While no deal is in place yet, St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong remains confident of getting a new contract done with scoring leader and restricted free agent Vladimir Tarasenko and Tarasenko’s agent, former Blues goalie Mike Liut.
“We’re in conversations and both sides, Mike Liut and I, talked and we both think its best to keep it behind closed doors until the signing’s complete,” Armstrong said Wednesday, adding that no team signed Tarasenko to an offer sheet trying to make things a bit more difficult on the Blues. “We’ve made sure that we have plenty of cap space to protect Vladimir with the organization, so I’m not concerned. If there was one, we’d certainly have the power to match it.”
The Blues’ biggest move on the opening day of free agency was to lock up a player that wasn’t even a free agent.
Center Jori Lehtera signed a new three-year, $14.1 million contract extension and the Blues also re-signed veteran defenseman Chris Butler to a one-year deal as the NHL’s free-agency period shifted into high gear.
Lehtera, 27, wasn’t scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent until after next season, so his contract now runs for four years. After playing four seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Lehtera signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal to join the Blues last summer. He had 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games during his first NHL season, playing much of the year on a line with Tarasenko.
“We like what he did his first year,” Armstrong said. “We thought if we could get something done we’d do it and we get him through the prime of his career. There’s no need to tempt fate and get into his free agent year. He wanted to get done and we wanted to get it done.”
Armstrong said there’s a bit of projection involved in what Lehtera might do offensively, but the Blues are confident that a raise in pay still keeps the center from Finland in line with their overall salary structure. The Blues began Wednesday approximately $14 million under the NHL’s new $71.4 million salary cap for 2015-16.
“We think he’s got another level to get to, but even if the production stayed the same ... we think there’s upside too it, but even on the downside it’s relative to today’s market. With a three-year deal, we like that because that gets him right through the meat of his career.”
Lehtera had two assists in five playoff games. He will still be paid $2.25 million this season as part of his current deal, then will have an average salary of $4.7 million in each of the next three seasons.
Former Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, who was allowed to enter unrestricted free agency by the team, is headed to Nashville after signing a two-year deal worth $2 million a season according to ESPN. Jackman, 34, was the longest tenured professional athlete in St. Louis until leaving to join the Predators.
Chosen 17th overall by the Blues in 1999, Jackman won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2002-03. Jackman’s 803 games with the Blues are the second-highest in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Bernie Federko (927).
Jackman had 28 goals, 181 points and 1,026 penalty minutes in 803 games in a Blues uniform. With Jackman out of the mix, the Blues expect to give Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm opportunities to step up and grab top-six defense roles.
Among Armstrong’s stated priorities heading into free agency were getting new contract extensions done for restricted free agents Tarasenko and goalie Jake Allen. Among the club’s other restricted free agents are Bortuzzo, forward Magnus Paajarvi, defenseman Jani Hakanpaa and recently acquired defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser.
The Blues have also been mentioned in numerous trade rumors involving everyone from T.J. Oshie and Jay Bouwmeester to Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Blue’s first free-agent signing Wednesday was to bring back Butler on a one-year deal at $675,000. The native St. Louisan is projected as insurance at the No. 6 or 7 spot on defense afetr seven NHL seasons. He had three goals and nine points in 33 games with the Blues season.
The club’s other recent signings are Cody Beach and Pat Cannone.
Former Blues defenseman Zbynek Michalek, obtained last season for the stretch run and playoffs, signed a new two-year deal to return to the Arizona Coyotes
The Blues’ list of other unrestricted free agents includes Marcel Goc, Chris Porter, Adam Cracknell, Olli Jokinen, Colin Fraser, Benn Ferriero, Jonas Junland, John McCarthy, Philip McRae and Brent Regner.
The Blues chose not to tender qualifying offers to David Shields and Sebastian Wannstrom.