Two days after Christmas, the St. Louis Blues announced a four-year contract extension of general manager Doug Armstrong, whose current contract was set to end at the end of this season. Armstrong joined the Blues front office in 2008 as the Director of Player Personnel. Then in the summer of 2010, former Blues GM Larry Pleau retired from the GM position to take a less significant role within the organization. It would then be announced that Doug Armstrong would take over as general manager. The saga had begun.
Since Armstrong took over in the 2010-11 season, the Blues have gone 348-194-58 in regular season play. That is actually a tremendous record, one of the best regular season records in the NHL during this stretch. Since Army took over as GM, the Blues have made the playoffs every season but Armstrong’s first season back in 2010-11. However, their playoff record in that span is 26-32. They have won four of the ten playoff series they have appeared in. The Blues made a push in the 2016 playoffs and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they were just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Other than that playoff run, the Blues have failed to make it passed the second round of the playoffs every season under Armstrong’s reign.
On the surface, with the regular season record and six straight playoff appearances, it seems as if Armstrong has done a decent job. But has it warranted a four-year extension? That question is surely up for some debate. Let’s dive into some of the good and bad of Armstrong’s tenure with the Blues.
Now I am not going to dissect every single trade Armstrong has orchestrated over the years, because we would be here for hours. Instead we are going to plunge into the very good and the very bad.
One of the first trades Armstrong made was franchise altering, though not many knew it at the time. The Blues traded former first round pick David Rundblad, who had just signed his entry level contract with the Blues to the Ottawa Senators for the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. With that pick, the Blues would select Vladimir Tarasenko. This trade turned out much better than anyone could have hoped for. Armstrong also turned around and the next day dealt lowly prospect David Warsofsky for Vladimir Sobotka, who has turned into a solid third liner throughout his somewhat strange of an NHL career.
After those two moves, Armstrong and the Blues stayed rather quiet in the trade market up until the trade deadline of the 2010-11 season. Armstrong dealt former number one overall pick Erik Johnson and third line grinder Jay McClement to the Colorado Avalanche in return for promising rookie Kevin Shattenkirk and former 20 goal scorer Chris Stewart who was having a down year. This seemed like a rather successful year one for Army despite missing the playoffs.
The Blues would make a few trades here and there but nothing significant for quite some time. At the trade deadline of the 2011-12 season, Armstrong traded goaltender and hometown kid Ben Bishop, who was still a prospect and a big what if at the time, to the Senators for a 2nd round draft pick. Bishop has since gone on to be a solid goaltender in the NHL and has the ability to be a top ten goalie when he is able to stay healthy.
Fast forward to the spring of the 2012-13 season. The lockout shortened the season to 48 games, and the Blues at this point in time were a proverbial lock to make the playoffs once again. The Blues offense was clicking, as they had six players tally 24 or more points in the 48 games. The defense was in question though. In an effort to shore up the back end, Armstrong went and made a few trades.
When it boils down to it, Armstrong acquired Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold (both in separate trades) for a 2013 first, second, fourth, and fifth round pick, along with two low end prospects. Armstrong highly overpaid and went all in for a playoff push. Later that season, the Blues would face the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs where they would jump out to a 2-0 series lead then drop four straight. So much for that.
The following summer, Armstrong would trade Kris Russell, who has turned into a decent and somewhat offensively gifted defenseman for nothing more than a 5th round draft pick. In an effort to shake up the locker room after another first round exit, Armstrong just days later traded David Perron to the Edmonton Oilers for former first rounder Magnus Paajarvi and a second-round pick. Paajarvi tallied just 39 points in 189 games over four and a half seasons with the Blues. Yikes. Perron was later brought back to St. Louis in free agency for the 2016-17 season where he would amass Paajarvi’s point total with the Blues in just one season, as he totaled 46 points.
Fast forward again to February of 2014. Armstrong made what turned out to be one of his biggest debacles of a trade in his short GM history. Armstrong and the Blues acquired goaltender Ryan Miller, who was fresh off of nearly leading the USA to the gold medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics, along with Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres. In exchange, the Blues gave up Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier, and a first and third-round pick. The Blues seemed to be making a playoff push once again, but were ousted in the first round, again, this time at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. They had again jumped out to a 2-0 series lead and dropped four straight. Déjà vu. Miller had a horrendous .897 SV% along with 2.70 GAA. Miller had allowed 19 goals over six games.
Near the trade deadline of the 2014-15 season, Armstrong dealt young promising defenseman Ian Cole, who always seemed to be on head coach Ken Hitchcock’s bad side no matter what, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Robert Bortuzzo. Bortuzzo has been a solid defenseman, but its been clear since that the Blues got the short end of the stick on that trade. Later on that season, the Blues would be eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the third straight season, despite winning the central division.
Armstrong sensed another locker room shakeup was needed. He in turn dealt T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley, and a third-round pick. There were mixed emotions as to who won the trade at first. Oshie had underperformed horrifically in the playoffs for the Blues, tallying just nine points in 30 playoff games as a top two-line guy for the Blues. The Blues got Brouwer, a proven playoff performer and former Stanley Cup Champion. Brouwer later had 13 points in 20 playoff games when the Blues made it to the WCF. But Brouwer signed with the Calgary Flames after that season and Oshie re-signed with the Caps, putting the trade at an easy loss for the Blues. To add insult to injury with Brouwer signing elsewhere, Armstrong and the Blues also failed to re-sign their captain of the last five seasons, David Backes.
The Blues again went for a while without an earth-shattering trade. They wanted Jake Allen to be their number one goaltender, so they dealt Brian Elliott to the Flames for a second-round pick that turned into high end prospect Jordan Kyrou and a future third-round pick back in the summer of 2016. Elliott has not exactly been stellar since his departure and has also signed elsewhere since, so it seems at least on the surface, that the Blues got the better end of the deal.
Near the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the Blues acquired Nail Yakupov for Zach Pochiro and a 3rd round pick. Yakupov did not pan out for the Blues, but really no one won this trade. The only other trade Army would make this season was to deal Kevin Shattenkirk to the Caps for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, and a first and second-round pick. Most people knew Shattenkirk did not plan to re-sign with the Blues the following summer, so this was the right move to make for the Blues.
Then on the night of the 2017 NHL Draft, Armstrong had arguably his best night ever. Armstrong traded Jori Lehtera and two future first round picks to the Philadelphia Flyers for proven forward Brayden Schenn. Armstrong really lucked out because he had given Lehtera a new contract with an AAV of almost $5M. Armstrong also dealt fourth liner Ryan Reaves to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for prospect Oskar Sundqvist and a draft pick that turned out to be Klim Kostin, who has tremendous upside. A very successful night for Armstrong and the Blues.
The Blues have not done much since, as they recently traded a fourth-round pick for Nikita Soshnikov. But it is still expected that the Blues will make a blockbuster move before the trade deadline on Monday.
Bad contracts are where Armstrong has made his reputation of being a bad GM. Again, I am not going to dive into every single contract Army has given out since 2010, but the main ones that are affecting the team today.
Armstrong has two of the best player on the Blues, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, signed for under a total of $13 million. That seems like a miracle. The Blues signed Colton Parayko to an extension which involved a $5.5M AAV. Not terrible. They also have Alex Pietrangelo, who has proven himself to be one of the better defensemen in the NHL, at just $6.5M a year, a lot less than what similar players of his talent are making.
However, the bad contracts far outweigh the good. After Bouwmeester was traded to the Blues back in 2013, Army re-signed Bouwmeester for five years, $27 million. The Blues signed him until he is 35 years old and are giving him $5.4 million a year. Bouwmeester is in the top 35 of cap hits by defenseman. Armstrong paid him way more than for what he brings to the table.
Alexander Steen has been an integral member of the Blues for quite some time now since being traded to the team long ago. Despite getting older, Steen is still productive in many facets of the game. But Armstrong signed Steen to an extension until he is 37 years old and is paying him nearly $5.8 million per year until then. That is just asinine.
Going down the line, Armstrong brought hometown guy Paul Stastny to the team back in 2014 via free agency. Stastny was given a four-year $28 million contract. His current cap hit is a mighty $7 million. Stastny was thought of to be a number one center when he was brought here but has not fully panned out as such. He again is being paid far more than what he brings to the table.
Patrik Berglund has been a career long Blue. He is in his tenth season with the team. However, Berglund has only tallied over 40 points in a season twice, back in 2008-09, his rookie season, and again in 2010-11. His highest point total in a season since is 38, and this is for a guy that has logged second line minutes most of his career. Another thing that has hurt Berglund is the fact that he has not been able to stay healthy throughout his career. But none of that stopped Doug Armstrong from giving Berglund an extension to pay him almost $4 million a year until 2022 which also involves a no trade clause.
There is another contract that bugs me but is often overlooked by most. That would be the contract of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Armstrong acquired Gunnarsson back in 2014 in exchange for Roman Polak. Gunnar was noted for his offensive skill before he was traded here, as he tallied double digit points for the Toronto Maple Leafs every season he had been in the league, which was five seasons. Gunnarsson tallied 12 points in his first season for the Blues, followed by a nine-point season the following year. Gunnarsson signed an extension in March of 2016. This new contract saw his AAV at close to $3M per year. Gunnarsson then put up just a six-point season in 2016-17 and thus far in the 2017-18 season has eight points. His AAV is quite a steep price for someone who is average at best and is not even a lock to make the starting lineup daily when the Blues have all of their defensemen healthy.
Last but not least, is the critically acclaimed contract of Vladimir Sobotka. At the beginning of the article, I mentioned how one of the first trades Armstrong made as GM was to acquire Sobotka. Sobotka was never anything more than a third-line center and has never been expected to be anything more than such. But after the 2013-14 season, amidst contract disputes with the Blues, Sobotka would decide to go play in the KHL for the next few seasons for more money.
Sobotka eventually came back and was signed to the Blues roster just before the playoffs last spring due to Paul Stastny being injured. Sobotka showed no loyalty to the Blues, but Armstrong showed plenty of loyalty to Sobotka, as he gave him a brand new three-year, $10.5M contract with an AAV of $3.5M. Don’t get me wrong, I think Sobotka is a good fit as a third-line center. He is a good faceoff man, even though the Blues hardly play him at the center position. He is a solid penalty killer. Sobe has even reached an NHL career high in goals with 10 this season and could potentially reach his NHL career high in points by the seasons end. He was a nice addition to the team; however, the price tag is far too high.
Armstrong has made some decent trades and some bad ones, just as every GM does. However, his inept contract negotiating skills have handcuffed this franchise over the years which has prevented them from serious contention. Sure, the playoffs are nice every year, but how great is it when you’re almost always ousted in the first, maybe the second round? Not exactly much. Patrik Berglund is the only player currently on the Blues that was on the team roster during the 2008-09 season when Armstrong joined the Blues front office. The current roster is practically entirely Armstrong’s making.
Before you come calling for my head in the comments of this article, let me say a few things. I understand that Doug himself is not actually out their playing, that winning is mostly on the players. I am also not sitting here playing armchair GM saying I could do a better job. I also understand that we are not in a video game simulation where every contract and trade is going to be negotiated perfectly.
However, I believe in his now seven seasons as GM of the Blues, Armstrong has severely underachieved in his roster building, primarily due to all the bad contracts given out over the years. I would have not been opposed to maybe a one or two-year deal to give him one last chance. But I certainly do not think Army did enough to warrant a four-year extension. Now I am sure if the Blues win their first cup down the road while Armstrong is GM, he is probably going to be heralded by St. Louis sports fans as the greatest GM in sports ever. But until that happens, this move to extend Armstrong another four years should be heavily questioned by Blues fans.