ST. LOUIS — Doug Armstrong was a little bit nervous on Tuesday morning.
The Blues general manager saw that potential trade target Jason Spezza, one of the top available centers, was acquired in a trade by Dallas. That meant that if St. Louis couldn’t sign center Paul Stastny to a free agent deal, its Plan A, Armstrong wasn’t sure what Plan B would be.
Fortunately for Armstrong and St. Louis, it didn’t come to that.
The Blues signed Stastny away from Colorado with a four-year deal worth $28 million just minutes after completing a two-year deal with former draft pick Jori Lehtera, two strong moves that Armstrong and Co. think could make the difference for St. Louis in the future.
"We’ve been through some tough times and we’re looking to add pieces that can help get us over the hump," Armstrong said. "One of the things with these signings is we’re not asking anyone to come in here with a cape on and be Superman. We’re just looking for another strong piece to a puzzle that can keep us competitive as we chase Colorado down for the division. They’re the champs and they are the first team we have to take a look at catching and if we’re fortunate enough to do that and get into the playoffs we want to have the guys that can compete at that time of year."
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The Blues needed to get better this offseason and they did just that.
They’ve watched the Los Angeles Kings hoist the Stanley Cup twice in the past three seasons and watched the rival Chicago Blackhawks win it twice in the past five years. The Blues have been eliminated by either the Kings or the Blackhawks in each of their last three playoff appearances.
Before Tuesday, the Blues hadn’t done much to change their roster.
Sure, they brought back Brian Elliott (instead of Ryan Miller) to compete with top prospect Jake Allen in net, but the only addition to the forward group was Joakim Lindstrom, who has been playing in Sweden the past few years.
Armstrong watched as the Anaheim Ducks added roughed two-way center Ryan Kesler in a trade and then, on Tuesday morning, as the Dallas Stars traded for scoring center Spezza from Ottawa, a player the Blues had been linked to for much of the offseason.
The Blues were running out of options but were able to sign two players that should help, two pass-first centers who bring a new dimension to a team that has lacked in that department for some time.
"We think that (Stastny) and Jori, both these players can make their wingers better," Armstrong said. "We haven’t had a true center iceman with top-end passing skills. I think both of these guys can find their wingers. Obviously I’m betting a lot of money that we’re more difficult to defend today than we were two days ago."
The Blues will need to be because the Central division and the rest of the Western Conference isn’t getting any easier.
That’s something that Stastny, a St. Louis native who spent the first eight seasons in the NHL with the Avalanche, acknowledged on Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.
"I think St. Louis has had Colorado’s number the last couple years and Colorado has taken a big step forward," Stastny said. "Now they are all battling for that top spot in the Central division and you see how tough it is. It came down to a couple points between three teams. Now Dallas added Spezza and Minnesota has added (Thomas) Vanek. I think every team in the Central division is constantly getting better and better."
Now, after Tuesday’s transactions, you can include the Blues in that mix.
Though Stastny isn’t at the same level as the top centers in the West, he adds a scoring punch — he had 25 goals, 35 assists and 60 points in 71 games last season — that strengthens a St. Louis attack led by Alexander Steen (62 points last season), T.J. Oshie (60) and David Backes (57) and young developing forwards Jaden Schwartz (56) and Vladimir Tarasenko (43).
The Blues focused on firming up their defense last summer by re-signing Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk to big deals.
Now they’ve added to their offense by signing the best available free agent at their biggest position of need. That’s a big win for the Note.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs," Armstrong said. "You look at Paul’s former team. Patrick (Roy) and Joe (Sakic) have done a tremendous job there. They are a top team. Obviously Jim Nill is really putting his mark on Dallas. Chicago’s Chicago. (Minnesota general manager) Chuck Fletcher has been very aggressive today in getting (Thomas) Vanek. I really think that the competition is really strong in just our division. Our conference is very strong, obviously. So we’re just looking to become a competitive team and stay that way."