Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 St. Louis Blues.
2020-21 St. Louis Blues
Before the season was paused, the Blues were first in the Western Conference and looked like they were well on their way to another deep playoff run, and maybe even a second Stanley Cup.
The playoffs came and the Blues looked like an entirely different team, though. They lost all three of their round-robin games to the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars to determine the playoff seeding. The Blues might have benefitted from winning at least one of those games so that they could have had a lower-seeded team to play in the first round and potentially have a better chance at advancing. But, they didn’t. So, with the fourth seed, they faced the fifth-seeded Vancouver Canucks.
The problems the Blues had in the round-robin games seemed even worse against the Canucks. The biggest issue was the defence or rather, lack thereof. The Blues defence, which was pretty close to the same defence they won the Cup with, was a shell of its old self. It didn’t stand a chance against the Canucks’ younger and faster players. But it wasn’t just the defence. Jordan Binnington was giving up soft goals too. The offence was also having a hard time scoring. The Blues lost 4-2 to the Canucks. It was a mess all around and a very disappointing end to the Blues’ hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
Fans were still hopeful the team could reach a deal with captain Alex Pietrangelo when the Blues surprisingly announced that they had signed free agent defenceman Torey Krug to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract. That pretty much gave Pietrangelo no other choice but to leave. He signed a seven-year, $61.6 million contract with the Golden Knights. The Blues also re-signed restricted free agent defenceman Vince Dunn to a one-year, $1.875 million contract. Depth-wise, the Blues also re-signed defencemen Jake Walman and Mitch Reinke to two-way contracts. They also signed former Nashville Predators defenceman Steven Santini to a two-way contract.
The Blues traded backup goaltender Jake Allen to the Montreal Canadiens, seemingly to try to get some salary off the books so they could afford to sign at least some of their free agents. Then, they added Blues added some goaltending depth by signing former Calgary Flames goalie Jon Gillies.
On the offensive side, the Blues will miss Alex Steen, who recently retired with a back injury. They will also be without star forward Vladimir Tarasenko for at least part of the season because of another shoulder surgery. He had surgery at the end of October. He was projected to be back in five months, which would put him back at the end of March. However, the addition of Mike Hoffman, who is currently on a PTO with the team but is expected to sign a one-year deal, should help the Blues immensely. They also added former Los Angeles Kings grinder Kyle Clifford. Depth-wise, the Blues also signed Jake Neighbours to an entry-level deal. They also re-signed Austin Poganski, Jacob de La Rose and Nolan Stevens and added free agents Sam Anas and Curtis McKenzie.
With training camp being shorter this season and there not being time for any preseason games, there isn’t as much time as there usually is for coach Craig Berube to tinker with line combinations. So, these lineup projections are based on the ones that have been reported so far in training camp, but they could change at any point.
Until Tarasenko comes back, the top six seems pretty set in stone. Even without Tarasenko though, the Blues are stacked. Everyone has already seen the electric chemistry between O’Reilly and Perron. But with the addition of Hoffman and the expectation that Thomas is going to be even better this season, the second line could be just as powerful as the first.
The bottom has the most potential to change. For example, if Kyrou has a bad game, they may sub in Sammy Blais. If Sanford has a bad game, they may sub in Mackenzie MacEachern. There’s room for change from one night to the next because the team is allowed to carry more players this season. They could also give Barbashev or Sundqvist more minutes if they’re having a particularly good stretch. If these lines stick, between all the hits and the fights, the fourth line could be particularly fun to watch.
Torey Krug-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Robert Bortuzzo
Extra: Carl Gunnarsson
All of the pairings seem to be up in the air at the moment. There seems to be some chemistry between Krug and Parayko already so wouldn’t be surprising for them to be paired together. It also wouldn’t be surprising for a Krug-Faulk pairing to be tested, seeing as they played together in the 2015 World Championships. Last season, Dunn and Faulk also played a lot together. Parayko also played with Scandella. The defensive pairings could change a lot until Berube finds who Krug plays best with. Regardless, Krug will definitely be on the first pairing.
Again, the bottom pairing could be up in the air at least for the start of the season. Dunn and Bortuzzo were paired together in the Blues’ intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday night and their team won 5-2. Gunnarsson, who usually plays on the left side, has been playing on the right side during camp, seemingly trying to get into the lineup anyway he can. So he could sub in almost anywhere if need be.
There’s no doubt that it’s Binnington’s net, but it is still a question who the backup will be. The Blues could benefit from the new requirement that teams have to carry three goaltenders because they don’t know exactly what they’re going to get from Husso, who has yet to play in an NHL game. At least with Gillies, he’s played in 12 games, although the last time he played was in the 2017-18 season and his numbers weren’t very impressive. The Blues need Binnington to be at his best because if he isn’t, they no longer have an experienced backup like Allen to turn to.
Players to Watch
As previously mentioned, this is going to be a very telling year for Binnington. Was what happened in the bubble a fluke or is he really not the same goaltender that led the Blues to the Stanley Cup? The Blues no longer have a safe fallback option in Allen. Their other goaltending options are question marks right now. All the pressure is on Binnington this season to return to form. The Blues chances of winning another Cup pretty much depend on it.
Since the day that he signed with St. Louis, there has been a lot of pressure placed on his shoulders. Part of that is unfair, he isn’t Pietrangelo. But at the same time, like Pietrangelo, he can help the Blues power play continue to be one of the best in the league. He could even make it better. It seems like he is finding quick chemistry with Parayko in training camp and if that sticks during actual games, he could be one of the most exciting players on the team to watch this season.
Prediction for the 2020-21 St. Louis Blues
All in all, the Blues improved over the offseason. The problem is that other teams in their division, specifically the Avalanche and the Golden Knights, did too. Now, the Blues will have to face their division opponents a lot more than in a normal season. For that reason, the Blues will likely finish around third in the division, just behind the Avalanche and Golden Knights. The Blues are poised to make a deep playoff run if Binnington is able to revert back to his old self and if the Blues new additions both on offence and defence can be as helpful as they are expected to be.
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