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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.

Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Caps face elimination; Sweden claims gold at Worlds

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It’s do-or-die time for the Washington Capitals tonight in Game 6. [NHL.com]

• It’s not going to be another Capitals choke job, is it? [National Post]

• How missing the playoffs last spring helped the Tampa Bay Lightning make another trip to the Eastern Conference Final. [Tampa Bay Times]

Ryan Callahan had quite a performance for the Lightning in Game 5. [Sportsnet]

• George McPhee believed in his Vegas Golden Knights all along. [Review-Journal]

Paul Stastny knew he made the right choice to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Winnipeg Jets. He enjoyed his time there so much he’s open to re-signing. [Winnipeg Free Press]

Filip Forsberg‘s shootout goal helped Sweden has capture gold at the IIHF World Championship for the second straight year. [IIHF]

Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues saw his time at the World Championship end early with a shoulder injury. He should be fine for training camp, the Blues say. [Post-Dispatch]

• The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets will play in next season’s Kraft Hockeyville preseason game in Clinton, New York. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Will giving states the option to legalize gambling in the U.S. mean the end of “upper/lower-body injury” distinctions? [USA Today]

• Rick Tocchet is determined to get his Arizona Coyotes into the playoffs next season. [Arizona Sports]

• Daniel Alfredsson talks about his new life now as a hockey dad. [Sportsnet]

• A look at the future of the Carolina Hurricanes up front. [Section 328]

• Congrats to the Fargo Force for winning the 2018 USHL Clark Cup. [USHL]

• Interesting interview with former NHL ref Rob Martell about the officating in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [Weiss Hockey]

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Wednesday night as the St. Louis Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

St. Louis Blues
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko
Patrik BerglundKyle BrodziakAlex Steen
Dmitrij JaskinVladimir SobotkaTage Thompson
Ivan BarbashevOskar SundqvistChris Thorburn

Joel EdmundsonAlex Pietrangelo
Vince DunnColton Parayko
Chris Butler – Roberto Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

[NHL on NBCSN: Blues need to pick up valuable points against Blackhawks]

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET]

Chicago Blackhawks
Brandon SaadNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane
Dylan SikuraVictor EjdsellAlex DeBrincat
Tomas JurcoArtem AnisimovAndreas Martinsen
Patrick SharpDavid KampfVincent Hinostroza

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook
Erik GustafssonConnor Murphy
Jordan Oesterle – Blake Hillman

Starting goalie: J.F. Berube

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.