Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 St. Louis Blues.
2021-22 St. Louis Blues
The 2020-21 season was pretty disappointing. The Blues dealt with injuries for most of the season, which prevented them from really being able to play to their full potential in the shortened season. The Blues finished fourth in the West Division and had to play the first-place Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs. The Avalanche swept the Blues so easily that the Blues only had one lead in a game in the entire series and it didn’t come until the fourth game.
Even with the built-in excuses of injuries and a matchup against a better Avalanche team, it was obvious that many things needed to change. The Blues defence was no match for Colorado’s star players as it hung goalie Jordan Binnington out to dry many times. The Blues offence wasn’t as good as it had proven to be in the past and it certainly couldn’t score at the pace Colorado did.
The 2021-22 St Louis Blues will be without some players Blues fans have watched for a long time. Carl Gunnarsson was one of many Blues injured in the 2020-21 season with a knee injury. He officially retired in June. He had been on the team longer than any other current defencemen, coming to the team before the 2014-15 season.
Defenceman Vince Dunn was the Kraken’s pick from the Blues. Free agent forward and Blues’ 2010 first-round pick Jaden Schwartz signed with the Seattle Kraken as a free agent. Free agent forward Mike Hoffman did not re-sign with the Blues, instead choosing to sign with the Montreal Canadiens. Forward Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-rounder were traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Pavel Buchnevich.
The Blues signed longtime Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad as a free agent and traded forward Zach Sanford to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for hometown kid Logan Brown and a fourth-rounder. They also gave James Neal and Michael Frolik PTOs to training camp.
The biggest plotline of the offseason was what would happen with Vladimir Tarasenko. It was first reported in July that Tarasenko had asked to be traded from the Blues. An Athletic article from Jeremy Rutherford said that he was unhappy with how the team handled his first two shoulder surgeries and that he felt there was no trust left between him and the organization. Fans waited not so patiently for a trade to happen, but it still hasn’t. No one really knows what to expect, but Tarasenko is here for now at least.
Jordan Kyrou – Ryan O’Reilly – David Perron
James Neal – Brayden Schenn – Pavel Buchnevich
Brandon Saad – Robert Thomas – Vladimir Tarasenko
Ivan Barbashev – Dakota Joshua – Tyler Bozak
It’s pretty obvious O’Reilly and Perron are going to stick together. They succeed when they are attached at the hip. Kyrou has played with them a couple of times during the preseason. He’s coming off the best season of his career and definitely has a chance to get top-line minutes.
The Neal pick is bold, but he’s impressed at camp so far, and it doesn’t seem like Klim Kostin or Mackenzie MacEachern are ready for that responsibility. Buchnevich has seemingly already found chemistry with Schenn in the preseason so it seems like a good place to start him.
The entire second and third lines have the potential to switch places. The Blues could promote Thomas and Tarasenko if they outplay Schenn and Buchnevich. But right now, Schenn has more experience than Thomas, and Tarasenko is a little more unpredictable after his three surgeries than Buchnevich. Saad’s been playing with Thomas and Tarasenko in the preseason a little so that makes sense.
The fourth line has room to change depending on how the rest of the preseason goes. Barbashev and Bozak are veterans and have seemingly already earned their spots, but Joshua hasn’t necessarily. He’s been physical so far in the preseason, laying hits and getting into a fight, which is something the Blues need more of. But Logan Brown could take that spot as well. When Oskar Sundqvist is ready to come back from his torn ACL injury, he might start out on the fourth line, possibly taking Joshua’s spot unless he plays incredibly before then. That leaves Kyle Clifford, Brown, Michael Frolik, Kostin and MacEachern without a full-time spot.
Marco Scandella – Colton Parayko
Scott Perunovich – Robert Bortuzzo
The top four are pretty set in stone. After Gunnarsson got injured and when the rest were healthy last year, these were the top four defencemen. It’s possible that a younger guy could outplay Scandella and crack into the top four, but the other three are making the big bucks for a reason and will likely stay where they are.
There are options for the bottom pairing. Niko Mikkola, Jake Walman or Perunovich could be paired with Bortuzzo. Mikkola and Walman have a little experience while Perunovich doesn’t have any. However, Perunovich has impressed more at camp and deserves a shot.
There’s no question that it’s Binnington’s net this season. What is in question is who the backup should be. Husso played in 17 games last season and didn’t have the most impressive numbers. While he ended the season with a shutout, he had a .893 save percentage and a 3.20 goals against average. That’s his only NHL experience. Most of the Blues’ other goaltending prospects have little to no experience in the league. The Blues need someone else they can turn to if Binnington has a bad stretch or gets injured. Husso seems like the best option, but there’s also Joel Hofer, who played pretty well this preseason before he was sent down to the AHL. There’s also Charlie Lindgren, who played 24 games over five seasons for the Montreal Canadiens and could have potential.
Players to Watch
All eyes are on Tarasenko. And by all, I don’t just mean in St. Louis. He has to play for it if he still wants to be traded. He has the power to drive his own value up by getting back to the 70+ point player he used to be. But even scoring a fraction of that would really help the Blues, either in having a talented goal scorer to try and help lead them to the playoffs or in getting something maybe even better in return.
Buchnevich looks to be the most exciting Blues offseason acquisition. He’s coming off the best offensive season of his career with 48 points in 54 games. If he’s able to gel quickly with his linemates, he could have another career year. The Blues’ offence needs to be at its best to help the Blues defence. And with Tarasenko and Buchnevich both playing well, the Blues have a better chance at postseason success.
Prediction for 2021-22 St. Louis Blues
The Blues have the talent to be a playoff team at least. If Tarasenko stays and is able to return to his pre-surgeries self, the new additions to the team are able to produce as much as they did on their previous teams, they might have a chance to make a run in the playoffs.
The team’s main problem is that the defence isn’t as good as Blues fans are used to seeing because they didn’t do much to upgrade it over the offseason. Losing Dunn in the expansion draft gives the opportunity for a young defenseman like Perunovich to take his place. Dunn had experience but was at times a defensive liability. Perunovich might be an improvement. The Blues’ more experienced defencemen will probably continue to improve as well. But it’s not likely they will improve enough to go on another Cup run.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images