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Blues make big splash on first day of free agency

Doug Armstrong acquires O'Reilly, signs Bozak, Perron and Johnson

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS - In the first few hours of the free agent signing period, a day when teams in the Central Division didn't make much of a splash, the St. Louis Blues signed three players and committed $32.7 million in salary over the next four seasons.

And all that happened before noon.

About eight hours after signing a free agent center in Tyler Bozak, a free agent winger in David Perron and a free agent backup goaltender in Chad Johnson, Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong completed his biggest acquisition of the day by acquiring Ryan O'Reilly in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. The deal sent Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a first-round draft pick in 2019 and a second-round draft pick in 2021 to Buffalo.

Entering free agency, Armstrong was looking to add a center, a winger and a backup goaltender. He did all that and then some, and with the exception of giving up Thompson, was able to do it while holding onto the team's most coveted prospects, including Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin.

"I had been working with Buffalo for some time on a potential trade," Armstrong said. "It fell apart a little bit (Sunday) morning and we went a different direction, but we were able to pick it up after that and add and subtract some pieces that made everyone comfortable in the end… unfortunately we had to part with some players we respect highly."

O'Reilly, 27, comes to the Blues as he enters the prime of his career. Last season, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound center recorded 61 points (24 goals and 37 assists) in 81 games with the Buffalo Sabres. O'Reilly is a four-time 20-goal scorer and has recorded 55 points or more in six seasons, including each of the last five.

"I'm so excited," O'Reilly told Armstrong over the phone shortly after the deal was completed. "I won't let you down."

"He's a big centerman, takes a lot of face-offs - I think he might have led the League last year in draws taken," Armstrong said of O'Reilly. "He touches both ends of your special teams, he's in the prime of his career right now. He's more substance than flash, which I sort of like. He's a complete player that's going to fit in very well with us."

Video: Armstrong, O'Reilly speak after trade

Bozak, 32, will likely slot in as the Blues' No. 3 center behind O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn. Bozak, who has played 594 career games - all with the Toronto Maple Leafs - signed a three-year deal with the Blues worth $15 million on Sunday.

"St. Louis was always a team that I thought was a really good fit for me and for my family," Bozak said. "It was a place I wanted to be to try and be a contributor. My wife and my kids are really excited to get there, and (we're excited about) everything we've heard about living there, from off-ice stuff from people I know that have played there or people that play there now, to obviously on the ice with the great core that's already in line and the young guys that are stepping up, it's just a great spot to be."

Perron returns to the Blues for the third time after signing a four-year contract worth $16 million. Last season, the 30-year-old forward recorded 16 goals and set a new career high in assists (50) and points (66) to help the Vegas Golden Knights reach the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Perron recorded nine points in 15 playoff games for Vegas.

"We didn't want to lose him a year ago in the expansion draft," Armstrong said. "Expansion came in and took David and it ended up being a very good pick up for them and he had a great year… He's a 45-50 point guy you can rely on and he's only 30… We're excited to have him back and one of things that's exciting for the Blues is you have someone that loves St. Louis, loves the fan base and left substantial opportunities on the table to come home."

Johnson, 32, joins the Blues on a one-year contract worth $1.75 million and figures to serve as the backup to Jake Allen between the pipes. By not signing a backup goaltender to a long-term deal, Armstrong is keeping an opportunity for Ville Husso to earn playing time in the NHL.

"I know Chad wants to come in and be a really good partner and do the best he can do, and Husso is itching for that NHL game," Armstrong said. "It's going to be a real good competition (in goal), and really this had a lot to do with keeping an eye on the future. Husso is on the doorstep, and we didn't want to sign a player to a two- or three-year deal to create a logjam we couldn't overcome."

Johnson went 10-16-3 for the last-place Sabres last season, but he was brilliant at times for the Calgary Flames the season before, where he seized time between the pipes from Brian Elliott.

Video: Armstrong on free agent signings

Sunday's signings and acquisitions give the Blues a significant amount of depth. In fact, although it's only July, Armstrong was willing to throw out general ideas for line combinations he could forsee by midseason, which may include moving O'Reilly to the wing.

Ryan O'Reilly - Robert Thomas - Vladimir Tarasenko

Jaden Schwartz - Brayden Schenn - David Perron

Alexander Steen - Tyler Bozak - ??

"I really like the options this gives Mike Yeo," he said.

In addition, there's still Dmitrij Jaskin, Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford and Nikita Soshnikov to consider - and that's not even counting prospects such as Kyrou, Kostin or Sammy Blais who could make a case for earning time in the big leagues. Robby Fabbri, who missed last season after undergoing a second ACL tear, has been cleared to participate in all training activities and will figure into the equation, too.

"By having the depth that we have now, that's going to increase our grit level on it's own," Armstrong said. "Nothing makes you grittier than the fear of losing your job. We're in a good spot to compete and let these guys come in and prove what they can do."

Video: Armstrong comments on acquiring O'Reilly

Armstrong admitted to exploring a variety of opportunities to improve the team over the last several weeks. In fact, he says he received more calls than any other time in his career as a general manager, which includes eight seasons with the Blues and parts of six with the Dallas Stars. The high volume of interest in Blues players is a testament to the quality of assets the team possesses.

"From Tage Thompson to Kostin to Kyrou to Thomas to Husso… that was a huge list of guys (we received calls about)," Armstrong said. "Usually, you're lucky if you get teams to think you have one or two prospects, and you can put Sammy Blais in that group, too. Our phone was ringing."

Fortunately for Armstrong, the Blues' ownership group was committed to making a splash if the opportunity presented itself.

"When you go to a group and you tell them about a $7.5 million signing bonus that's due (for O'Reilly) and you get nothing but a quick 'you do what you have to do to make a better team' - that's led by Mr. (Tom) Stillman and the local ownership group - it's a great feeling," Armstrong added. "We've been a cap team. We may be a small market city, our city may be small, but our budget is large and that's a direct reflection of the commitment of our ownership group… We've added a scoring winger. We've added two right-shot players that are gonna help our power play. We brought in one of the better known two-way players in the game in Ryan O'Reilly. So yeah, I think we're in a better spot today than we were at the Draft, after the Draft, or yesterday at this time."

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