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Blues boost center depth with O'Reilly, Bozak

Improvement down middle raises expectations for deep playoff run

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The St. Louis Blues drastically revamped and improved their center depth with two transactions Sunday, enough to put the "Stanley Cup contenders" tag back on them after they missed the playoffs last season.

The Blues signed Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million contract and acquired Ryan O'Reilly in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, their first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and their second-round pick in 2021.

The 2019 first-round pick going to Buffalo is top-10 protected, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. 

If all goes to plan, the Blues won't care about the pick they give the Sabres because with Brayden Schenn, O'Reilly, Bozak and the likelihood of rookie Robert Thomas, they're good enough down the middle to raise expectations for a high finish in the standings and a deep playoff run.

 

[RELATED: Blues acquire O'Reilly | Bozak signs contract with Blues]

 

Schenn led the Blues with an NHL career-high 70 points (28 goals, 42 assists) as the No. 1 center last season. O'Reilly had 61 points (24 goals, 37 assists) in 81 games as the Sabres' No. 2 center. Bozak had 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 81 games as the Toronto Maple Leafs' No. 3 center.

Thomas, who turned 19 on Monday, is expected to make the jump to St. Louis from the Ontario Hockey League. He was the Blues' first-round pick (No. 20) in the 2017 NHL Draft.

Armstrong said the plan will be to ease Thomas into the lineup, likely as the fourth center, but he could be good enough to play his way into the top six, pushing O'Reilly to the wing and potentially centering a line with O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Video: Bozak on signing a three-year deal with the Blues

"I like the look of this team right now," Armstrong said.

He should, because of how vital center depth is in the NHL.

The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup last season with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle, giving them three legitimate scoring lines and a fourth line that could and did chip in. They were comfortable with any matchup.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the two seasons prior with the same formula, using Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen down the middle.

The Blues don't have the same star power as the Capitals and Penguins, but they're deep enough, especially with the two-way ability of O'Reilly and Bozak, to be confident they can win matchups at home, where they have the last-change advantage, or on the road, where they don't.

It's even better that O'Reilly and Schenn are lefties and Bozak and Thomas are righties.

"We have balance," Armstrong said.

The key for the Blues was getting O'Reilly because of the impact he has on the game in all areas, especially at the face-off dot and on special teams. Even if O'Reilly moves to the wing to accommodate more ice time for Thomas, he'll still take the bulk of the face-offs.

O'Reilly is 12th in face-off wins (6,261) since he came into the NHL in 2009-10. He leads the NHL in wins (3,337) and is second in percentage (58.3 percent) behind Antoine Vermette (59.2 percent) among 87 players who have taken at least 2,000 face-offs since 2015-16. He won an NHL high 1,274 face-offs (60.0 percent) last season, when he was 62.5 percent (514 of 822) in the defensive zone, 61.8 percent on the power play (210 of 340) and 55.3 percent on the PK (110 of 199).

Tweet from @StLouisBlues: "Let's go win a Cup." #stlblues https://t.co/uk5zgRq9gX

He was also tied for third in power-play goals, scoring 15 of Buffalo's 49. He had four assists and averaged 1:33 per game on the penalty kill.

"Ryan will touch our team in a lot of different ways," Armstrong said.

The bonus is, the Blues acquired O'Reilly without giving up three players they were keen on keeping; Thomas, forward Jordan Kyrou and defenseman Vince Dunn. They even saved $775,000 in NHL salary cap space in the trade. 

Berglund ($3.85 million for four seasons), Sobotka ($3.5 million for two seasons) and Thompson ($925,000 for two seasons) combine to count for $8.275 against the cap. O'Reilly counts $7.5 million for the next five seasons.

The Blues had to pay the $7.5 million bonus owed to O'Reilly on Sunday, but Armstrong said the ownership group led by chairman Tom Stillman never balked at that price and instead told him, "You do what you have to do to make us a better team."

The Blues followed the same message signing Bozak, who has averaged 46.2 points per season in the past five, including 2013-14, when he missed 24 games, and 2015-16, when he missed 25 games. 

Bozak is also strong at the face-off dot having led the Maple Leafs in face-offs taken and won in seven of the past eight seasons. He is 53.6 percent in face-offs in his NHL career.

"You can never have too many centermen," Armstrong said.

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