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Kim Pegula: Jason Botterill returning as Sabres’ GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has ownership’s backing to return for a fourth season despite overseeing a team that will miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year, team president and co-owner Kim Pegula told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Acknowledging the decision might be unpopular among some fans, Pegula said she and her husband, Terry, are confident in the job the GM has done. And while the plan all along was to retain Botterill before the NHL season was paused in March because of the pandemic, Pegula said it is even more important to do so now given the continuity he provides entering an uncertain and extended offseason.

“He’s our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said in a Zoom interview.

“I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

That doesn’t mean the Pegulas are satisfied, given the Sabres finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and couldn’t even qualify for the NHL’s expanded playoff format featuring the top 12 teams in each conference. The Sabres’ playoff drought is the league’s longest active streak.

“Believe me, I don’t think anyone knows the frustrations more than Terry and I do,” Pegula said. “Coach and Jason know they’ve got to show not only us, but they’ve got to show it to the fans. And they know that. They understand that.”

The Sabres’ offseason officially began with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the league was going forward with the expanded playoff format. With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo missed out on qualifying by the slimmest of margins: Montreal clinched the East’s final berth with 71 points in 71 games (.500), just ahead of Buffalo, which had 68 points in 69 games (.493).

The order could have been switched had the season not been postponed March 12, when the Sabres were in Montreal preparing to play the Canadiens.

Pegula backed the NHL’s playoff format, even though it cost the Sabres.

“Listen, we should’ve won another game or two back in the day. We didn’t. So that’s no fault of any other club. That’s on us,” she said. “Although I don’t like the way it concluded, but it’s the best thing for the league to conclude the season.”

Botterill and the Pegulas became the focus of fan criticism over the course of a season in which the Sabres experienced numerous peaks and valleys under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.

After getting off to a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres then went 2-8-2. The Sabres lost six in a row before a 3-2 shootout win over Washington on March 9, their final game.

The Sabres showed signs of playing with more structure and efficiency under Krueger, and yet still encountered stretches of inconsistency as a result of poor goaltending and a lack of secondary scoring.

Led by captain Jack Eichel’s career-best 36 goals, he, Sam Reinhart and rookie Victor Olofsson accounted for 78 of Buffalo’s 193 goals scored. Forward Jeff Skinner struggled in a second-line role by finishing with 14 goals and 23 points a season after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract.

The Sabres featured a lineup with an over-abundance of defensemen, even after the team terminated the contract of Zach Bogosian and traded Marco Scandella to Montreal.

Botterill enters an offseason in which he can finally begin reshaping a roster of over-priced and under-performing players. The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potentially constrict due to lost revenue.

In Botterill’s defense, he inherited a disjointed mix of a team put together by his predecessor, Tim Murray. The Sabres farm system also lacked NHL-ready depth as a result of a series of poor drafts and questionable trades.

Botterill still made several missteps, starting with his first coaching hire of Phil Housley, who was fired two seasons into his tenure.

Botterill has also taken a brunt of criticism for getting little in return in trading unhappy center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in July 2018.

Neither of the three skaters acquired by Buffalo in the trade have made much of an impact at the NHL level. Forward Patrik Berglund abruptly left the Sabres a few months into his first season and had his contract terminated by the team.

What is the Blues’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the St. Louis Blues.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Outside of top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who would be the top free agent available this summer, pretty much every key player on the Blues’ roster is signed (or under team control) through the end of next season.

Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko are the two most impactful forwards on the roster and both have long-term deals through the end of the 2022-23 season at a combined salary cap number of $15 million. As long as they maintain their current levels of play (Tarasenko being a 30-35 goal winger; O’Reilly being a dominant two-way center) they are going to be the foundation of a contending team at a pretty fair price against the cap.

Things do get a little more complicated after next season when forwards Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, and Tyler Bozak, as well as BOTH goalies (Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen) will all be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou also provide some nice long-term potential at forward, with Thomas being especially intriguing. The team’s first-round pick (No. 20 overall) in 2017 has already shown flashes of top-line ability and is one of their best play-making forwards at even-strength. Still only 20 years old, big things could be in his future. He still has one more season after this one on his entry-level deal. Given how good he has already been, the potential he still has, and his current contract status he could be one of the Blues’ most valuable assets next season.

On defense, Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, Marco Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo are all signed to long-term deals, while Dunn is still under team control as a restricted free agent after this season.

Overall, it remains a top-tier team in the NHL in the short-term and should still be a Stanley Cup contender.

Long-Term Needs

Getting Pietrangelo re-signed would probably be at the top of the list.

He is their captain, their top defenseman, and if he leaves they do not really have another option to take over that role. With Parayko, Faulk, Dunn, and Bortuzzo there would still be a solid defense there, but none of those players really fills the No. 1 defender spot. It is also unlikely — if not impossible — they would be able to find anyone comparable to Pietrangelo on the open market.

Scott Perunovich is probably their top prospect, and he does have a lot of potential on the blue line, but he has yet to play a game of professional hockey and is a long way off from being able to fill a top-pairing or meaningful role.

Beyond that, their farm system as a whole is not the strongest and they have some fairly significant free agents over the next two years that they will need to do with — including the two goalies.

Long-Term Strengths

In the more immediate future they have an outstanding goalie with Binnington and Allen in place, and that is also probably the one position in their farm system that has some potential long-term options.

Their biggest strength, though, is simply the players they have at the top of their lineup.

Acquiring O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres before the 2018-19 season has turned out to be an enormous win for the organization. Not only because it gave them a bonafide No. 1 center that could drive play at both ends of the ice, but because it cost them almost nothing of consequence to get him. He scores at a top-line rate, is a sensational defensive player, and plays big, tough minutes against other team’s best players while being able to stay out of the penalty box. At a $7.5 million salary cap hit that is an enormous bargain.

Then there is Tarasenko.

He has been one of the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorers for the past six years and can be a game-changing talent when he is on the ice. The Blues did not really get a chance to experience much of that this season due to injury, but he is a star and might be the one player on this roster that might (emphasis on might) have Hall of Fame potential if he continues on his current path.

MORE Blues:
Looking at the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues
Blues biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the St. Louis Blues.

St. Louis Blues

Record: 42-19-10 (71 games), first in the Central Division, first in the Western Conference
Leading Scorer: Ryan O'Reilly – 60 points (12 goals and 48 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Justin Faulk and a 2020 fifth-round pick from the Carolina Hurricanes for Joel Edmundson, Dominik Bokk and a 2021 seventh-round pick.
• Traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings for Jacob De La Rose.
• Acquired Marco Scandella from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

Season Overview:

If you expected the Blues to be battling a Stanley Cup hangover, you were wrong.

The defending champions have put together another impressive season in 2017-28. Not bad for a team that was bashing bodies on the ice until June. And it’s not like they didn’t have to face a little adversity along the way either.

For starters, sniper Vladimir Tarasenko went down after just 10 games (he collected 10 points in those contests). He had scored at least 33 goals in each of his previous five seasons. Losing that much offense would hurt any team, but the Blues found a way to keep pushing.

Did you expect the clock the strike midnight on Jordan Binnington?

Well, that didn’t really happen either. Sure, he didn’t replicate the incredible numbers he had last season, but he still found a way to help the Blues get to the top of the Western Conference standings. At the pause, he had a 30-13-7 record with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage.

St. Louis’ key to success isn’t dependant on one player. So they can lose a Tarasenko and Binnington’s play can dip a little and they won’t miss a beat. This is a club that is reliant on their overall depth.

Their leading scorer, Ryan O’Reilly, has 60 points through 70 games. That’s not a remarkable amount for a team leader, but the numbers being posted by some of the players around him are pretty impressive.

David Perron (59 points), Brayden Schenn (57 points), Jaden Schwartz (57 points) and Alex Pietrangelo (52 points) all have at least 50 points. That’s pretty balanced. Had Tarasenko been healthy, he likely would’ve been right near the top of the leaderboard in this category, too.

The Blues, unlike a lot of the other top teams, don’t get the job done with one or two elite players. Head coach Craig Berube has something special here and it’s all about balanced scoring.

Now, there is a massive question mark heading into the off-season. Will they be able to retain Pietrangelo’s services? He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and it doesn’t look like they have the money under the cap to bring him back.

General manager Doug Armstrong has made some bold moves the years, but getting his captain to accept a deal that’s team-friendly enough will be tricky.

Highlight of the Season:

There were so many memorable moments on and off the ice for the Blues in 2019-20, but the fact that they put together two eight-game winning streaks was so impressive.

MORE BLUES:
St. Louis Blues biggest surprises and disappointments
Blues’ long-term outlook

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Can Blues re-sign Pietrangelo after Scandella extension?

Can the Blues keep Alex Pietrangelo Marco Scandella Vince Dunn
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The hockey world is asking it once again: “Can the Blues really afford to keep Alex Pietrangelo?” The discussion re-emerged this week after the Blues signed Marco Scandella to a substantial contract extension.

Now, as St. Louis Game Time’s Dan Buffa argued, the Scandella extension doesn’t rule out the Blues re-signing Pietrangelo by itself.

Those questions get trickier when you zoom out and analyze GM Doug Armstrong’s overall plan. In attempting to be proactive, could Armstrong overthink things and see one or more of Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn leave town?

This post explores the uncertainty surrounding this situation, and how St. Louis might find ways to work around limitations.

The perils of being proactive: Blues possibly losing Pietrangelo or Dunn?

Armstrong is clearly trying to plan ahead. Consider the extensions Armstrong handed out while the Pietrangelo question dangled in the distance:

Between Faulk (28) and Scandella (30), you’re paying nearly $10M. You’d think that would be the higher end of what Pietrangelo might receive during these uncertain times. Locking down those two makes it tougher to argue that the Blues are merely being smart about the aging curve regarding 30-year-old Pietrangelo.

Fascinatingly, with all of the uncertainty regarding the potential cap ceiling for 2020-21 and maybe beyond, it’s possible the Blues could (or could’ve?) sign Pietrangelo for a risk-reducing shorter term.

The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford argued as much in a recent mailbag (sub required):

[Pietrangelo] was likely in line for a long-term extension in the range of $9 million per year, but that might not be possible with the Blues or with any other team. He might have no other option than to take a shorter-term contract now and position himself for a long-term deal later, when the cap rises again.

Losing Dunn could stun

Later in this post, we’ll discuss ways the Blues can earn space to retain Pietrangelo, even if the ceiling caps at $81.5M again or even slips. But something eventually has to give, and it could really sting if the Blues must wave goodbye to pending RFA Vince Dunn.

Dunn, 23, is younger than both Faulk and Scandella, and could conceivably show even more if given greater opportunities. Consider how Dunn compares to Faulk on this RAPM chart via Evolving Hockey (Dunn generally looks better than Scandella as well, though not as drastically):

Blues Pietrangelo Dunn vs. Faulk

Personally, it’s difficult for me to shake the concern that the Blues locked down useful but not essential players (Scandella, Faulk on better days) and nice yet maybe not as important ones (Schenn) instead of keeping a crucial one in Pietrangelo. An opportunistic team would be wise to try to pry Dunn away when there’s room for the blueliner to grow into an even more useful player.

Much of it smells like a team that assumes things are going to work out.

Could Armstrong have tricks up his sleeves to keep Pietrangelo?

And that’s where I wonder if Armstrong has a Plan B, or maybe through Plan Z.

Looking back over the years, we’ve wondered how, say, the Lightning could keep their big names. They always seemed to find the deals, and often convince players to take less money than expected.

Armstrong’s been able to pull rabbits out of his GM hat on plenty of occasions, too. Such a thought strengthens the retort many have: “Just assume Armstrong knows what he’s doing.”

And, yes, there are some options.

  • What if the league works out a compliance buyout? As Jonathan Willis explored for The Athletic (sub required), that could be a way for teams like the Blues to shake loose of players like Alex Steen ($5.75M AAV).
  • Failing that, the Blues could bribe a budget team to take on that Steen cap hit, or do the same for Tyler Bozak and his $5M AAV.
  • Jake Allen played so well in 2019-20 that it might be tough to part ways with a goalie insurance policy. Still, at $4.35M and coming off of that strong year, some team might want to give Allen a shot.

As you can see, the Blues could wiggle their way out of a jam or two with the above moves. Maybe they’d manage that enough to keep Pietrangelo and Dunn around, even if it’s on shorter deals?

Who knows, really?

I can’t help but wonder if the Blues hurt their margin of error a little more than they should have here. Then again, if the Blues keep another big name in Pietrangelo, they’d also have depth locked down.

Considering all that could change between now and free agency, maybe we’re the ones overthinking things about the Blues and Pietrangelo, actually?

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 agree to terms with Scandella on $13.1M, four-year deal

ST. LOUIS — The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues made another move to fortify their future blue line by agreeing to terms Thursday with defenseman Marco Scandella on a four-year contract extension.

The deal is worth $13.1 million – an annual salary-cap hit of $3.275 million through the 2023-24 season. Scandella played 11 games with St. Louis and recorded one assist before the NHL paused its season March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Scandella, 30, was the most recent addition for the Blues, who acquired him from Montreal in February before the trade deadline. General manager Doug Armstrong acquired Justin Faulk from Carolina in the offseason and signed the right-shot defenseman to a $45.5 million, seven-year contract.

The future of captain Alex Pietrangelo remains up in the air. Pietrangelo is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season and will likely command a raise from his current $7.5 million salary.

To extend Scandella beyond this season, the Blues are sending a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Canadiens to complete the trade that already included a 2020 second-rounder.

Signing Scandella gives the Blues some security on the left side of their defense. He has 42 goals and 95 assists for 137 points in 580 regular-season games with Minnesota, Buffalo, Montreal and St. Louis.

Scandella was a second-round pick of the Wild in 2008 and has skated in 39 Stanley Cup playoff games.