Updated: May 10
Well that ends another year of Blues hockey. It has been, by far, the most bizarre and humbling season I have experienced as a Blues fan since Erik Johnson tore his knee getting out of a golf cart. We all watched from the beginning this year, hoping to witness one of the rarest sights in modern day sports. A successful season leading to a repeat championship, something that few franchises have ever achieved.
These will always be the COVID season and the COVID playoffs. The Blues looked as strong as they ever had when the season was postponed several times in March, only to be canceled entirely, and the future of the 2019-2020 season appeared to be in jeopardy. The time off combined with the rushed return to action took its toll on every team that participated in the play-in tournament. The Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, and the Winnipeg Jets were all strong teams who were playing their best hockey in March. None of them made it to the playoff tournament.
The Blues themselves lost every game of the seeding series in which they played the Avs, Stars, and Golden Knights. While we could see that the Blues were competitive in most of their games, the team was never hit top gear or played their best hockey during the shortened playoff schedule. It’s a shame that we as fans will truly never get to know whether or not this roster could have made another deep playoff run. Had the schedule not been changed and, frankly, bastardized in the way that it was – and, indeed, had to be – the ending may have been different. Though we are not alone among other NHL fanbases and those of other major sports who have obviously also been impacted by COVID-19. Take solace, reader, in the knowledge that Blues hockey will be back. Now as we turn our attention towards the season to come, here are some thoughts about the future of this team.
UP AND COMING PLAYERS
The Blues, as former Stanley Cup Champions (still feels nice to say), are suffering from the same cap sickness that effects all winners of that trophy. Immediately after any championship, the players get paid – and with finite funds to spend on contracts – teams must weigh their options carefully in the future in order to remain competitive. Balancing salary while still remaining competitive is a difficult task and the Blues will look to their organizational depth to continue making strides forward. Though not hockey, this was on full display after the Kansas City Royals won their 2015 World Series. 5 years later and the entire team that achieved greatness is now gone. But the Blues, thankfully, have several young phenoms to choose from:
Robert Thomas: Before he even made the team, the entire organization’s water cooler talk centered around Robert Thomas. His speed, skill, and hockey sense were much better than above average for a 19 year-old. When he finally stepped on the ice for the Blues, fans fell in love with how he plays the game and could be a player with the talent to break games and find open ice. While he hasn’t realized his full potential yet, he improved with every single game that the Blues played. I, for one, am very excited to see his continued development – with hopes that he will finally be placed in the Top 6 forwards next season. Playing alongside David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brayden Schenn should give the young savant the opportunity to score much more.
Scott Perunovich: If Alex Pietrangelo is re-signed, and all signs currently point to Doug Armstrong working diligently to make enough cap room to keep the captain, then we likely will not see Perunovich play a game in the NHL next season. Competition for starting 6 ice time is already fierce and the team is stacked with veterans like Gunnarsson, Bortuzzo, Scandella, and Parayko – along with Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman in the minors. Perunovich, however, has a strong resume that comes with the Hobey Baker Award – having been voted the best player in the NCAA. He scored 6 goals and 34 assists for 40 points in 34 games. But defensemen don’t achieve those point totals without a great talent for offense. But Perunovich may need some time to improve his defense in order to win a job at the NHL level, especially under Craig Berube. Having already said that he models his game after Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins, Blues fans can wait eagerly for this young man to develop.
Jordan Kyrou: Possible trade bait, admittedly, but Kyrou made visible improvement throughout the season. His game hasn’t quite adjusted to the NHL level, but he was vastly improved than during his cup of coffee with the Blues during the 2018-2019 season. Having put on more muscle, adjusted his physicality, and learned that you can’t just skate your way through defenses in this league - Kyrou appeared to step up his game and show signs of the player the Blues hoped they were getting after Jordan scored 203 pts in 113 games for the Sarnia Sting (OHL). Just in case you don’t know how impressive that is: Steven Stamkos, captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a former #1 draft pick and member of the Sarnia Sting – scored 197 pts in 124 games at the OHL level – and is the same height as Kyrou. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.
Klim Kostin: Expectations have always been high for Klim Kostin since being selected with the #31 pick at the draft. A winger with excellent size at 6’3 and 212 pounds. Blues fans have seen a brief glimpse of Kostin’s abilities, having only played 4 games at the NHL level. He is still early in his development into an NHL regular, but he improved each season that he played in the minors and has impressed scouts with his smooth skating ability. We shall see if, like Kyrou, Kostin can make the jump from prospect to player pushing for ice time.
Mackenzie MacEachern: I just wanted to throw this one in. We saw how important good 4th liners are in the 2019 Stanley Cup run. MacEachern has shown a skating ability and tenacious forecheck that every coach salivates over. I look forward to his future work on the ice. He’s just plain good, people.
WHAT TO HOPE FOR?
Health: While injuries are a reality for every season, the Blues were hit with an injury bug the size of a Volkswagon last year. The list is immense: Steen, Blais, Sanford, Gunnarsson, Tarasenko, Barbashev, Parayko, MacEachern, Bouwmeeseter, Bozak, Blais (again), Steen (again), Sundqvist, Bozak (again), and Pietrangelo. Each of those players missed games due to injury. Tarasenko, Blais, Steen, and Bouwmeester all missed significant time, the latter possibly suffering a career-ending heart episode. At any rate, the Blues can hope for better in the 2020-21 season, or at least they can be ready with an arsenal of ice packs.
COME BACK PLAYER CANDIDATE
Justin Faulk: Okay, this one may be a bit obvious – like saying someone who hits rock bottom has nowhere to go but up. Faulk has, at times deservedly so, become a punching bag for Blues fans this season. He required significant investment to acquire from the Hurricanes and was signed to a 7-year deal after several excellent years with Carolina. Despite the hype around his move to the 314, his struggles to fit his play to the Blues’ system was about as noticeable as dumping black paint in an all-white bathroom.
He looked better than competent with the puck on his stick but was prone to easy turnovers. He skated hard, used his speed to cover opponents, but often times was found on the other side of the ice when the puck found its way to the forward he was supposed to be covering. There were sadly too many examples to count. BUT. Justin Faulk is still an excellent hockey player who has the potential to be a powerplay quarterback and a significant offensive force. With another offseason and training camp to find his role among the Blues D-corps, Justin Faulk should be able to resurrect his game back to the level he was at with the Canes.
WHAT TO WORRY ABOUT?
Goaltending: Possibly the most important position in all of sports, good or bad goaltending can heavily influence the outcome of a team’s season. Of course, the starter will be Jordan Binnington. Naturally, as there is no other choice – especially after the trade of historical stalwart in net, Jake “The Snake” Allen. As Allen goes, so does the safety net for the Blues (Haha, puns). “Binner” will now play the majority of minutes but also has the responsibility of being the clear #1 option in town. The pressure of performing at a top level without a talented back up behind you can be tough for some goalies to handle. I give you Brian Elliott’s move to Philidelphia and Carter Hutton’s move to Buffalo as examples. Both of those players were excellent in 2-man tandems for the Blues and both of them struggled when placed in the clear #1 role – the latter losing his starter status to Linus Ullmark, of all people.
So, you might be asking, who will be the back-up for Binnington next season? Barring a free-agent acquisition or trade, there are two goalies in the organization that are ready to lace up their pads:
Ville Husso: An elite prospect coming out of the Finnish league, the young net-minder distinguished himself while playing against grown men in his home country. Husso appeared to be living up to his potential before a stretch of bad play in the AHL that had many reconsidering his status as a high-level goalie prospect. It goes without saying that he can come back and still be a significant piece for the Blues. He will definitely get a shot to win the back-up job. He’s the heir apparent and will most likely be the one to replace Jake Allen – whether he can keep that position will be something to watch for.
Joel Hofer: Hofer is probably relatively unknown amongst Blues fans but that may just be a matter of time. At 6’1, he has a similar build to Jake Allen and is reported to be a very gifted athlete. With very effective side-to-side movement within the crease, his ceiling could be quite high, especially given his standout performance at the World Junior Championships (WJC). Joel was able to win a gold medal with Canada, going 5 for 5 with a GAA of 1.60 and a .939 save percentage. That is some GOOD goaltending. Wait and see on this one, Blues fans.
And with that, the preview comes to an end. Thank you so much for reading and let us know if you would like to see more Blues or sports talk in the future! For more content, make sure you stay tuned to Underground STL LIVE, Mondays at 9 PM on Facebook and YouTube – and keep on coming back to undergroundstl.com for more articles that GO DEEP!