Ivan Barbashev

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Blues owner gives Armstrong vote of confidence

Given all the upheaval in St. Louis this season, it was fair to ask questions about GM Doug Armstrong’s job security.

So last week the Post-Dispatch did exactly that, posing the query to Blues owner Tom Stillman: Do you think Armstrong’s the right guy for the job?

“Yes, I do,” Stillman replied. “A lot of GMs, I think, are inclined to be focused on what’s going to keep my job next year and the year after. Some would perceive it as taking a risk to be looking farther down the road even though it might not lead to as many wins in the current year.

“That’s an important quality, looking long-term for the organization and not looking at your short-term survival. I think Doug knows that I am in tune with looking at things in that longer-term way.”

Speaking of term, Armstrong is heading into the last of a five-year deal signed back in 2013. At that time, the Blues were coming off an 109-point campaign and Armstrong was the reigning NHL GM of the Year.

In announcing the deal, Stillman was full of praise.

“First, [Armstrong’s] an outstanding general manager, so we want to make sure he’s with us for a longer period,” he said, per NHL.com. “And second, I think you have to give him time to do his work and develop the team he wants to develop.”

If he extends Armstrong, Stillman could probably use the same quote again.

Because the Blues are, again, sort of in a developmental phase.

First, there was the massive hockey operations overhaul. Over the last three months, Armstrong has given six coaches their walking papers: Ken Hitchcock, Jim Corsi, Ray Bennett, Steve Thomas, Rick Wilson and Ty Conklin.

Mike Yeo was inserted as the head coach, while Martin Brodeur temporarily added goalie coach to his assistant GM duties, before dropping the role at the end of the season.

(Brodeur will lead the charge to find a replacement, now that he’s back to being AGM and Conklin was let go.)

The coaching shakeup wasn’t the only significant change Armstrong oversaw.

The club’s younger prospects continued to push for bigger roles at the NHL level. At forward, the likes of Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford both worked their way into the mix, while Robby Fabbri was on pace for a career year before a season-ending ACL tear in early February.

The youth movement could continue into next season, too. Tage Thompson, the 6-foot-5 forward taken 26th overall last year, left Connecticut after his sophomore year to turn pro, and gained some valuable experience with AHL Chicago. Vince Dunn, a defenseman taken in the second round in 2015, had a great year with the Wolves and led all d-men in scoring.

So if there’s going to be an ongoing developmental phase in St. Louis, it makes sense that Stillman wants Armstrong to oversee it. He’s done a good job of it throughout his seven years on the job — he’s the NHL’s ninth longest-tenured active GM — and the club has been successful, with five consecutive playoff appearances.

It is worth noting, however, that “club policy” kept Stillman from talking about actually signing Armstrong to an extension.

After ‘bad’ season, Lehtera at crossroads in St. Louis

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Jori Lehtera‘s first NHL campaign was an unquestioned success. He scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games, and looked to have great chemistry with Vladimir Tarasenko.

Since then? Things have gone south.

Lehtera’s sophomore campaign was down slightly in terms of production — nine goals and 34 points in 79 games — though he had a decent playoff, scoring nine points as St. Louis advanced to the Western Conference final.

This year, though, was a major letdown.

Lehtera missed extensive time with an upper-body injury then, after recovering, was parked as a healthy scratch. The 29-year-old Finn then suffered a concussion in March, missed another 12 games, and was in and out of the Blues’ lineup during the playoffs.

Lehtera told the Post-Dispatch “it was a bad season for myself,” adding that he needed to come back next season and show “I can play much better hockey.”

But will he even get the chance?

Lehtera’s three-year extension — which GM Doug Armstrong gave him after the aforementioned first NHL campaign — kicked in this past season. He has two years left at $4.7 million per, a big price to pay for a forward that scored seven goals in 64 games.

More, from the Post-Dispatch:

The Blues might not be able to trade Lehtera, but he could be lost in the NHL expansion draft June 21, when the Vegas Golden Knights select their roster. The Blues will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, and Lehtera is likely to be left off the list.

“We’ll be talking to Vegas the first of June on what they want to do,” Armstrong said. “It’s not only what we’re going to protect, but what other teams are going to make available. I think there could be a flurry of activities.”

If there’s no traction at the expansion draft, Armstrong could move Lehtera simply to get some younger forwards in the mix, something fans in St. Louis have been clamoring for. Ivan Barbashev made strides this year, while ’15 first-rounder Tage Thompson turned pro, and gained valuable experience playing for AHL Chicago.

Speaking of the Wolves, will AHL leading scorer Kenny Agostino get a look? He captured league MVP honors on the strength of 83 points in 65 games, and is only 25 years old. In seven games with the Blues this year, he racked up three points.

Paajarvi out, Barbashev in as Blues look for ‘physical element’

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After losing Game 1 — and with it, home ice advantage — of their series against Nashville, the Blues are making a lineup change for Friday’s Game 2.

Ivan Barbashev, who’s been a healthy scratch the last three games, will draw in, replacing Magnus Paajarvi. Paajarvi sits despite being a fairly productive player recently, notching a goal and three points in his last five games.

This, of course, includes the game-winning, series-clinching OT goal against Minnesota on Saturday:

“We like to give players a chance to respond and a chance to get back in there when they’re coming out of the lineup,” Blues head coach Mike Yeo said, per NHL.com. “We saw what that did for (Jori Lehtera). It’s in no way anything against Magnus. We’re very grateful and appreciative of what he’s done and what he can do for us, but ‘Barby’ has been a good player for us for a long time, too.

“Having him in the lineup, he’ll be energized and bring a physical element… When he gets the puck of the offensive zone, he has a chance to create something. We’ll see how he does tonight.”

The hope is that Barbashev can rediscover some of the form shown during the regular season. The Russian rookie made an impact, scoring five goals and 12 points in 30 games.

Rangers sign KHL d-man Bereglazov

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New York added some defensive depth on Friday, agreeing to terms with Russian blueliner Alexei Bereglazov.

Bereglazov, 23, has spent the last few seasons with KHL club Metallurg Magnitogorsk, including a ’16-17 campaign in which he scored 19 points in 60 games. He led all d-men aged 24 or younger in assists, with 18.

Despite being passed over at the draft, Bereglazov had a good junior career, highlighted by capturing bronze for Russia at the 2014 World Juniors. He finished with two points in seven games in the tourney, playing alongside the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Ivan Barbashev and his new Rangers teammate, Pavel Buchnevich.

It’ll be interesting to see where he fits in New York next season. The club has seven blueliners under contract — Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden, Brady Skjei and Steve Kampfer — with Brendan Smith a pending UFA, and Adam Clendening a pending RFA.

 

Stastny doesn’t practice, Barbashev likely to center Blues’ top line in Game 1

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Paul Stastny has not played for the St. Louis Blues since March 21 due to a lower body injury, and it is not yet known if he will be ready for the start of their playoff series against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

Adding to that uncertainty is the fact he did not take part in practice on Tuesday.

That means it will likely be rookie forward Ivan Barbashev skating on the team’s top line between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.

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“To be honest, I’m really excited,” Barbashev said on Tuesday via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Especially with those guys in the playoffs. It’s awesome. I don’t know, just really happy about it and I’m looking forward to the first playoff game.”

The 21-year-old Barbashev has appeared in 30 games for the Blues this season, recording five goals and seven assists. That is pretty strong production when you take into account he has only averaged just a little more than 11 minutes of ice-time per game and has received almost no power play time. His current 2.23 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play is the highest mark on the team this season. He is entering the playoffs on a four-game point streak for the Blues.

When Stastny was initially injured the Blues did not think it was going to be a serious injury, but it has been serious enough to keep him out of the lineup for several weeks.

Along with Barbashev centering the top line, the Blues were also using Vladimir Sobotka, who recently rejoined the team as part of his on-again, off-again relationship with the organization, on the third-line alongside Jori Lehtera and Alexander Steen.

The Blues are already playing without forward Robby Fabbri due to an ACL injury that ended his season.

The Blues enter the playoffs with the lowest odds to win the Stanley Cup, but are 22-8-2 under coach Mike Yeo and have been playing some of their best hockey of the season in recent weeks.