For some fans of the St. Louis Blues, the name Vladimir Sobotka has become something of a talisman, for others, something of a curse. Sobotka, who became unsettled in St. Louis after he was allowed to reach arbitration with the Blues, chose to take flight to Russia’s KHL rather than spend the 2014-15 season with the Blues for the arbitrated salary of $2.7 million. The loss of Sobotka proved a difficult one for the Blues to address, as they had lost a gritty third line center with terrific faceoff skills, penalty killing ability, and the work ethic that any coach wants to see in a player. After he left, the Blues retained Sobotka’s NHL rights, so that he could not return to North America without playing in St. Louis.
In the three years since then, Sobotka’s name has been chanted over and over again as part of the solution to the Blues’ woes. A constant topic of conversation, willingly or unwillingly, for Blues experts like the Post Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford, some became sick of answering questions about the Czech center. But some fans continued to believe that Sobotka could be a major player for the Blues, and therefore continued to ask after his chances of returning to the NHL. Others were less confident of his ability, and more frustrated with constant conversation about a player who showed no immediate signs of returning. These frustrations came to a head this past summer, when Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong boldly asserted that Sobotka would be returning this season. As the offseason progressed, this became more and more suspect, until finally it was admitted that he would be staying in Russia yet again.
Many thought that perhaps finally these rumors had come to an end. And for the most part, they had, until a few days ago, when it became known that Sobotka had asked for and been granted a release from his KHL contract, which would have ended anyway on April 30th. This slightly early release had Blues fans wondering yet again whether Sobotka might be making a return. This time, the dreams became reality, as it was just announced by the Blues that not only was Sobotka returning, but also that he would join the Blues in Carolina on Saturday, and that he had signed a three-year contract extension for $10.5 million.
There can be little question that the recent injury to Blues’ top center Paul Stastny played a heavy role in this deal getting done. Since Stastny went down, the Blues have really struggled to win face-offs, something that Stastny excelled at. This is also an area of strength for Sobotka, who maintained a very impressive face off percentage of 57.4% in his four years as a Blue. While Sobotka is not an offensive replacement for Stastny, he will certainly add an appealing option when the Blues are challenged with a must win faceoff, and he will probably figure into the picture both on penalty kills and power plays because of this skill.
Sobotka’s immediate presence should boost the Blues as they enter the playoffs, but it creates an issue, too. There are only so many roster spots, and one wonders where Sobotka will factor in on a team that currently has given lots of playing time to hot young talents. The three primary candidates for the press box are younger players Magnus Paajarvi and Ivan Barbashev, and recently returned embattled center Jori Lehtera. Paajarvi and Barbashev have certainly outperformed Lehtera this year, including helping the Blues to thrive during Lehtera’s recent injury. But Blues’ brass and coach Mike Yeo have seemed committed to playing Lehtera, perhaps because he is being paid at a clip of $4.7 million, the terms of a very regrettable contract extension. I would hope that the Blues make the right call and ask Lehtera to sit again, but I am certainly concerned that they will opt to sit MagPi or Barbie instead.
Speaking of contract extensions, as I mentioned, Sobotka’s is three years for $10.5 million. To me, this seems like a bold commitment to a center that has not played in the NHL for three years, but Armstrong and the Blues’ staff will of course have been scouting Sobotka in the KHL. Sobotka will be 30 entering next season, so the Blues are paying for three years towards the end of his prime. The $3.5 AAV here is a far cry from the aforementioned $4.7 for Lehtera, so even if it is a mistake, it is a minor mistake. Perhaps the more interesting question is what this means for the Blues’ long-term future. With Paul Stastny set to become an UFA after next season, the Blues’ center position is, as ever, a big question mark. Though some fans argue that Stastny is not a true number one center, he is certainly the closest thing the Blues have to one. With at least four centers under contract now (counting Stastny, Bergund, Lehtera, and Sobotka, though Barbashev probably ought to be included on this list), one wonders whether the front office is expecting Stastny to move on after next season. If they are, the Blues have a very serious issue. None of the above centers, barring Stastny, even approximate a number one, so if Stastny leaves, the Blues will need to find one, and fast.
Whatever the case may be for the long-term, the Blues’ immediate hopes have certainly improved with Sobotka on the team. Assuming that he will be a welcome presence in the locker room and will not affect team chemistry, Sobotka is a good, reliable player who fills a lot of holes, particularly in Stasnty’s absence. And finally, the long saga and the years of questions about Vladimir Sobotka have come to an end. On Saturday, he will be back where he belongs, back in the NHL, back in a Blues uniform.