The reason Vladimir Sobotka hasn’t re-appeared in St. Louis is because the “out” clause in his Kontinental Hockey League contract disappeared.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said that’s why Sobotka returned to Avangard Omsk this week instead of returning to the NHL.
Sobotka, 29, signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the KHL club in 2014, a deal that included an “out” clause. But when financial hardship hit the Russian economy, Armstrong was told that Sobotka renegotiated his contract to earn more money and unwittingly signed a new document that excluded the clause.
“It was more complicated as I found out when we got into Toronto and I met with him directly,” Armstrong said. “Sort of the Coles Notes’ version, he signed a deal there, the ruble crashed, they renegotiated it and my understanding is they told him ‘No problem, sign this,’ and they took the ‘out’ clause out. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.”
The truth has been difficult to pinpoint throughout this episode, and it is far from over.
The Blues are staying in touch with Sobotka in the hope that he can re-join them this season. The feeling seems mutual, as Sobotka has decided to keep his family in Prague, Czech Republic, instead of Russia.
“He’s still trying to get out of that contract there,” Armstrong said.
The holdup, as the Post-Dispatch reported, is the buyout figure the KHL is asking Sobotka to pay to be released from the final year of his contract. It’s been speculated that Avangard is requesting two-thirds of his $4 million salary for this season, which is $2.68 million.
Sobotka would make $2.725 million with the Blues, so essentially his 2016-17 season would be a wash financially.
“It’s just an economic situation,” Armstrong said. “There’s a dollar value that they want and there’s a dollar value that he doesn’t want to pay, and if at some point they can find a middle ground ...”
The Blues have expressed to Sobotka that buying out of the KHL contract would be “an investment for his future.” If he plays the season here, he would become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
“But as I (told Sobotka), it’s easy for me to spend your money,” Armstrong said. “I understand it’s a difficult decision and I feel for the player. He left for money, that was the reason he left, to make more money. So probably if you’re leaving for money, how much do you really want to give back?”
Per the NHL’s collective-bargaining agreement, the Blues cannot pay any part of Sobotka’s potential buyout.
“That would be circumvention and hefty fines, and quite frankly even if it wasn’t, we didn’t really create this situation,” Armstrong said. “He left. If he wants to get out of it, he can pay the freight.”
The Blues wouldn’t mind enticing Sobotka with a contract extension, but with a player on a one-year contract, they are prohibited from discussing that until Jan. 1.
“If we could do a deal now, it would make his decision a lot easier, but we can’t do a deal now,” Armstrong said.
So the club will now wait to see if Sobotka decides to buy out of his contract. The Blues won’t wait too long, though, because they don’t want him to play two months at the end of the season and have that count as the year he owes them.
“There will be a point when we just say, ‘We’ll have that year tolled another year,’” Armstrong said.
The GM says he understands the frustration throughout this ordeal but says there’s nothing he would have done differently.
“It’s been very tough on (Sobotka), it’s certainly been tough on our fans,” Armstrong said. “But talking to the agent (Petr Svoboda), it was 100 percent he was coming back and so I just proceeded that it was 100 percent. But it’s something that went from 100 percent to 90 to 80 to 50-50. Dealing with the KHL must be difficult. I don’t have to deal with them very often.
“Probably in hindsight, we probably should have been able to find a deal that kept him here. I think he feels that way too, but that’s water under the bridge now.