was set for July 21, in case the two sides could not reach a deal before that date. The arbitration process often burns the bridges between players and management, but in this situation, it had little to do with the player’s decision.
“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Armstrong said. “The concept of playing in the KHL was there previously. It was an economic decision.”
“We filed for salary arbitration hoping to expedite the process and to maintain our rights to the player,” Armstrong said. “At the time, he was in discussions with a European team.”
When the Blues filed for arbitration against the forward, they assured that Sobotka would not play for another NHL team next season by eliminating the risk of an offer sheet. Had the case gone to an arbiter, Sobotka would have been forced to accept the compensation decided upon by the third-party negotiator. However, the restricted free agent would have had the option to choose a one or two-year deal. Either way, he would have been an unrestricted free agent following the contract’s conclusion.
Though Sobotka is unlikely to be represented at the hearing on July 21, the Blues’ management still plans to attend. At that hearing, a determination will be made on a salary reward for Sobotka, and if he returns to the NHL, he will have to play out that contract with the Blues.
“We are going to be at the arbitration hearing,” said Armstrong. “We are going to be represented there on the 21st. We are going to follow through on it.”
The compensation issued by the arbiter is unlikely to be much more than the $1.4 million Sobotka earned last season, ,though the Czech forward is coming off of a career-high, 33-point season with the Blues.
“I have the utmost respect for him as a competitor and as a person,” Armstrong said. “Our offers always indicated that we valued him. It’s a financial decision that I can’t really argue with him taking.”
In what is a related move, the Blues did ink unrestricted free agent Steve Ott to a two-year deal worth $5.2 million.
Ott, 31, was dealt the Blues at the trade deadline last season as a part of the deal that brought goaltender Ryan Miller to St. Louis. The center had three points in 23 games with the Blues last year. He is coming off of a four-year, $11.8 million contract, which he signed in 2010.
“He provides our team with the grit and determination that we feel is necessary to compete in a very difficult Western Conference,” said Armstrong.”
The Blues recently circled back to Ott after learning about Sobotka’s possible intentions.
“I received the information that (Sobotka) was strongly considering signing in the KHL. When I got that information, I circled back to some of the free agents I had been talking to, Steve Ott being one,” Armstrong explained.”
With Ott under contract, after the Blues sign remaining restricted free agent Jaden Schwartz, the club will have 15 possible NHL forwards, six of them possible centers.