ST. LOUIS -- Blues general manager Doug Armstrong in recent past entered closing sessions with the media disappointed and and at times, upset at the team's showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, particularly in 2013 and 2014 when the team held 2-0 series leads, and again in 2015 when they lost to upstart Minnesota.
But not this time, not even after losing to the Nashville Predators in six games in the Western Conference Second Round.
The Blues were considered a team in transition after making it to the Western Conference Final in 2016 after losing David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott to free agency and trading goalie Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames.
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Not many expected the Blues to repeat their performance of a season ago, and some didn't expect them to be among the Western Conference's top eight and miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
What the Blues showed was the transition period was accelerated and moving towards 20-17-18, there's a clearer view of where this team can be.
Armstrong shared his thoughts on the season, what lies in store moving ahead and various topics as the Blues wrapped up the 2016-17 campaign:
What are your thoughts on the Nashville series?
I thought Games 4, 5 and 6 were the most complete games we played. I thought those could have gone either way. I think those are two evenly-matched teams. I think going in, there was no favorite or underdog in that series. They were able to manufacture a timely goal that we couldn't manufacture this year.
Obviously because we had trouble scoring, our special teams were magnified and they had the advantage in that area. But with that being said, I was very impressed with our determination to stay in games when we got behind, our determination to stay on task. I said to Mike, our goal will never change to win a Stanley Cup, but I've sat here in front of you guys a few times feeling we left a lot of things on the table that we didn't clean up.
I felt this year we were competitive with Nashville, they were with us, someone had to win and lose that series. Obviously I think we were good enough to win the series, but it's not like I felt we under-performed, where in the past I felt we haven't met our own potential. I thought this team, if they didn't max out, they were close and I think shows you how close the NHL is because I think Nashville has a chance to win the Cup. So, I think we're in a good spot, but I feel much more at ease knowing that these guys are guys I think we can win with in the future.
With all the talk of transition and the players you lost coming in, the in-season coaching change, trading Shattenkirk late, in the big picture, can you be happy with what this team accomplished?
I think we believe we're going in a different direction and a direction we're excited about. But we don't want to lose sight, our goal is always to win and win a championship. I thought we did take a step forward. I certainly understand the desire to keep the band together as long as possible and to push it forward, but I believe my responsibility to the ownership group is to give them a one-, three- and five-year plan, and then make short-, medium- and long-term decisions based on that.
I saw last year's team, quite honestly, as the ending of an era with a certain group. We were going to transition, whether (Brent) Seabrook goes post-to-post and in instead of post-to-post and out, and we win that series, or if we had won the Stanley Cup. I just think there has to be plans that go past what you're competitive heart is telling you to do for that specific time. So, with that being said, at the end of the year, I'm pleased with how we got to where we are today.
For me personally, my second organization, this is the most turbulent year that I've ever been a part of as a manager. I've been fortunate enough where I thought our valleys were two- or three-game losing streaks and you end up comfortably with 100-plus points and you look back and say it wasn't as bad as you thought it was. This year felt like a long year. I think I mentally prepared myself for it in the summer, but I've never been through it to this level.
It was tasking, it was tasking on me personally obviously with Ken (Hitchcock). But also when I look back on that decision to give Mike the reins, I think was really good. We're excited about where we are going forward and really excited about some of these young players that we have coming. That doesn't mean anything unless they start to reach their potentials, too.
I see a team that has (Ivan) Barbashev, a (Zach) Sanford, a (Robby) Fabbri in their lineup. Now if they don't do their work in the summer and they're not there, shame on them. I see the potential for some of these young defensemen that are playing in Chicago right now to push. But if they don't do the work, shame on them. And Mike and I shared with the veterans that you better be prepared because they're coming to take your job and I'm hoping these veterans prepare to repel them. That's internal competition and I think that's what makes an organization the strongest is when you have internal competition and that's what we're trying to regain here.
Do you know what your identity with this team is now?
"I think our identity is ... one of the owners I worked with, Bob (Gainey in Dallas) said 'we just want to get a little bit younger, a little bit cheaper and a little bit better.' He said, 'we can do two of the three.' We transitioned into the younger and younger means more mistakes. I knew it was coming, I didn't know what it was going to look like and it was hard, it was hard.
But we do have an identity. I think this game is built with speed, I think it's built with skill, I think that it's built with youth, I think it's transcending .... what I do see though is team's with big defense, it's a plus. So I like the make-up of our team. If we could get a 6-4 player at 225, the same skill set as a 5-9 guy at 185, we'll take the former. But you sort of have to take the players that are available and I like the make up of our team.
Could we be a little heavier at different times? Sure. Do you lose a little bit when you're that? But I see us transitioning into the team that we thought we were going to be last summer. I think we're a step closer and I think that's a winning formula for this NHL.
Do you need outside help; how active do you expect to be this summer?
Well, I think the first is going to be the expansion draft. We're going to go with (protect) one goaltender, three defensemen and seven forwards. So, we'll be talking to Vegas the first part of June on what they want to do. Who we're going to protect.
I think it's not only what we're going to protect, but what other teams are going to make available. I think they're could be a flurry of activities. If we can add outside sources there, we can do that. Internally we only have one unrestricted free agent. So, a lot of the players that are here are either on this team or with the Chicago Wolves right now, we're not going to have a lot of holes outside of that one unrestricted free agent. So if we can improve our team via trade, the old stock line, we always look at it, blah, blah, blah ... but I think the core of this group is going to be the core that we're going to move forward with.
Any updates with Injuries?
I got a long list yesterday. We have nothing that's really that serious. I think six weeks is going to cure a lot of what the guys have going on. Alex Steen was probably the one that was playing with the greatest discomfort with a broken bone in his foot. And then Murphy's Law, he also got a slap shot in the same foot in a different area. He battled through stuff.
I think (Nail) Yakupov had surgery in the first round that was going to keep him out another probably four weeks, so he would have been a potential player in the Finals. Other than that, I don't think there's any more surgeries that we know of today. Guys are getting MRIs on some things, but it doesn't seem like there's going to be a lot that's going to prevent these guys from training quickly enough to be prepared for next season.
Level of concern about Tarasenko injury/surgery? How would you rate your level of concern there?
Zero. Mike and I met with Vladi today. I think there's a little bit lost in the transition from the Russian agent to the Russian coach to the Russian media how it came across. I'll tell you, I saw it yesterday, too, and I was wondering. I called him and he just said, No, I've got issues, but nothing that's going to need surgery.' We're working on his issues. He's a big man that plays big minutes that goes against the other team's most physical top players. So I'm not shocked he's not feeling great today.
Is Robby Fabbri on track?
Yes, he should be ready for training camp. It's a huge summer for Robby. I think those are one of those life lessons, I'm hoping, and we're going to ask Robby to share with those young guys ... he had a great year last year and I think he might have taken his foot off the gas a little bit in the summer and it took him (until) October, November before he got his footing. I hope he can share that with some of these other guys that this league waits for nobody and you better prepare. I know Robby learned a good lesson on that.
What's the legacy of this team?
My thought on that would be ... when we knew we were in this meeting last year, we knew there were final words being written on a chapter, and now we're just on page one or two of a whole new chapter. This team showed us a lot, but it was a foundation all year where we started to build some things and now what we have to do is make sure we've learned from our mistakes, learned from what we were good at and move forward so there's not as much finality because we have one unrestricted free agent this year. There's not as much question of who's going to be asked to do the job. We all know who the guys are going to be asked to do the job now. They're in there now, they've been told they're going to be asked to do the job and be held accountable to it. It's more of a continuation this year of Mike's building a foundation that we can add to, then starting a new foundation.
Looking longterm, is Sanford a center?
I'm going to defer to the coach on that one.
Is there still a need to upgrade the center position?
I think it's a really important spot in the NHL. I think your teams are built through the middle of the ice -- goaltenders, defense, center ice. We saw glimpses from different players this year of really good play and we saw glimpses of play that we need better from.
I'd like to get consistency with the group that's here. But it's ... finding that big center is like finding Sasquatch, they're hard to locate. We're never going to stop trying, but you look at the free agent pool that's out there this year, and it is a rob Peter to pay Paul league, so I want that center ... OK, here's that piece going (in a trade), and then OK now I need that piece.
It's not the good old days back in the 90s when all you had to do was go tap on the owner's shoulder and say another $6 of $7 (million) please and he'd give it to you and you'd go get that center. It doesn't work that way anymore. You've got to work under a cap. But we're always going to try and improve our team. I do think center ice is a huge position for any team.
Lehtera said he was very disappointed in his season; he thought of why things didn't work out for him. How he can bounce back and be a player that we saw a couple years ago?
I think he can bounce back. I think we're going to have to talk to him about his ... what's he done the last two summers and what can we help him to do different to be a good player. When that decision was made to give him an extension, he had played one year in the league, he had close to 50 points, he was 27-28, it looked like a no-brainer at the time.
We had Backes who was going to be an unrestricted free agent, we had him who was going to be an unrestricted free agent, he had synergy with Tarasenko, and he had produced. It wasn't like he had had eight points and we were trying to ... I just thought you're going to get a 50-point player for the next three or four years. If he gets to 60-65, awesome, but he's not going to go quite honestly to where he is right now.
So, we have to work with him to get him better, but he has to get better and it's our responsibility to help him though. Like, that's the exciting part of the coaches and the management is that we're here to help these guys whether it's strength and conditioning or style of play or whatever. But if they meet us half way, we'll be there to help him.
Can you explain what Alexander Steen did playing on a broken foot, what it says about him and the love these guys have for each other?
I've been fortunate now to be here nine or 10 years and we all hear the Bobby Plager stories, but the one that I think Alex Steen hurt was ... he played for the crest. If we can get more guys to play for the crest, the sky's the limit.
Why do you think David Perron's game didn't translate from the regular season to the playoffs?
That's something that again, it is fresh. Mike will continue to look at tapes, I'll dig in a little bit more with Mike on some of that stuff. One of the things that I admired for David of his first stint here was his playoff participation. He had Jonathan Quick tied up in knots. We didn't get past him, but he was able to disrupt the flow of the game with his tenacity and for whatever reason, whether he couldn't find the right matchups or he couldn't find the right mojo this year, he didn't have that same effect. But he's still a young man and he's another guy that is at that part of his career where he's going to have to re-evaluate his training regime. He's going to have to re-evaluate how he looks at preparing to play because the game is getting younger, faster, quicker, and maybe some of the things that he's done in the past that are just ingrained -- well, I did this at 18. Well, maybe you don't do it at 28 or 29. So again, that's when Mike and the strength and conditioning coach and the organization want to work with these guys, but there has to be a different level there. To answer your question, if I had known a reason earlier, I would have shared it with him.
Is Parayko a guy you'd like to get done sooner rather than later?
Yes. He's a little bit different than most players coming out of their entry-level because he can select salary arbitration and we can't. His contract will be done by the first part of August, one way or the other.
Is Parayko a guy you'd try to get something done long term as opposed to bridge deal?
I want to sit down with him and his agent, see what's important to him also. I believe he's a cornerstone player we could go long term with if it works out economically with if it works out economically for him. Term-wise for us, there's a lot of moving parts and when we look at our one-, three-, five-year, it's going to be a much more openness as we move forward and with some of these players in their early 30s contracts expiring, there's a bigger chunk of change that's going to be there.
What we have to do, we'll be a cap team or very close to a cap team, and we've got to try to fit as many good pieces in there. He's here long term whether it's long term on shorter deals or long term on one deal. He's a cornerstone.
Was it a gamble bringing in Sobotka that late in the season?
No, I've tried that for a few years actually. Knowing the character of the man ... all cards on the table, I went to our leadership group and made sure they were acceptable of him coming at this time. He left here as a great character guy and he came back as a great character guy. It was a business decision on all sides, but I was excited to have him come back.
One of the things I give our ownership group a lot of credit for, they hung in with us to hang in there with him. We could have wheeled him for a second-round pick multiple times, but I just felt that the value was greater than that. I'm glad we did that. I'm glad he's here, I'm glad he's here for three more years. I learned some lessons about how to deal with some of this stuff. Maybe I'll try and get more creative at different times.
At the time you're dealing with the cards you have in front of you. We were going to be tight to the cap, probably ... my feeling at the time was, the CBA's in place for a reason, and you're not an unrestricted free agent until it says you are and we're not going to pay you like that before. Maybe my inflexibility and lack of creativity might have hurt us at that point. I'm going to make mistakes as we move forward, trust me, and I'm going to just try to learn from them.
Can you address the way Allen bounced back and your conviction of moving forward with him as the franchise's No. 1 goalie?
I think when we made that decision last year, I had Marty up there that I talked to, Jimmy Corsi who I have a lot of respect for felt he had the talent to be a No. 1 goalie. The question going in was he's going to be a No. 1 goalie without a safety net. I thought he showed some great strides early, I thought he struggled for a little bit. I thought we had a one-game reset or whatever term Mike came up with that day. Then a coaching change and he took off. So we see the talent, the character.
One of the things that again I appreciate again from ownership and from Mike is the willingness to hang in there when things aren't going good. Not him throw him under the bus, have his support, and he paid us all back with big, big dividends and I thank him for that. Now the challenge now to Jake is, we know you can do it, if you want to be a Stanley Cup winning goalie, it's to work with and talk to Marty about how he prepared every day to get that done.
I'm excited we have him, I'm excited we have him under four more years of contract, I don't have to deal with that as an unrestricted free agent next year at this time. When we talked about ups and downs of the season, that was another one I hadn't been through in a while and I'm really happy for Jake and we're going to put a lot of responsibility on Jake going forward now.
Will you hire a new goalie coach?
Yes, Marty's coaching career is coming to a halt. (Yeo joking: He wasn't fired, just for the record.)
Will Marty have a hand on new goalie coach hiring?
Marty's going to take the lead on that in the sense that he knows Jake's personality. ... We're not going to just let Jake pick the goalie coach but Marty knows what makes him tick and we're going to try to find the attributes of a goalie coach that can help Jake. But we've also got (Ville) Husso coming, we've got 'Hutts' here, we're going to get an organizational guy, but focused on what's going to give Jake the chance to have the best success.
Any other changes with coaching staff?
Mike and I really haven't sat down and talked about that. A lot of the guys I think are on one-year deal in there – they're all on one year deals. I thought everyone did a fantastic job this year but we haven't gotten that far down the path on that.