Faced with a flurry of trade rumors surrounding Mike Hoffman, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong shocked many by his decision to stand pat and do nothing. No third-line defenseman would be coming to save the Blues D, nor would a high-profile star like Taylor Hall be making residence at Enterprise Center for a few months.
For a variety of reasons that he spelled out at a meeting with reporters, his decision to forego a trade at the deadline was as much of a public vote of confidence in the current team, as much as it was a reflection of the quality of offers Armstrong may or may not have received for the sniper, he hinted.
The NHL trade deadline saw teams like the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs both make splashes with trades that saw Devin Dubnyk go from San Jose to Colorado to play behind Avs’ starter Philip Grubauer. The Maple Leafs got Riley Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets and on then deadline day, swung a deal for Blue Jackets’ veteran Nick Foligno, among many other trades around the league. The Taylor Hall Sweepstakes was finally settled, as seemingly multiple teams were rumored to be “in on Hall.” The 29-year old left winger went from Buffalo to the Boston Bruins. Check out The Hockey Writers’ full analysis of the 2021 trade deadline.
For Armstrong, he let it be known that despite what fans and media may have believed, there was actually very tepid interest in anything the Blues had offered. Without offering specific names or potential trade partners as per his policy, Armstrong hadn’t received a call in several days, he admitted.
“When we were in that state of flux where we certainly didn’t look to be buyers, partly because of our salary cap, we didn’t have a lot of room,” Armstrong told nhl.com. “We were thinking of being sellers. We had a vision of, if we were going to do something, what we wanted in return. Quite honestly, I haven’t had any meaningful phone calls in almost three days. … If we were doing anything, I probably placed a higher value on our own players than other people did.”
Doing Nothing Is Doing Something
By not doing anything, the team is handing the players a vote of confidence, said former NHL defenseman Jamie Rivers on the Fast Lane on 101 ESPN on Tuesday after the deadline had passed.
That is a strange turn of events, however, because just a week ago the Blues were slogging through a seven-game losing skid. They broke their slide and have since won three straight – one against the Vegas Golden Knights, and two games over the Minnesota Wild. The Wild hold the third of four playoff spots. The Blues are fighting to maintain the fourth seed in the Honda West over Arizona.
With names like Hall, Foligno, Nash, and other stars packing their bags for different teams, this year’s trade deadline proved to be unique, Armstrong told the media.
“Each trade deadline has its own uniqueness, but this one certainly with the short season and our fluctuation in play, you know, it had our minds going in different directions,” he admitted. “They play these last three games, and being in a playoff spot today, was a reflection of standing pat with this group.”
“Obviously we are in a playoff spot now,” he continued. “We haven’t played our best hockey on a consistent basis. One of the things we talked about on a previous call was, maybe we are going to get healthy at the right time and get on a roll. When we got (Vladimir) Tarasenko back and (Jaden) Schwartz back, our goals kind of dried up, and that shouldn’t last with that caliber of players in our lineup. … The goal-scoring should pick up.”
Goaltending Tandem Has to Stay Hot
Armstrong and his coach, Craig Berube, are banking on the goaltending tandem of starter Jordan Binnington and backup Ville Husso continuing to stay hot. Both have been nearly flawless in the three games the Blues have won this past week.
“Both goaltenders have played great the past two games,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to need everyone to push through in these last, what? Three or four weeks of the regular season? You get into the playoffs, anything can happen. But there’s no guarantee we’re going to get in. We have to play and focus every day like it’s a life-or-death situation.”
“I thought Ville didn’t have his best start (against Colorado, a 3-1 loss), and we weren’t good in front of him, but ultimately his job is to stop pucks,” Armstrong said. “In the Vegas game, at 2-1, I thought that game could have gotten away from us. He made three or four fantastic saves to keep it at 2-1, and then you find the goal. That’s how momentum starts. Binnington? He wasn’t as tested in the game before but came back with a one-goal game. So hopefully our goaltending is starting to play well.
“He’s a big part of our team,” he said of Binnington, who recently inked a six-year, $36 million deal to be the team’s starting goalie. “I don’t want to denigrate the 50 shots he faced (against Vegas on April 7), but the scoring chances weren’t of a 50-shot caliber. (Binnington) made the saves that were needed to be made.”
As for Binnington’s prediction that the Blues were “coming,” Armstrong likes that kind of flair and panache from his netminder.
“Binner’s got an attitude, and that’s part of his game,” Armstrong said.
“I think getting Schwartz, you could just feel the collective sigh from himself and everyone when he finally got (a goal). And it wasn’t because of lack of effort, lack of opportunities. So, maybe the worm is starting to turn with our goal scorers. You know, (Brayden) Schenn is the next name on that list, and (Jordan) Kyrou, to bury one and get us running.”
Finding a Sense of Urgency
Another aspect of this year’s draft was the impact of the upcoming expansion draft of the Seattle Kraken on protected and unprotected players. In the previous expansion draft, the Knights picked up David Perron, Jonathan Marchessault, goalie Marc Andre Fleury, and William Karlson, The Hockey Writers reported. NHL GMs learned a lot from that experience (‘Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft,’ USA Today, 12/12/18).
Armstrong and Berube know the sense of urgency is pounding and the team cannot afford any missteps as they march toward the postseason. The loss of Robert Thomas to an upper-body injury might have altered Armstrong’s approach at the trade deadline, but not as much as you think, he said. He is hoping Thomas can return soon, and that his injury is not a long-term setback. With Hoffman scoring two goals in a 3-2 overtime win against the Wild, the chatter around his trade status quieted a bit. With Thomas out of the lineup, Hoffman went from the fans’ pariah to the team’s messiah in a matter of hours.
He had previously been a healthy scratch in two games last week, and the subject of Berube’s revolving shit-list. Hoffman played and scored two difference-making goals in the 3-2 win.
“NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021 when Seattle enters the league,” USA Today wrote in 2018. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.
“I think everyone learned a lesson on what Vegas did or did not do,” Armstrong told reporters at his Trade Deadline briefing.
Testing His Patience
Did the 2021 Trade Deadline test his patience? Armstrong laughed.
“I don’t want to say, ‘test your patience.’ You want so much for the players to experience playoff hockey, and you want so much for them to maximize the most of their career,” he said.
He, like others in the Blues organization, felt the heavy weight and frustration of the L column in the Blues 19-16-6 record.
“I don’t want to say I was any more frustrated than the coaches were or that the players were,” he said. “It was a collective frustration. So there was a collective understanding that nobody really cares if you are frustrated or not, or if you start to feel sorry for yourself, or, God forbid, you say ‘We’re willing to get them next year.’ If I had felt that was the case, there would have been a lot of player movement, because our jobs are to fight to the bitter end until they tell us to stop playing.”
Armstrong has circled the Saturday, April 17 game against the Coyotes as one of many meaningful games in their upcoming schedule.
“In my own mind, we have to get to next Saturday’s game against Arizona, we were chasing them, now they are chasing us. You want to make sure these games are meaningful.”
By standing pat, he also wants to see the continued development of players like Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman, for instance.
Giving Young Players Opportunity
“I want to see when we get to that point, what a Mikkola can do, without (Robert) Bortuzzo sitting out right now. Walman’s in there and playing well. Did I think I could replace a Colton Parayko with another Colton Parayko if he was hurt, that wasn’t going to happen. You look at some of the defensemen moved. I’m not sure where they would fit into our group today.”
So, for now, Hoffman, Vince Dunn, Schwartz and Tyler Bozak – all rumored at one point to be on the move but stayed – are part of the Blues’ immediate future for the next few months at least. Armstrong’s next big move is to sign Schwartz.
He’s working on it.
“I don’t want to get into specifics, we try to keep those things behind closed doors,” Armstrong said. “But Jaden is a player we talked about earlier. He’s a primary player for us, and we’d like to see if we can keep here.”
Armstrong’s resume shows his best deal may actually be no deal at all. The jury is still out on that.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1