JR says the Blues are looking for a center.
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A contingent of five Blues staffers was in New York a week ago, hoping to talk the biggest-name free-agent center — and perhaps headliner of the 2013 free-agent class — into coming to St. Louis.
Sitting opposite Vincent Lecavalier at the Marriott Marquis were Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, advisor Al MacInnis, coach Ken Hitchcock, director of pro scouting Rob DiMaio and director of player development Tim Taylor. (DiMaio and Taylor were teammates of Lecavalier in Tampa Bay).
“We probably spent the better part of an hour with him, describing our team,” Armstrong said. “Ken described the structure of our play ... Al was very strong and passionate about the city of St. Louis. I thought we hit all the things that were important, that Vinny wanted to hear.”
But on Tuesday, Lecavalier chose Philadelphia, agreeing to a four-year, $22.5 million contract.
The Flyers successfully landed the center, and the Blues were left with knowing they had impressed Lecavalier.
“I talked to Vinny and he said he thought that our presentation was (one) of the tops of the people that made them,” Armstrong said. “He is a big center-ice man and I thought he would fit into our group at no (trade) cost, and he ended up choosing the Philadelphia Flyers. But at the end of the day, I’m glad we went through the process.”
So despite leaving with a big presentation, they left with something else — a hole at center.
The team enters the first day of free agency today still in need of a middle man and maybe two. Armstrong is seeking a play-making, top-six center and also one in the bottom six.
In a change in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams actually have been allowed to contact unrestricted and restricted free agents the past two days, although the sides are not permitted to sign any agreements until today.
“We’ve had communication with some centericemen, trying to see if we see a fit with our team and we see a fit with them,” Armstrong said.
With Lecavalier joining Philadelphia and then Daniel Briere choosing Montreal on Thursday, the list of available point-producing centers includes Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski, Washington’s Mike Ribeiro and Florida’s Stephen Weiss.
But Grabovski, who was bought out by Toronto, made $5.5 million in 2012-13, followed by Ribeiro at $5 million and Weiss $3.1 million. Each might be looking for a bump in salary or, at least, term.
The Blues’ current salary-cap figure is $52 million — approximately $13 million under the NHL’s cap ceiling — and they still have restricted free agents Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Stewart and Jake Allen to sign.
The club apparently had the finances for Lecavalier, who signed for a $4.5 million annual average value (AAV), but may not want to commit similar dollars to others.
“We’re going to make a deal that will stand the test of time economically,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes you make these deals the first or second day of free agency and you feel really good about them, you sell some tickets, and then you spend five years trying to get rid of the guy. If we can find a player that can come in and help us, and do it in what we believe is the right economics, not just for July 5, but for multiple seasons after that, we’re going to do it.”
Another factor in the equation, according to Armstrong, is that he doesn’t want to pay massively more to unrestricted free agents than he’s paying his own top players.
Jay Bouwmeester is an exception because the Blues inherited his $6.6 million annual salary, but David Backes is a 2003 draft pick who climbed his way to captain and was rewarded with a $4.5 million annual salary.
“Rightly or wrongly, I have a hard time giving someone from outside the organization 50-60 percent more than we’re giving guys that we’ve drafted, that we’ve developed, that are here,” Armstrong said. “We value these (free agents), but we value them how they fit into our team. We want to sign our own guys to unrestricted years, and if you go out and do something very aggressive, it’s hard then to pick up the phone and say to your own guys, ‘Sorry, you can’t get that type of finances from us. We only give to guys that don’t play here.’ That’s a hard sell for me.”
Instead, Armstrong is trying to sell free-agent centers on the Blues’ puck-moving defensemen and playing partners on wing.
“Our sale to Vinny was, ‘If you’re a center-ice man and you know that you have Pietrangelo and (Kevin) Shattenkirk and (Bouwmeester), you’re going to get the puck on your stick, you’re going to get it in flight and you’re going to get in position to make a play… He fully agreed with that,” Armstrong said. “One of the center-ice men I talked to (Wednesday) said the same thing, ‘You’re not fishing the puck off the glass.’
“When they say, ‘Well, who am I going to play with?’ I think the strength of our team is ... on the right side you’re going to play with Stewart, (T.J.) Oshie or (Vladimir) Tarasenko, and on the left side you’re going to play with (Alexander) Steen, (David) Perron and (Jaden) Schwartz.
“That’s where Al (MacInnis) was outstanding with Vinny. He said, ‘We brought Wayne Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues — the greatest passer to ever play — to play with Brett Hull — the greatest scorer to ever to play — and they didn’t find chemistry.’ What we’re trying to sell right now is, we’re a good team because you’re going to have multiple options to find the proper guy to play with.”
Meanwhile, the Blues also will be pursuing less-expensive, lower-line centers. Their options include Phoenix’s Boyd Gordon and Minnesota’s Matt Cullen among others. Gordon made $1.3 million last season, and Cullen made $3.5 million, but he’ll turn 37 in November and may take a pay-cut.
If Armstrong fails at landing a free agent or two, he says, “I’m more that comfortable coming back and attacking next season with this group.”
The Blues have centers in Backes and Patrik Berglund, but there’s been dialogue within the organization about moving one or both to the wing.
“Obviously if we found a center-ice men that fit into our group that would give (Hitchcock) the option to move guys over, if he wants,” Armstrong said. “I personally see Berglund as a centerman. I see Backes as a playing both. But Ken is going to find the best fit during training camp, and if it means moving one of those guys over, then we’ll do it. There’s different options if he wants to move those guys with or without free agency.”
But with back-to-back postseason trips, award-winning executives in Armstrong and Hitchcock and a resolved ownership situation, the Blues believe they are now an attractive destination for free agents.
“I think that we’re a much easier sell now because we’re a competitive team on the ice,” Armstrong said. “You don’t them all, but I really like the sale that we have.”