Patrik Berglund’s journey with the Buffalo Sabres in the past week has been the most bizarre story in the NHL this season, and perhaps the most bizarre hockey tale in recent memory. Though all the details may never be known, what has become public is a narrative of agent incompetence, general manager maneuvering, player dissatisfaction, and more.
With Berglund now apparently available to be signed by any NHL team, void of his previously troublesome contract, it has led to speculation about where the Swedish center might make his next home. For the St. Louis Blues, a reunion with the sixth-longest tenured player of all time without the contractual complications has to be interesting, but does it make sense for a team in turmoil?
Berglund and the Blues
The Berglund saga in St. Louis began when the Blues selected him with pick No. 25 in the first round of the 2006 NHL draft. He had played his junior career with Västerås HK in his native Sweden. It was the Blues’ second selection of the draft, as they had opened the proceedings by picking Erik Johnson first overall. Berglund would not arrive in St. Louis for two more seasons, but when he did, he made an immediate impact.
Berglund had 47 points, including 21 goals, in his first season with the Blues. He was a plus-19 on the year and also stood out on the power play, where he collected 22 of his points. he finished the season seventh in voting for the Calder Trophy, appearing on ten percent of ballots.
From then on, inconsistency was the word that best described Berglund’s career. He would have flashes of brilliance (such as his 52-point third season, a career high) but struggled with injury and dips in performance. Still, he was a fixture for the Blues for a decade, a constant in the team’s middle-six.
St. Louis committed to Berglund time and again, and he was happy with them. But general manager Doug Armstrong overreached when he gave the Big Swede a five year, $19.25 million extension in 2017. It wasn’t the cap hit ($3.7 AAV) that was especially ghastly, but the length was troublesome from the very beginning.
And so it was with some relief that the Blues offloaded Berglund’s contract, along with that of Vladimir Sobotka, in the trade that brought them Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo. And yet, as it turns out, it seems as though Berglund should never have been allowed to be traded to the Sabres in the first place.
Die By the Sword
Berglund’s tenure in Buffalo was very short-lived. He played 23 games there, collecting four points. Then, on Saturday morning, things took a turn for the stranger, when it was announced that Berglund had been suspended indefinitely for a failure to report, having missed a few games in advance of this news with “illness.” It surfaced that Berglund had missed a team flight, which was the final straw in growing tension between the two parties.
Later on Saturday, Elliotte Friedman began to clarify the situation on SportsNet’s Saturday Headlines segment: “This has not been an easy marriage. Patrik Berglund had a no-trade clause, full, until June 30, and it moved to a partial no-trade clause on July 1. The Ryan O’Reilly trade with him in it was made July 1, and I don’t know what happened, I’m not one hundred percent clear, but the fact is, his updated list was not in time, and that trade was able to happen. So I think it’s been difficult for him to adjust in this whole thing, and I think they’re trying to find a solution.”
Due to a contractual technicality, Armstrong struck a deal in a brief window of time on July 1 after Berglund and/or his agent had failed to submit an updated no-trade list by the deadline. Given the evidence at hand, it seems that the Sabres would have been one of the teams listed, as Berglund has been unhappy ever since the move.
Then, on Wednesday morning, the news broke that the Sabres had placed Berglund on unconditional waivers with the goal of terminating his contract. It became clear that Berglund had agreed to these terms, forfeiting over $12 million in the process, in order to free himself from the burden of trying to make things work with the Sabres.
We should pause for a brief moment and consider the possibility that Berglund’s decision is related to his mental health. We simply do not know whether that’s the case or not, but the decision to leave $12 million on the table cannot have been arrived at lightly. We hope that Berglund is doing well emotionally and making these decisions with a clear mind.
Assuming that he is, though, the NHL now has an extremely rare scenario at hand: a healthy, prime-aged player suddenly becoming a free agent in the middle of the season. Any team that considers bringing in Berglund will need to do its homework on his state of mind, but if that checks out, he could provide significant help at a minuscule price. Should the Blues consider such a move?
Could Berglund and the Blues Reunite?
With Berglund’s free agent status likely becoming official on Thursday, it has led to speculation by some that a reunion with the Blues might be imminent. Could St. Louis consider bringing back its long-time center now that his contract is no longer a factor (and assuming that Berglund would even be interested in rejoining a club that arguably treated him poorly by exploiting a loophole)?
Interest is picking up in acquiring Buffalo Forward Patrik Berglund. Stay tuned #Sabres
— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) December 19, 2018
The answer to that question is another question: would Berglund be part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s no secret that the Blues have been unsettled all season, and remain far back in the standings in the Western Conference. And from what has become public, it seems a serious part of the problem is locker room chemistry. It may merely be coincidence that the severity of these issues increased after Berglund left for Buffalo, but perhaps it is not.
If Armstrong and others in the Blues’ organization believe that Berglund’s personality and character could help steady the locker room and build chemistry, then the team should be all in on signing him back, particularly considering that they would be doing so at an extremely reduced rate.
On the other hand, if Berglund is perceived as a potential distraction or trouble-maker, then the Blues should keep their hands off. They have issues enough as it is, without adding potential problems from outside the current group. If Berglund needs some time away from the ice and the Blues want to make amends, perhaps they can sign him temporarily in a hockey operations role as he clears his head. But the current Blues’ group is not the place for a player to get his confidence back.
All the Best to the Big Swede
Wherever Berglund ends up, most will hope this strange story has a happy ending. Situations like this are extremely rare in the NHL, and it may point to deeper issues with Berglund or the organization. But neither the Blues or the Sabres should hold any grudges.
Berglund took the high road and amicably agreed to void his contract so that the Sabres weren’t saddled with his cap hit. Whether it’s a reunion with the Blues, a return to Sweden, a new adventure in the NHL, or a period away from the ice, all the best to Berglund in his next venture.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.