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Gordo: Schwartz signing shows how teams have to maneuver

Gordo: Schwartz signing shows how teams have to maneuver

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Kris Russell, Jaden Schwartz

Dallas Stars defenseman Kris Russell (2) and St. Louis Blues forward Jaden Schwartz (17) battle for the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Dallas. St. Louis won 5-4 in overtime. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong made it abundantly clear: His summer’s top contract priority was securing restricted free agent Jaden Schwartz for the long haul.

It wasn’t easy, given the generous contracts forwards like Vincent Trocheck (six years, $28.5 million in Florida), Nathan MacKinnon (seven years, $44.1 million in Colorado) and Mark Scheifele (eight years, $49 million in Winnipeg) got elsewhere.

But Armstrong made it happen. Schwartz’s five-year, $26.75 million contract featured a manageable $5.35 million annual salary cap hit, leaving enough space for Vladimir Sobotka to return from the KHL.

If Sobotka follows through on his reunion pledge, the Blues should be set for training camp. This roster won’t be as strong as last season’s group, but it will be good enough to take another playoff run.

Could Armstrong still trade offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk? Sure, but the best opportunity to deal him passed at the draft.

Armstrong was prepared to swap Shattenkirk for high draft picks and/or top young forwards. He was ready to count on Colton Parayko’s growth and Petteri Lindbohm’s graduation to keep the Blues’ defense strong.

But nobody met his asking price before the NHL draft, so he kept Shattenkirk and made other adjustments on his front line. David Perron returned as a free agent and Armstrong left a slot open for Sobotka.

The loss of free agent forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer subtracts leadership, lightens the team’s playing style and punches holes in the power play. Their exit puts pressure on Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo to lead, Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin to play big and Schwartz and Robby Fabbri to convert with the man advantage.

The potential line combinations look fine. The dynamic Fabbri could be a great fit on the left side of Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko, adding tenacity and explosiveness to a pairing that can bog down.

Teaming the persistent Schwartz with Paul Stastny and Alexander Steen would create an excellent two-way line for defensive zone starts. Perron, Sobotka and Berglund could create an interesting third line, although you can’t rule out Jaskin or Ty Rattie taking the next step in their careers.

Retaining fourth-liners Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall helps the team maintain its shift-to-shift tempo. Perhaps Ryan Reaves could cement his role in that group to add heft.

Keeping Shattenkirk would preserve the team’s outstanding Top 6 defensive corps and keep him running the first power-play unit across from Steen.

The loss of Backes and Brouwer removes the critical “net front presence” from each power-play unit, so others will have take that beating in their place to create screens, deflections and rebound opportunities.

That will be the team’s biggest issue heading into camp. Can Jaskin finally make full use of his size and strength? Will Berglund rise up as he did during the last two postseasons?

Overall the Blues should be fine offensively. Schwartz produced 53 goals in his previous two years, but just eight in 33 regular season games last season because of his broken ankle. He will reemerge an an impact scorer.

Fabbri should score 25 to 30 goals after netting 18 last season. Stastny and Berglund should give more than last season if they stay healthy, and Perron should score in double figures, too.

Losing Brouwer and Backes could allow Armstrong to shift cap space toward one or more of his impending unrestricted free agents, Shattenkirk, Steen and Berglund. Or Armstrong could skip past the “bridge” contract concept and lock Parayko into the team nucleus for the long haul.

Such is the give and take of salary cap management. Team continuity is important, but so is cap flexibility. Armstrong weighs one against the other every time he negotiates.

By agreeing to a five-year deal with Schwartz — instead of the six to eight years others got — Armstrong got him for a team-friendly amount. But the contract put Schwartz back in the market at 29, which is huge for him.

Armstrong went eight years with Tarasenko at a team-record $7.5 million a season. The tradeoff: Vladimir got big money early in his career and the Blues locked him in longer.

Goaltender Jake Allen is under contract for five more years. Pietrangelo is signed for four more. Defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson are secured for three more, as is Lehtera. Stastny, Perron and Brodziak have two years left on their deals.

Armstrong must stagger his contracts to gain maximum value from his payroll year after year after year without getting stuck with “dead money” owed to a faded or broken player.

That objective cost him both Backes and Brouwer, who got an extra contract year from Boston and Calgary, respectively. But that discipline kept Armstrong positioned to retain his top young players as they hit their earning years.

He did it with Pietrangelo, Tarasenko and Allen — and now he has done with Schwartz, a player whose skill, character and competitive drive make him as essential as anybody to the team.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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