McDonald: Serving NHL and AHL needs in Free Agency
Nearly two weeks have passed since the NHL free-agency market opened for business. After winning a Stanley Cup in June, and with many of the team’s core members set to return next season, the St. Louis Blues’ shopping list isn’t as long as many other teams. Yet in the early days of July, the team did make important depth additions to the organization, some of whom could play an important role in San Antonio next season.
Three players who will undoubtedly have their eyes set on the AT&T Center are forwards Cam Darcy, Zach Nastasiuk, and JJ Piccinich, all of whom signed AHL contracts with the Rampage. The Blues also signed six players to two-way NHL contracts.
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong and Rampage General Manager Kevin McDonald have approached the summer looking for players that will both serve the needs of the NHL club and bolster a Rampage squad that hopes to rebound from a challenging 2018-19 campaign.
“Free agency is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle because all the pieces have to fit the right way,” said McDonald. “You’re only allowed to use 50 NHL contracts, so that’s something I go over three or four times a day.”
“I think we maybe took a bigger page out of St. Louis’ playbook, where we want 12 forwards that can play against any line, handle big minutes, allow us to roll four lines, and guys can play on at least one special team.”
The limit of 50 NHL contracts for each organization makes it crucial that teams find significant contributors in the AHL free agent market. The Rampage proved that last year with AHL-contracted additions like Ryan Olsen and Bobby MacIntyre. Olsen tied for the team lead with 17 goals and earned another AHL deal for this coming season, while MacIntyre posted 21 points as a rookie.
Olsen’s addition paid such dividends that McDonald hopes he may have similar success with this summer’s crop.
“You’re looking for centers and that’s where Cam Darcy fit in. You never have enough right-shot centers, and it worked out so great with Olsen last year that maybe that contributed to wanting to bring in another right-shot center this year,” said McDonald, with Darcy a fifth-year pro coming off a career-best ten goals last season with the Utica Comets. “Cam has good experience in the AHL and knows his way around the league.”
Nastasiuk and Piccinich may have still been in celebration mode when they inked their new deals. Nastasiuk was a member of the Calder Cup-winning Charlotte Checkers this spring, appearing in 19 playoff games with Charlotte after playing in 43 AHL games during the regular season. Piccinich was a Kelly Cup champion with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers after posting 31 points during the regular season.
“We were targeting players who we really thought a lot of and were ranked high on our list. Perhaps because they were winners it was part of the reason they were bumped up our list, including the opportunity to watch these guys play a little longer,” said McDonald. “The whole AHL coaching staff was watching different teams for all four series.”
“Zach playing for four rounds, including the second round in my backyard, we all, as a staff, had lots of juice on him. He played a significant role and he’s a guy that can go on the power play, kill penalties, and go up and down your lineup. He’s a hard-working guy and a responsible guy. Piccinich is a guy we liked, and he needed a chance. We’re hoping we can find a Ryan Olsen every year and maybe JJ can be that guy next year.”
The Blues signed forwards Nick Lappin, Michael Vecchione, Nathan Walker, and Evan Polei to two-way deals, as well as defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Jake Dotchin. All six will battle for jobs in St. Louis, but all would also be welcome additions for a Rampage team looking to add skill and veteran savvy.
Walker, the first Australian to play in the NHL, has played in exactly 300 AHL games with the Hershey Bears since the 2013-14 season. Lappin comes over from the New Jersey Devils organization where he racked up 123 points in 168 AHL games in Albany and Binghamton. Vecchione posted 78 points over two seasons with Lehigh Valley, and Polei completed his second AHL campaign with Bakersfield last season.
For players on two-way contracts who may be AHLers next October, McDonald says the Rampage are an appealing option. The benefits of playing in an NBA facility with good weather in a friendly tax environment play into San Antonio’s favor. However, the biggest swing factor is an NHL opportunity.
If these players are unable to crack the lineup in St. Louis for Opening Night, they can look to last year’s St. Louis blueprint and know they still may get their chance.
“Players are looking for NHL opportunity. Those guys know that Zach Sanford and Sammy Blais were in San Antonio on Opening Night but were major contributors in Game 7 on a Cup winner,” said McDonald. “It shows that the coaching staff up there will have faith in those players and take those players from the AHL if they’re ready for it.”
“There’s no better example than Jordan Binnington, but Mackenzie MacEachern was a guy similar in age with these guys too. He played half the season in the American League and half the season in the NHL and turned it into a one-way contract. That’s what those guys can be excited about.”
The Rampage certainly would benefit from the use of Pouliot or Dotchin should either head to San Antonio. Pouliot is a two-time AHL All-Star who has spent the last two full seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Dotchin has played over 100 NHL games and spent last year split between Anaheim and AHL San Diego.
With the retirement of Chris Butler and the departure of Tyler Wotherspoon in free agency, there will be minutes to fill on the Rampage blue line next season.
“We really tried to acquire experienced players, especially on the back end. Chris Butler was such a safety net for us because the NHL coaches trusted him. They could always put him in the lineup and play him against anybody,” said McDonald.
“That was a big hole to fill for us, where we’re still giving the NHL coaching staff players that they’re excited about and that they can get in the NHL lineup.”
There may be no better example of satisfying both Rampage and Blues needs than one of St. Louis’ first moves of the off-season, re-signing Jordan Nolan. Nolan scored 17 goals for the Rampage and was among the team’s leaders, while also appearing in 14 games for Craig Berube’s squad.
“The biggest thing with Jordan is that the NHL coaching staff trusts him here. Before you get to July 1st and your list and which players are considering you, you never want to lose sight of the fact that you want to have enough players that can play in the NHL and still allow you to be a contending team,” said McDonald.
“His first year with us, Jordan did that. We had a high priority to bring him back because we know we have a top-notch AHL player that can play in all situations, but we also know we have a guy that Craig can call up to help the Blues.”
The free agent frenzy that dominated television and computer screens in the first week of July has largely died down with many of the big-name players having found homes. Still, the efforts to improve the roster never stop, and McDonald will remain busy throughout the summer finding more pieces that fit the Rampage/Blues jigsaw puzzle.