By striking a creative and convenient deal with free-agent winger Mike Hoffman, the Blues’ Doug Armstrong reaffirmed his place among the top NHL general managers.
And if you think about it, Armstrong deserves to be recognized as the best GM in Blues’ franchise history. You may disagree with that, but I have a two-word rebuttal: Stanley Cup.
The Blues on Sunday night announced the signing of Hoffman to a professional tryout (PTO), a move that deepens the team’s talent pool and depth at forward. Hoffman, 31, was an unrestricted free agent. He’d drawn significant interest around the league, but too many teams were jammed on the salary cap and couldn’t afford the purchase.
To take advantage of the opportunity, Armstrong came up with an ingenious plan. The PTO was a way to get Hoffman into a Blues uniform, with team and player biding their time until Army could clear the necessary salary-cap room to accommodate a one-year contract for an established, productive scorer.
During Blues camp Hoffman is free to negotiate with other teams, and that gives him an escape hatch. But I wouldn’t worry about that. Armstrong and Hoffman’s agent Rob Hooper have a good, long standing relationship. The trust factor is there. Hoffman and Hooper wouldn’t have agreed to this clever arrangement unless Hoffman wanted to be a Blue.
Why would Hoffman fool around — and face at least some risk of injury — in the St. Louis camp? He wouldn’t. Hoffman wouldn’t have signed off on this compact unless he had the unofficial but firm commitment from the Blues. And Armstrong wouldn’t allow the Blues to be used in a leverage play; he had to be convinced of Hoffman’s plan to stay here.
With the economic impact of Covid 19 slicing away at each team’s salary cap for the 2020-2021 season, options are limited for remaining free agents. But Armstrong turned two negatives into a positive.
With Alex Steen’s retirement because of chronic back problems, and Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined by his latest shoulder surgery, Armstrong was in a unique position to turn roster trauma into roster reinforcement. It’s complicated, and you can get educated on the pertinent salary-cap rules by reading this thorough explanation from Post-Dispatch hockey writer Jim Thomas. Bottom line: the Steen retirement — and to a lesser extent, Tarasenko’s injury — will provide enough cap relief to pay Hoffman a sufficient salary for the coming season.
(And hopefully still leave enough cash in hand to make a deal with defenseman Vince Dunn, a restricted free agent. But if that proves problematic, Armstrong can gain more cap clearance by trading from his surplus of defensemen.)
What are the Blues getting in Hoffman?
— Over the last six seasons, Hoffman’s 169 goals put him tied for 16th in the NHL. Over that time he has more goals than Nathan MacKinnon, Filip Forsberg, Leon Draisatl, Mark Scheifle, Anders Lee, Cam Atkinson, Jeff Skinner, James van Riemsdyk, Johnny Gaudreau, Phil Kessel, Eric Staal, Mark Stone, Zach Parise. Blake Wheeler and Brandon Saad. And many more.
— Only 13 NHL players have bagged 20 or more goals in each of the past six seasons. Hoffman is on that list.
— Over the last four seasons Hoffman’s 49 power play goals rank fourth among NHL forwards over that time. Only Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak and Patrik Laine have more. Armstrong added wattage to the power play earlier this offseason by signing left-side defenseman Torey Krug. With Hoffman, the electrical capacity expands.
— Let the competition begin for playing time on the top three lines. Coach Craig Berube has many choices available to him. That said, it might be more difficult for prospect Jordan Kyrou to make his breakthrough. I doubt that we’d see Kyrou in a fourth-line role. Competition makes everyone better. And depth gives the front office more pieces to work with in trades.
— Hoffman is a minus 15 (combined) over the last six seasons. And it’s really bad (minus 49 combined) over the past three seasons with Ottawa and Florida. That said, Ryan O’Reilly was a minus 40 combined in his final three seasons with Buffalo. The plus-minus thing can be misleading. Speaking of O’Reilly: Hoffman isn’t viewed as a strong two-way player; that’s why it would make sense to put Hoffman on O’Reilly’s line. O’Reilly is a terrific two-way player who won the Selke trophy in his first season (2018-19) with the Blues. One other note on Hoffman’s overall play: over the past six seasons Hoffman had 5.0 defensive point shares; that was close to Steen’s 5.5 DPS. But all things considered, there’s a reason why Hoffman has been on the ice for only 40 percent of defensive zone starts during his career.
— Hoffman will have a chance to improve his free-agent value and make another run at the market after the 2020-21 season, when the salary cap returns to normal size. He’ll be highly motivated. Moreover, Hoffman wants to win and the Blues offer him hope. Hoffman scored 65 goals over the last two seasons in Florida, which had a winning record in both years. He made it back to the postseason with Florida last season and had three goals and two assists in four games.
A winning situation is good for Hoffman at this stage of his career. That’s why he likes the idea of being a Blue. And that’s why the wily Armstrong found a way to recruit Hoffman and get it done.
No surprise, there.
Since 2011-2012, the Blues are second in the NHL to Pittsburgh for most wins (410) and are No. 1 in the Western Conference in wins and points. If you want to dwell on Armstrong’s mistakes, go for it. I’d rather take measure of Army’s full body of work in running the Blues. And this Hoffman maneuver is the latest example of why the Blues have been the Best in the West over the last nine seasons.
Thanks for reading …