St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had a front-row seat in Traverse City, Mich., last fall for the ugly imbroglio between the Columbus Blue Jackets and restricted free agent Ryan Johansen. It was during the annual prospect tournament there that Blue Jackets president John Davidson went on his epic tirade about Johansen and his agent, accusing them of trying to get the Blue Jackets front office fired.
Armstrong, at the time, was dealing with an RFA of his own in Jaden Schwartz and was openly talking about other prospects taking Schwatz’s spot if Schwartz was not signed by training camp. “We hope Jaden is there for camp, but as they say in Britain, ‘The King is dead. Long live the King,’ " Armstrong said at the time. “Somebody is going to play if (Schwartz) doesn’t and I’ve never seen a 21- or 22-year old kid retire from hockey.”
Contrast that with Armstrong’s recent words concerning pending RFA Vladimir Tarasenko, a player the Blues took two picks after Schwartz in the 2010 NHL draft. Armstrong has made it crystal clear that while all players are created equal, some are more equal than others. A lot more equal. In hockey parlance, Armstrong might have just told Tarasenko and his camp to back the Brinks truck up to the Scottrade Center so they can all just start shoveling money into the back of it.
Armstrong made it clear that the Blues first and most pressing order of off-season business is to take care of Taransenko. That means there will be no bridge deal. You can basically use $6 million a year for eight years as the starting point in negotiations. And you guys waiting for contracts next season? Well, take your number and wait in line behind the golden boy.
“If it means allowing players to go to free agency,” Armstrong told media in St. Louis. “If it means making players sweat it on what their deals are going to be, he’s the priority.”
And any teams intent on signing Tarasenko to an offer sheet will only drive up his price because the Blues will match. It’s an odd strategy, since teams are basically being told that if they want to put the Blues into a tight financial spot by giving an otherworldly offer sheet to Tarasenko, they will match. Good information if you’re a Central Division foe of the Blues. Let’s say he gets an offer that averages $8 million or $9 million a year on a seven-year deal. The team offering it either gets one of the NHL’s rising stars for $56 million or puts the Blues in a position where they have to match and be forced to dump other good players.
(Not sure why more teams don’t use this tactic. If I’m a rival GM knowing the Blues will match, I consider offering Tarasenko a one-year deal at $12 million. That way the Blues would have to give him $12 million qualifying offers for as long as he’s a restricted free agent. Why don’t they do this? Well, it probably has something to do with the fact they don’t want other GMs doing it to them.)
Armstrong, meanwhile, has made it clear that Tarasenko is going to be treated differently. And he should be. Not only did he score 73 points with the Blues and lead them in playoff goals with six, including shootout goals he scored a total of 24 goals this season that either tied the score or put the Blues ahead in a game, second only in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin. Sixteen of them put the Blues in front, which was third in the league to only Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews, who each had 17. Of those goals, 10 of them put the Blues ahead in the game for good, which was second in the league only to Toews.
“He knows it. The hockey world knows it,” Armstrong said of Tarasenko’s situation. “The St. Louis Blues will not be in a spot on July 5, if he’s not signed, to be able to match an offer sheet that’s out there.”
Chances are, Tarasenko will get somewhere in the range of the six-year deal worth $34 million Tyler Seguin signed in 2012, adjusted upward for inflation. But it’s clear that no matter the number, the Blues are not going to let their game breaker get away.