Doug Armstrong did not consider saying goodbye to David Backes and Troy Brouwer and trading Brian Elliott an enjoyable exercise.
Backes was St. Louis’s captain. Brouwer, acquired the year before from Washington for T.J. Oshie, punched in 18 goals while dressing in 82 regular-season games. Elliott posted a .930 save percentage, the best mark in the league of any goalie appearing in at least half of his team’s games.
Armstrong’s roster, however, had progressed to the threshold where difficult decisions were required. Backes is 32. Brouwer turns 31 on Aug. 17. The 31-year-old Elliott was splitting time with 25-year-old Jake Allen. The Blues have younger players improving and lining up for raises. Calgary, desperate for a starting goalie, was willing to pay the price.
So a team that hit the wall in the Western Conference finals now finds itself in a state of transition that was not only required, but one that might leave it refreshed for another dash through the Central Division minefield.
“The time that I’ve been here with David, we’ve had five really good regular seasons and four really disappointing playoffs,” Armstrong said. “Last year’s playoffs, I certainly wouldn’t call them disappointing. They weren’t the ultimate goal. But it was a move in the right direction. I thought with last year’s team, we extended that window all the way through last year. With that group, I didn’t feel we’d be able to bring everybody back, just because of the age of the players and what we were doing. That was the year, and I thought the guys took great advantage of it.”
Some of Armstrong’s counterparts may not have been positioned to let such talent go, regardless of their age. The depth of St. Louis’s roster allowed Armstrong to move on.
An excellent first NHL season for Robby Fabbri (18-19—37) was enough for Armstrong to project the skilled wing as a dependable, long-term, top-six contributor. Ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka, who fled for the KHL the last two seasons, intends to return stateside in 2016-17. Existing infrastructure includes a game-breaker in Vladimir Tarasenko, a very good complementary scorer in Jaden Schwartz, a No. 1 defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo, and a blue-line revelation in 23-year-old Colton Parayko.
So what could have been a painful roster reset has been made less uncomfortable. The Blues hit on their picks: Pietrangelo (No. 4, 2008), Tarasenko (No. 16, 2010), Schwartz (No. 14, 2010), Parayko (No. 86, 2012), and Fabbri (No. 21, 2014). Their property matured, with parties such as Tim Taylor (director of player development), John Anderson (former AHL coach), Ken Hitchcock (coach), and Backes playing hand-holding roles.
Armstrong already paid Tarasenko ($7.5 million annually through 2021) and Pietrangelo ($6.5 million annually through 2020). He opened his wallet for Schwartz (five years, $26.75 million) on July 15, four days before his arbitration hearing. After trading Elliott to the Flames for a 2016 second-rounder (Jordan Kyrou) and a conditional 2018 third-rounder, Armstrong signed Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million extension.
Parayko, who has one more year on his entry-level contract, is next up, with a long-term extension likelier than a bridge deal. The Blues have time before Fabbri (two more years on entry level) lands his raise.
Armstrong does not have reservations about his young players’ talent. He cannot answer how his returning group will adapt to a room down three critical chain-pullers, including a former captain.
“It’s going to be an interesting case study on how quickly this group takes up the leadership,” Armstrong said. “Can they do it in September? Or does it take them a year? There’s certainly a faith that over time, they’re going to pick it up without any issue. Obviously you want them to pick it up as quickly as possible. We don’t want to take any backwards movement in our organization. But sometimes you do expose yourself to maybe taking half a step back to take a couple steps forward. It just seemed like with the commitments we want to make to a player like Schwartz — the one we made with Tarasenko, what we did with Jake Allen at 25-26 years old, Colton Parayko we think is a really good player — people get caught in the crosshairs. That’s the unfortunate side of the business.”
Armstrong’s leadership concern is magnified because of his coaching situation. Hitchcock will serve one more season before handing the keys to former Minnesota Wild boss Mike Yeo. It’s an unusual process for players to know that the demanding Hitchcock is at the end with his replacement standing at his side. Nobody can predict how the Blues will perform amid the transition.
But the franchise believes it has progressed from its legacy of one-and-done in the playoffs. The Blues are still smarting from the third-round loss to San Jose. But the returning players grew from their charge through Chicago, their perpetual nemesis, and Dallas.
“Thank God we went some distance last year,” Hitchcock said. “We didn’t get all the way, but we made some great strides. There was a big learning curve for all us, which was very good. That helped us a lot to be able to handle this transition. Second of all, they impacted players in a very professional manner, all three of them, that is really going to help us. I feel [Backes, Brouwer, and Elliott] benefited a little bit. But we benefited a lot.”
MANAGING QUITE WELL
Rangers’ Gorton didn’t get taken
Jeff Gorton had his hands tied. Every general manager knew the Rangers boss was facing restrictions as he tried to adjust his roster. Gorton had to deal with the departure of Keith Yandle, but also clear money to re-sign restricted free agents Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. On Friday, Kreider signed a four-year, $18.5 million extension and Hayes a two-year extension with a $2.6 million average annual value to avoid arbitration.
As such, Gorton was vulnerable to being robbed by a rival seeking to take advantage of his situation. Instead, Gorton made out quite well.
The Rangers lost a good offensive-minded center when they traded Derick Brassard and his $5 million average annual value to the Senators. The left-shot Brassard was a good complement to right-shot pivot Derek Stepan. Brassard was the team’s No. 2 scorer in 2015-16, recording 27 goals and 31 assists in 80 games while averaging 17:53 of ice time. Brassard was especially dangerous on the power play, where he was a dual threat to put the puck in the net (team-high eight goals) and dish it to his teammates (14 assists). The Rangers will miss Brassard, who is going home. Brassard hails from Hull, Quebec, just across the river from Ottawa. Brassard could be the disher needed to revive Bobby Ryan, the shoot-first winger without a 30-goal season since 2011-12.
But by sending out Brassard and a 2018 seventh-round pick, Gorton did well to demand Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 second-rounder in return. The right-shot center plays a different game than Brassard. Zibanejad is not as quick or shifty with the puck. But Zibanejad was a good No. 2 center in Ottawa behind Kyle Turris. In 81 games last season, Zibanejad scored 21 goals and 30 assists while logging 17:45 of ice time per appearance.
Brassard, who will turn 29 on Sept. 22, is close to a finished product. The 23-year-old Zibanejad still has room to grow into a puck-lugging, heavy, two-way center. Plus, Zibanejad is cheaper. He has one year remaining on his deal at $2.625 million annually. Brassard is signed for three more years at $5 million per season.
“The potential is there for more upside,” Gorton said during a conference call following the trade. “He’s just scratching the surface. At age 23, there’s not a lot of guys that have done what he’s done as far as score 20 before that age. I think since he’s come in, he’s gotten better every year.”
An offer Schaller couldn’t refuse
Tim Schaller has deep New England ties. He is from Merrimack, N.H. He played for the New England Junior Huskies in Tyngsboro. He was a four-year player at Providence College. A “Live Free or Die” tattoo makes its home on Schaller’s left arm.
So on July 1, when Bruins GM Don Sweeney was among Schaller’s suitors, the New Hampshire native informed agent Marc Levine that competing offers had little chance of standing up to playing for his hometown team.
“We had probably about 10-12 teams calling on one day,” Schaller recalled of the opening of free agency. “About halfway through the phone calls, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins called. At that moment, I almost told my agent, ‘Why take another phone call? Why not just say yes to the Bruins right away?’ It’s a good opportunity to have to play in Boston. All the numbers worked out perfectly to where it was impossible to say no to them.”
That Schaller is a local guy will not win him any bonus points in his fight to make the roster. The 6-foot-2-inch, 219-pound center will have to beat out several players to earn his $600,000 NHL payday, including former college teammate Noel Acciari. Schaller agreed to a one-year, two-way contract, indicating an assignment to Providence is not out of the question.
Acciari, one of Schaller’s primary rivals, promptly turned into a coaching staff favorite upon his promotion last season. Acciari had just one assist in 19 games, but he did not take long to win the bosses’ trust on defensive-zone faceoffs, shorthanded shifts, and five-on-five situations where his willingness to run over opponents earned him a spot in the regular rotation.
Yet Schaller believes his game has ripened to a point where he will be a bottom-six varsity contributor. Schaller spent most of last season in Rochester, Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, where he scored 12 goals and 14 assists in 37 games. In 17 games for the Sabres last season, Schaller scored one goal and two assists while averaging 8:19 of ice time. His workload included 1:10 per game of shorthanded duty. The Bruins have the help wanted sign out on the penalty kill following the departures of Loui Eriksson, Chris Kelly, Landon Ferraro, Joonas Kemppainen, and Max Talbot.
“You look at their depth chart,” Schaller said of studying the market pre-free agency. “Me being a centerman, you look at how many centermen they have, not only on the NHL team but prospects. You try to figure out what team is the best fit for you, teams that don’t have many prospects or things like that. Boston was a good fit. We think I’m better than the prospects, so we thought it was a good fit. Hopefully I can beat out a bunch of guys for a job.”
Right down the middle
On Wednesday, the same day Marcus Johansson was scheduled to have his arbitration case heard, the versatile center signed a three-year, $13.75 million extension with the Capitals, thereby avoiding what can be a prickly process. Johansson’s $4,583,333 average annual value is right between the numbers suggested by both sides. Johansson asked for $5.25 million annually, while the organization countered with $3.85 million, according to the Washington Post. The midpoint between the proposals would have been $4.55 million. Johansson’s AAV is just a tick over the number earned by Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million annually over six years), a player with whom Johansson shares a birthdate (Oct. 6, 1990). Johansson plays more of a complementary role than Kadri because of Washington’s stoutness at center with Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. But the Capitals considered Johansson worthy of a three-year extension because of his value as a third-line center, left wing when necessary, and power-play contributor.
Saving space for Vesey
The Bruins have approximately $66 million in salary committed toward their 2016-17 cap, including the buyout hit they must carry for Dennis Seidenberg. However, they have to build in space to account for Jimmy Vesey, the Harvard graduate they will pursue once he becomes an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15. Vesey will have a $925,000 annual cap hit regardless of where he signs his two-year, entry-level contract. But he will also have performance bonuses that are capped at $2.85 million annually. Vesey could earn a maximum of $850,000 in Individual A bonuses, which include categories such as scoring at least 20 goals, 35 assists, or 60 points. The Hobey Baker winner is eligible to earn as much as $2 million in Individual B bonuses, which pertain to league performance and awards such as the Calder Trophy. Depending on his role, it’s possible that Vesey could earn a good portion of his eligible bonuses. As such, teams such as the Bruins will be cautious about approaching the ceiling and risking a bonus overage.
Practice plans are all mapped out
Claude Julien will be part of an All-Star coaching group for Canada during the World Cup. The Bruins coach will join forces with Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, Barry Trotz, and Bill Peters. But while his counterparts are working with existing infrastructure on their NHL teams, Julien has two first-year assistants on his staff: Bruce Cassidy and Jay Pandolfo. As such, Bruins camp will be unusual with Julien possibly gone until early October. So Julien and his staff spent part of the summer scripting preseason practices and underscoring objectives they want to fulfill during his absence.
Cap savings due in Pittsburgh
Even after convincing Justin Schultz to take a pay cut, the Penguins have more financial surgery ahead. Schultz, who was coming off a one-year, $3.9 million contract with Edmonton, agreed to a one-year, $1.4 million show-me deal with Pittsburgh on July 13. The Penguins are more than $2 million over the $73 million ceiling. They have until the start of the regular season to cap compliance. If a team builds in a cushion and exercises patience, it could benefit from Pittsburgh’s need to shed salary. The Islanders pulled this off before the start of 2014-15 by acquiring Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk from teams that were desperate to move cash.
Kyle Palmieri got the nod on Wednesday to replace Ryan Callahan on Team USA’s roster for the World Cup. The right wing is coming off a career year in 2015-16, punching in 30 goals and adding 27 assists. Phil Kessel would have been a candidate to replace Callahan (hip surgery), but the ex-Bruin underwent hand surgery following Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run, which hurt his chances for World Cup nomination . . . Massachusetts Hockey, in collaboration with the Boston Bruins Foundation, will offer free parent workshops to members this upcoming season. The workshops are run by the Positive Coaching Alliance . . . The Bruins will keep close eyes on Anders Bjork, their fifth-round pick in 2014. As a Notre Dame sophomore, Bjork developed into a point-per-game player (12-23—35 in 35 games) after scoring 22 points as a freshman. If the left-shot forward makes a similar jump as a junior, it’s possible he could be ready to turn pro before his senior season. Bjork has good hands in tight . . . The Boston Pride of the NWHL will play at Warrior Ice Arena, the Bruins’ new practice facility, in 2016-17. The arena seats 660 fans. The Pride’s former home was Harvard’s Bright Center . . . Harvard graduate Alex Killorn agreed to a seven-year extension. Given the rapid rate of tenant turnover in Harvard Square, fellow Cantabrigians would kill for such security.
Auston Matthews became the seventh US-born player to be drafted first overall. With 54 other Americans also selected, including the most first-rounders (12) for the United States in one draft, Matthews will have many challengers vying to be remembered as the top American to be drafted in 2016. Among the previous six USborn No. 1 picks, only half can claim a similar honor.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.