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Blues’ attack suddenly looks deep with O’Reilly, Perron

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Even during their best moments in 2017-18, the St. Louis Blues were top-heavy.

For a while, it really seemed like the combo of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Brayden Schenn might just be potent enough to propel St. Louis into a playoff spot. It ultimately didn’t work out, though.

If you want a snap shot of how much St. Louis depended upon a small handful of scorers, consider that a) Paul Stastny finished sixth on the team in points with 40 despite being traded and b) only six players (counting Stastny) ended up with 40+ points in 2017-18. Asking so much of a select group of standouts simply wasn’t sufficient for St. Louis.

The good news is that GM Doug Armstrong made bold moves to get the Blues back in the hunt.

Most clearly, Armstrong sold off a bucket of assets (whether you look at it as a great bounty or “quantity over quality”) to land a fantastic two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly. ROR’s 61 points would have ranked third on the Blues last season, and only Vladimir Tarasenko (331 points) generated more than O’Reilly’s 295 points since 2013-14. The addition only becomes more tantalizing once you realize that ROR’s value comes in more than his already-strong scoring.

And, hey, it sure sounds like he’s motivated. Maybe he’ll put up even bigger numbers with the Blues? The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reports that O’Reilly spoke of bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis during his presser today, and he didn’t apologize for his comments about the toll losing took on him in Buffalo.

“I stand by (those comments),” O’Reilly said. “I feel like I have a spark in me now. There’s something different. I don’t regret anything that’s happened.”

While O’Reilly is the biggest addition, David Perron should provide another boost to the Blues’ offense as he returns to St. Louis once again.

It’s tough to picture Perron generating another impressive run like he did with Vegas in 2017-18. Despite being limited to 70 games, Perron produced more assists (50) than he scored points (46) in 82 games with the Blues in 2016-17.

One would probably pencil a reasonably healthy Perron into more of a 45-50 point range in 2018-19. The good news is that the Blues are essentially paying for that, as his $4M cap his is quite modest.

And, hey, maybe a versatile Blues attack might help him get a little closer to last season’s career-high of 66 points than some might expect?

Tyler Bozak ranks as the other noteworthy addition, actually landing a bigger cap hit but less term (three years, $5M cap hit) than Perron. Opinions vary on the former Maple Leafs center, yet he generated 43 points last season and is only one year removed from scoring 55. Slotting Bozak in as a third-line center makes it all a much easier sell.

Delightfully for the Blues, there are a few other potential boosts.

  • Maybe they’ll enjoy some better injury luck?

It has to be frustrating for the Blues to see Jaden Schwartz stuck in a bit of a holding pattern thanks to poor breaks health-wise. This past season counted as such, as he was limited to 62 games played. If Schwartz can flirt with a full 82, more people will likely realize that he’s a very, very good player.

The dream scenario would be if Robby Fabbri enters 2018-19 healthy.

Fabbri’s 2017-18 campaign was derailed before it even started, as he needed surgery after re-injuring a knee that’s been giving him major issues. If the smaller player loses a step permanently, that would be a rough break for the Blues, and really a sad loss for fans, as a healthy Fabbri can be dazzling.

It’s dangerous to assume that he’ll be A-OK, yet if he’s at or near full-strength, the Blues would really be cooking. Despite receiving limited ice time so far during his career, Fabbri has generated about a point every other game (66 in 123) at the NHL level, including scoring 18 goals as a rookie in 2015-16.

  • Dust off your Matchbox 20 jokes?

The Blues could see the graduation of some prospects to boost their offense, as well, with Robert Thomas standing out.

NHL.com’s Lou Korac passed along a rather fascinating scenario where Thomas would center a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and … Ryan O’Reilly at left wing?

If Thomas could crack the lineup, people might need to really reach into Rob Thomas’ discography if they want to keep the jokes fresh.

***

For all we know, we could look back at the O’Reilly trade as a huge win for Buffalo, instead of the Blues/”everyone wins” consensus. There are plenty of other stumbling blocks that could surface, including worse injury luck.

Still, as it stands in early July, the Blues look a lot more potent than they did heading into 2017-18, and way stronger than they appeared even in late June.

It’s the kind of roster that might just make their opponents wake up at 3 a.m. feeling lonely.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

With window approaching, here are some NHL buyout candidates

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Now that the Stanley Cup Final has wrapped up we are less than two days away from the start of the NHL’s buyout window where teams can attempt to get away from some of their less desirable and otherwise unmovable contracts. For a price.

Which teams might be willing to exercise that option?

Let’s take a look at some candidates.

The Buyout Proof contract

Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers: Okay, this is one that probably will not happen but it is still worth looking at because it is the exact type of situation that usually ends in a buyout — a big-time free agent signing that just does not work out because the team made a poor evaluation and signed an aging player to a contract that was destined to fail. So why won’t this situation end with a buyout? Because along with making a costly investment, the Oilers also gave Lucic what is, for all intents and purposes, a buyout proof contract in how much of the money is tied up in signing bonuses.

According to CapFriendly, if the Oilers were to buyout the remainder of Lucic’s deal they would have to pay out the remainder of his salary over the next 10 years with minimal salary cap savings over the next five years. I suppose they could do that if they really wanted to, but it doesn’t seem likely. Instead, they might sweeten the pot in a trade and give up a potentially useful asset to rid themselves of the contract an option that … does not really seem much better, now does it? Let’s just chalk this move up to another swing and a miss by the Oilers as they continue to waste Connor McDavid.

Costly, but might be worth it

Matt Hunwick, Pittsburgh Penguins. This is another contract that just did not work out. Hunwick signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract before last season and it became pretty obvious in the very beginning that it was going to come with some regret. The Penguins could save more than $1 million against the cap over the next two years if they buyout Hunwick this summer, and for a team that is consistently pressed against the salary cap and is in a clear win-now mode that could be significant.

Troy Brouwer, Calgary Flames. Brouwer is two years into a four-year, $18 million contract with the Calgary Flames and to this point has produced 19 goals in 150 games and still has a modified no-trade clause over the next two years. The odds of him improving at this point are slim. The odds of finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract seem slimmer. A buyout saves the Flames $3 million against the cap over the next two seasons and then they would have to carry $1.5 million in dead cap money in the two years after that. Not cheap, but certainly an option that should be explored because this is a team that should have the talent on its roster to compete right now. An extra $3 million in cap space this upcoming season and the one after that would be a huge asset.

Matt Moulson, Buffalo Sabres. Moulson is entering the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract and it is clear that his days as a top-six scorer in the NHL are finished. He played only 14 games for the Sabres this past season and recorded zero points while averaging less than one shot on goal per game. The rest of the year he was in the American Hockey League. Buying out the final year of his contract would save the Sabres just a little more than $1.5 million this season and cost them around $667,000 in empty cap space next season. Considering how low his trade value has to be at this point it might be worth it.

Definitely worth it

Jori Lehtera, Philadelphia Flyers. The key to the Brayden Schenn-for-Lehtera swap was always going to be the draft picks involved. Good thing, too, because Lehtera did not really offer the Flyers much this past season. He is entering his age 31 season and has scored only 10 goals in his past 126 games. A buyout would save the Flyers more than $3.3 million against the salary cap this season. They would be stuck with a $1.6 million hit the following year, and that might be tough to swallow, but this is a playoff team that could make a significant addition with some extra cap space.

Tyler Ennis, Minnesota Wild. After back-to-back 20-goal campaigns in Buffalo a few years back Ennis’ career has pretty much cratered. He is coming off of a miserable year with the Wild that saw him manage just eight goals and 14 assists in 73 games while once again being a blackhole in terms of possession metrics. The Wild would save $2.4 million against the salary cap this upcoming season by buying out the final year of his contract. The Wild are once again pressed against the salary cap and have to re-sign restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba this summer.

Maybe give him one more year?

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars. Spezza is an interesting one because he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career offensively and a buyout would save the Stars $5 million(!) against the salary cap this upcoming season. You can do a lot with an extra $5 million.

The problem is they would get hit with $2.5 million in empty space the year after.

What makes it a tough call is that even though Spezza had a terrible year and is going to be 35 years old when the season starts he is just one year removed from being a 50-point player (in only 68 games) and had really strong underlying possession numbers, indicating that he might still have something to offer, especially under a new coach and in a different system.

(Salary and buyout information via CapFriendly)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Finland top US, Swiss make quarters at IIHF worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Finland handed the United States its first defeat at the ice hockey world championship in a 6-2 thumping on Tuesday.

The Finns supplanted the U.S. to top Group B in Herning, and will face Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Swiss clinched a quarterfinal berth by beating France 5-1 to finish fourth in Group A in Copenhagen.

Canada shut out Germany 3-0 to secure third place in Group B and set up a quarterfinal matchup against Sweden or Russia, who will clash over the top spot in Group A.

”We didn’t leave ourselves in a great spot after the group stage but we’re going to have to play them at some stage,” captain Connor McDavid said about the potential opponents.

The Americans’ first defeat in seven games dropped them to second in the group and a quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, the third team in Group A.

”It’s not a good feeling losing,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”It could be good for us to make sure we won’t deal with this again and stay positive. We’re a good team, we’ve had a good tournament to this point.”

”(The Czechs) have some talents, it will be a tough game against them.”

Host Denmark will fight with Latvia over the last quarterfinal berth in the same group to play the winner of Group A.

Sebastian Aho scored a couple of opening-period goals for Finland and added one more into an empty net to finish the scoring to become the championship leader with nine goals and eight assists. Kane also has 17 points with six goals and 11 assists.

”We’ve played really well,” Aho said. ”We just try not to think who we play against, focus on our own system and play our game.”

Kane got a power play goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1 in the final period. Derek Ryan added another one for the U.S.

Brayden Schenn gave Canada an early goal just 20 seconds into the game. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it 2-0 in the second and Tyson Jost sealed it in the third.

McDavid had two assists and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 12 saves for his shutout.

”Everyone played hard and everyone played really responsible, so a good momentum for us,” Kuemper said.

Gregory Hofmann, Enzo Corvi, Ramon Untersander, Kevin Fiala Simon Moser had a goal apiece for the Swiss. France replied with one from Guillaume Leclerc.

Also, Slovakia beat already relegated Belarus 7-4 in their last game.

Penguins – Capitals nastiness boils over in Letang – Oshie fight

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Following two controversial Tom Wilson hits and a controversial three-game suspension, it was fair to wonder if tensions might boil over between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4.

Both teams were wise to generally keep their emotions in check, too, as special teams factored into three of the four goals in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win (the Penguins went 2-for-4 while the Capitals went 1-for-3). Now, you can discount Jake Guentzel‘s second goal of Game 4 since it was an empty-netter on the power play, but either way … these teams showed that they can make opponents pay for going to the penalty box. At least, without taking an opposing player with them.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The latter situation emerged with a bit less than a minute remaining in Game 4. After some tense exchanges, Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie engaged in an angry-looking fight. It didn’t last very long, but it was quite the spectacle, as you won’t see many fights during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Looking at the Hockey Fights listings for Letang and Oshie provides some interesting additional context for this bout, which you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

To little surprise, neither high-skill player is all that likely to drop the gloves. Still, they both have shown a willingness to fight on occasion, including during postseason play. Oshie fought Brayden Schenn during the 2016 postseason, while Letang is credited with three postseason bouts before this tiff, although the last one came the postseason of 2011-12.

With the series now tied 2-2, it’s likely that we’ll see some testy moments now that things boil down to a best-of-three. You can bet that Oshie and Letang will work – and fight? – hard to try to get the last laugh once it’s over.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.