The intense battle for Western Conference playoff spots isn’t just taking place on the ice. It has extended to the boardroom as well.
When the San Jose Sharks claimed forward Kyle Wellwood off waivers on Tuesday, it was the second time in a matter of weeks the St. Louis Blues were forced to surrender a player before he’d even suited up for the team.
To make matters worse, both Wellwood and forward Marek Svatos, who was claimed by Nashville on Dec. 29, ended up with teams the Blues are fighting with for a playoff spot.
“Obviously we wanted both Svatos and Wellwood—we thought that they could help our team,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong said Tuesday in an interview. “But the rules are the rules. When you enter into these agreements, you understand that the player has to clear waivers.
“Unfortunately for the Blues both players were claimed.”
The origin of the rule goes back to Finnish defenceman Reijo Ruotsalainen, who frequently bounced between Europe and the NHL in the 1980s, famously joining the Edmonton Oilers just in time to win the Stanley Cup in 1987.
As a result, all players who start a season overseas must now pass through waivers when joining a NHL team during the year. Wellwood and Svatos were both free agents after being cut loose by teams in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League and each was given an opportunity to come back to North America by St. Louis—only to end up somewhere else.
Since every other NHL team had a chance to sign Wellwood and Svatos when the Blues did, was it a faux pas for the Sharks and Predators to then claim them off waivers?
“I think you’re probably better to ask other GMs that right now than me,” said Armstrong. “It’s somewhat frustrating—these other teams have had an opportunity to go do the work and they deemed it not necessary to go out.
“They’ve taken advantage of the situation that’s given them.”
Armstrong says he didn’t receive a call from Sharks GM Doug Wilson before Wellwood was claimed. He did hear from Predators GM David Poile before Svatos was grabbed.
Neither team intended their waiver claim to come across as a sleight against St. Louis.
With forwards Torrey Mitchell (lower body) and Ryane Clowe (ankle) out with injury, and Scott Nichol receiving a four-game suspension from the NHL on Tuesday, Wilson has holes to fill in the Sharks lineup.
He views the 27-year-old Wellwood—a veteran of 338 NHL games with Toronto and Vancouver—as a capable replacement.
“I have great respect for Doug Armstrong, he’s a good friend,” said Wilson. “But I work for the San Jose Sharks and we’re down forwards with the combination of injuries and other potential scenarios. This is an opportunity to add a player that can help us at this time.
“And that’s what you do.”
The bunched-up standings seem to have created some urgency for managers. Entering a busy night Tuesday, only nine points separated the fourth-place Phoenix Coyotes and 14th-place Calgary Flames in the Western Conference.
San Jose, a perennial contender, sat just outside the playoff picture in ninth. The team recently endured a six-game losing slide and Wilson admitted that it prompted him into action.
“We’ve always (tried) to give our own young players opportunities the first half of the year,” he said. “We’ve sped up the process a little bit mainly because our performance hasn’t been there. We have to get in the playoff mode very quickly—and we’re already in it.”
Armstrong can identify with the situation.
His team has managed to hang tough despite missing some key players of its own. Forward T.J. Oshie was activated from injured reserve Tuesday after missing 31 games with a fractured left ankle but Andy MacDonald and David Perron each remain out with concussions.
“We’re battling,” said Armstrong. “I think experience at this time of year is important. If I can find a way to augment our group and help the players, I will. By trying to bring in Svatos and Wellwood, I was addressing some experience needs that I think are deficient.”
While both offer some depth up front at an important time of year, Wellwood and Svatos were forced to seek work in Russia after failing to get NHL contracts in the fall.
When an offer finally came, it came from St. Louis.
“It’s unfortunate for the players quite honestly,” said Armstrong. “You talk to these players, you get them excited about one environment and then they go to a different environment.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”