The St. Louis Blues are on the hunt for a top center in free agency, and general manager Doug Armstrong has the financial backing to get one.
Armstrong said Blues ownership is giving him the necessary funds to pursue help at center, either on the open market or in a trade.
New York Islanders captain John Tavares tops the list of centers eligible to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, a group that includes Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, former Blues center Paul Stastny of the Winnipeg Jets, and Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In a wide-ranging interview with NHL.com during the recent 2018 NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo, Armstrong discussed how he would like to improve the Blues this offseason, his goals for the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas on June 22-23, how ownership is willing to pay for a competitive team, and the Blues' transition to a younger roster.
NHL.com: With free agency set to kick off on July 1, do you plan to be active on that front, or even on the trade market?
Armstrong: "Yes. We're back to where we have assets. We have a late first-round pick this year that we could use to get a player to help us win now. A lot changes between the combine and June 25, when you can start talking to players as free agents. There are a slight group of players there that we would have interest in if they do hit free agency."
NHL.com: With commissioner Gary Bettman recently announcing the 2018-19 salary cap is estimated to be between $78 million to $82 million, does that give you more flexibility in terms of what you are looking to do?
Armstrong: "It sounds funny, but that's a wide gap … so I'm hoping to get that clarified. We have a couple of restricted guys we'd like to get under contract. We've been a cap team the past few years and our ownership is committed to being among the top teams in the League. The correlation between spending and winning in our League is good. You'll have the outliers once in a while. But we want to compete with the teams and be a cap team, so we'll look to exercise our financial wherewithal to the maximum."
NHL.com: Any position you'd specifically like to address?
Armstrong: "Obviously we traded Stastny at the [NHL Trade Deadline]. We have Brayden Schenn there [at center]. We have Robert Thomas there, but is he ready to enter prime time as a second-line center? That's a large chore to ask for a 19-year-old. Probably adding to our depth in the middle would be a goal. Alexander Steen has played center before, Robby Fabbri has played center before, Jaden Schwartz has played center before, so if we have to circle back in, and the players we're looking at don't hit free agency or choose different paths, we'd have to adjust to that. But I would say center ice would be an area we'd look to do something in. But like we are at the Draft, in free agency we're always looking at good players."
NHL.com: Since you brought up the subject of the Draft, what is your philosophy going in?
Armstrong: "We're always looking for the best player available. Because these players are so young, usually when they get to the NHL, unless you are picking in the top two or three, your dynamics of your team have changed from where they are today. So we take the best-player approach. At the same time, you look at moving up or moving down, so you can explore to maximize your picks."
NHL.com: Are you flexible on both those counts?
NHL.com: How much of a transition is there on your team right now -- a passing of the torch, if you will -- from veterans like Steen and [defenseman] Jay Bouwmeester to the younger generation like Schwartz, [defenseman] Colton Parayko and [forward] Vladimir Tarasenko? You could include the trading of Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets as part of that.
Armstrong: "I thought we had a tale of two seasons this year. Up until mid-December, we were a top team in the League and then we went through a two-month stretch where we were more at the bottom end of it. Then, [after] the trade deadline we were back in the middle, something like a 58-percent winning percentage. I think our team, we have good balance now. We went through a transition a couple of years ago when we lost to San Jose in the Conference Finals where we had to make hard decisions with players who had played very well for us for five, six, seven years. But we wanted to transition in and acquire draft picks, and not trade draft picks for players. We have Robert Thomas, [center] Tage Thompson, players like that, so hopefully we'll start implementing some of those players into our team next year to go with our core group of players in the 24-27 [age] range. You have really the guts of our team in a Schenn and a Schwartz and a Tarasenko, [defenseman] Alex Pietrangelo, [defenseman] Joel Edmundson. There's a list of guys there we want to continue to build around. We're looking to get back in and compete for a playoff spot and get back to being a team people believe can win a championship."