ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong insisted Tuesday that his trade of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk doesn’t signal surrender this season, though he said the team is much different than the group that advanced to the Western Conference finals last season.
“If this team was at the place it was a year ago, Kevin Shattenkirk would be a St. Louis Blue,” said Armstrong, who acknowledged he discussed an eight-year contract extension with the player’s representatives before the season. “We’re not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup. This team now has to get in on their own, and obviously, it’s going to be more difficult, and if you get in you always have a chance to win.”
Following the trade that sent Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals for 22-year-old Zach Sanford, a 2017 first-round pick and future conditional selections, the team certainly has a new look from a year ago.
Former captain David Backes signed with Boston as an unrestricted free agent. Veteran forward Troy Brouwer, who scored eight goals in the playoff run, moved on to Calgary as a free agent. Perennial pest Steve Ott signed with Detroit. Goalie Brian Elliott was traded to the Flames for a draft pick.
Add in promising young forward Robby Fabbri, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in early February, and the Blues are missing several key pieces from the 2016 playoff run under coach Ken Hitchcock — who is also gone, fired a few weeks ago as the team scuffled along.
The Blues, who host Edmonton on Tuesday night, entered the day fourth in the Central Division with 67 points, nearly 20 points behind leader Minnesota. St. Louis holds the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but the Los Angeles Kings were just two points behind.
The Blues have 21 games left to try to secure a playoff spot.
“If you can get into the playoffs, you have an opportunity to win,” Armstrong said. “We’ve seen other teams win. But we’re not in the same situation we were a year ago. We’re not a top-five team in the league in the standings. We don’t have the same rhythm as we had a year ago at this time. We said it last year, in the summer, we were transitioning to a new group of players, a new leadership group of players.”
That was the big message from the Blues’ general manager on Tuesday, the talk of transition from the veteran-laden team that had been among the best in the league to a younger group with prospects on the horizon.
“We have two first-rounders now this year,” Armstrong said. “We are starting to replenish the well and that’s the exciting part for Blues fans moving forward. I understand the disappointment of moving an All-Star caliber player, but understand the All-Star caliber player wasn’t going to be here on July 1.”
The Blues’ lack of consistency all season hasn’t changed under new coach Mike Yeo: The team is 7-4 since Hitchcock was fired and took a three-game skid into the game against the Oilers after being passed in the standings by Nashville. Now they must go forward without Shattenkirk, who was leading the Blues in assists (31) and was second in scoring (42 points).
“An important piece and a popular guy,” Yeo said. “It’s always emotional. It can always be a difficult time of the year, just what he brings to the group from an on-ice perspective. He’s a very popular guy in the room, and so it’s difficult. But that said, we’re in this business and we’re all pros.”
Beside the talks about an eight-year contract extension in the offseason, Armstrong said, the Blues also turned down a potential Shattenkirk deal for a late first-round pick in the 2016 draft. Armstrong said he thought he could get the same value if he waited to make the trade or that the defenseman might change his mind about wanting to stay in St. Louis long term. Armstrong also noted that there were potential sign-and-trade deals in place with other teams but Shattenkirk and his representatives could not find common ground to make those deals happen.
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said even though there has been speculation about Shattenkirk getting traded, the reality of it happening was tough.
“With one guy gone, we have to find ways around it,” Gunnarsson said. “That’s the way it is. You can’t linger on stuff.”