The Vladimir Sobotka contract caper brings to mind what long-time local broadcaster Skip Erwin used to say as he signed off a program: “And remember, it takes a real winner to be a good loser.”
In this situation, it’s a little sketchy as to which is which.
Sobotka and the Blues arrived at a contract on Monday. Arbitration officially sanctioned a one-year, $2.725 million arrangement for Sobotka to work for the Blues. Sobotka wanted a $3 million salary, a sum the Blues were willing to entertain in a two-year package.
But Sobotka believed he could chase $4 million as an unrestricted free agent in 2015, so he insisted on $3 million for one season, and he didn’t care how many agents it took to get it. He went through three in less than six months, changing representatives like Ryan Miller changes masks.
All the while, Sobotka had a golden ticket in his back pocket, from Russia with love. Before the arbitration process was completed — and before he changed agents again — Sobotka accepted a three-year deal that eclipses $4 million per season from Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. With tax considerations, it is worth even more.
He must honor the first year of the KHL contract, after which he may opt out and return to the NHL. If he does, Sobotka’s arbitrated contract remains in effect, meaning he is bound to play one season for the Blues at $2.725 million. Or, after all that, just $25,000 more than the Blues’ final offer on a one-year deal, some $300,000 less than he could have had in the two-year deal.
Sobotka is an admirable player and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. He is what former Blues defenseman Noel Picard referred to as “one tough cookie.” He plays center or wing. He led the league in faceoff percentage last season and registered 110 hits. He kills penalties, defends well, handles the puck, plays with poise. Opposing players dread playing against him.
That said, he is neither a $3 million or $4 million player. He doesn’t score enough. Last season, while getting lots of opportunities on the upper-tier lines, Sobotka had nine goals and 24 assists in 61 games. Those were career highs. In terms of goals per game, he averaged slightly more (0.17 to 0.15) in 48 games the season before.
Sobotka’s shooting percentage last season was 8.8 percent, a type of stat that haunted the Blues during the playoffs. There were many offenders in the missed-shot department, to be sure. But when Sobotka missed the net with that fabulous opportunity during Game 5 in Chicago, you understood why he had nine goals instead of 29, why he has 35 goals in 381 NHL games.
Sobotka is small, generously listed at 5 feet 10, 197 pounds. He never backs down, but he takes a beating. During four seasons with the Blues, he missed 47 games, including 21 last season.
People in St. Louis love players like Sobotka, as well they might. He gives it his all, stands up for his teammates, represents the sweater with honor and ferocity. St. Louis loved 5-11, 173-pound Brian Sutter for the same reasons. But Sutter scored 303 NHL goals.
In the NHL, Wayne Simmonds makes $3.9 million. Simmonds had 29 goals and 31 assists for Philadelphia last season. He also had four goals and one assist in seven playoff games.
In the NHL, Justin Williams makes $3.65 million for the Los Angeles Kings. Williams had 19 goals and 24 assists last season. He also had nine goals and 16 assists during the playoffs as the Kings won their second Stanley Cup in three years.
Sobotka had one goal in 21 career playoff games with the Blues — one.
As stated up front, Sobotka is an asset, a plus for any team he plays on. But when you demand a higher rate of compensation, you invite a thorough examination.
In St. Louis, Sobotka’s “underrated” value is slightly overstated. He has benefited from his environment more than the environment has benefited from him. He has played on a team that has been hurt by injuries and thin at center ice, a team that has given him more primary minutes than he might have had elsewhere. He played 16 minutes 45 seconds per game last season to score those nine goals.
Versatile Alexander Steen experienced a similar metamorphosis, transitioning from a checking role to more prominent opportunities. He has scored 100 goals over the last 291 games. He is now at home as a top-six forward. Sobotka is still playing out of position.
If the Blues hit on all of their offseason acquisitions, centers Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera and Joakim Lindstrom will have regular jobs, along with center Maxim Lapierre. Centers David Backes and Patrik Berglund may have to change positions. Forward Dmitrij Jaskin also will be pushing for a spot.
Sobotka would not be playing the minutes he did previously. If he did, it would be a sign the Blues were no better off than before. Steve Ott will replace Sobotka. He is not as skilled, but he is no picnic to play against, either.
Here’s one other thing to consider. The Blues have lost Sobotka but they have upgraded No. 17. Jaden Schwartz will abandon No. 9 this season and wear No. 17, the number his sister Mandi wore at Yale before acute myeloid leukemia took her life way too early. Jaden Schwartz had 25 goals, 31 assists and a plus-28 last season. He figures to be even more inspired this season.
No question, the Blues would like to have Sobotka. He would be a solid auxiliary player for a team that is going places. If he was to be more than that, it’s a team that wasn’t going to get there.