When Doug Armstrong made the deal for Ryan O’Reilly late on one of the most significant first days in NHL free-agency history, he had to take a big gulp. After all, the St. Louis Blues GM was parting with a boatload to get O’Reilly, then had to tell his owner to stroke a check for $7.5 million before midnight.
It’s probably worth noting that when Armstrong acquired O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and a first- and second-round pick, he was actually saving cap space. But $7.5 million is a lot of money to fork over to a player who hasn’t even played a shift for you yet. So when O’Reilly, the former downtrodden Buffalo Sabre, said the next day on a conference call that, “I have the spark in me now,” that had to be music to Armstrong’s ears.
The Blues remain the only team from the original 1967 expansion group that is still in the league and has not won a Stanley Cup. When they woke up on the morning of Dec. 10, 2017, after beating the Detroit Red Wings for their third straight victory, they found themselves sitting in first place in the Western Conference and tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for first overall in the NHL. They also woke up to the harsh reality that their best player, Jaden Schwartz, would be out of the lineup for six weeks with an ankle injury. Four months later, they found themselves one win short of making the playoffs with an enormous hole at center beyond the brilliant Brayden Schenn and with a team that was good, not great. Armstrong had some assets and knew he needed to use them to make his team better.
After signing unrestricted free agent Tyler Bozak to a three-year deal earlier in the day and reacquiring David Perron for the right side, Armstrong cast his net for a bigger fish after the biggest one in free agency, superstar center John Tavares, went to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Armstrong and Sabres GM Jason Botterill had been talking for about three weeks on a potential O’Reilly trade and the price was only going to go up if the Sabres had to pay O’Reilly’s $7.5-million signing bonus. A center-ice corps of Schenn, O’Reilly, Bozak and rookie Robert Thomas began to look very, very good. “Obviously we’re deeper down the middle of the ice,” Armstrong said. “Three good centers in our division and our conference is important, and I think it allows us to play a freer road game than in the past when we were exposed by younger players or lesser centermen. When you look at the two teams at the top of the Central Division and the Western Conference, Winnipeg and Nashville, they’re deep down the middle, and we have to compete with them for a playoff spot.”
It certainly gives the Blues options beyond their top line of Schenn between Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, which was the best in the league last season prior to Schwartz’s injury. O’Reilly slides into the No. 2 center spot, likely between Robby Fabbri and Alex Steen, and Bozak takes up the third-line role where he’ll be able to produce playing sheltered minutes. The wild card in all of this is Thomas, the team’s top prospect and the 20th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He’s on the cusp of making the NHL after being named the MVP of the OHL playoffs. “In all my 10 years of managing in Dallas and St. Louis, I had only one 19-year-old player make my team, and that was Robby Fabbri because he came in and took someone else’s job,” Armstrong said. “I would say with Robert Thomas, we’re looking for him to make the team, and it’s up to him to fulfill his responsibilities. He’s been a top player in his age bracket, but his age bracket now goes from 19 to 40. The reality is that he has to come in and secure a job from someone who’s raising a young family and also needs that job.”
When the Blues’ defense corps is healthy, it’s among the best and deepest in the Western Conference. In goal they have Jake Allen, who was much like the Blues last season, humming along with a great start before hitting the skids in December and January. At 27, Allen still has more issues with consistency than you’d like to see with a goalie who has that much experience, but isn’t almost everyone basically just guessing and crossing their fingers with their goaltending these days?
Having a healthy Schwartz for a full season would be a huge boost, as would a healthy return of Fabbri, a player who was signed to a one-year contract after missing all of 2017-18 while recovering from knee surgery. “We have to remember that when he left, he was only a year-and-a-half into the league, so it’s not like he has a wealth of experience to fall back on,” Armstrong said. “He’s starting almost from ground zero. If he had made the league as a 20-year-old, he would have been three months into his career. He’s going to come back and go into buildings he’s never been in before.”
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.