The St. Louis Blues are reeling from the departure of captain Alex Pietrangelo to the Vegas Golden Knights. Moreover, they will enter the 2020-21season without the services of either Alex Steen or Vladimir Tarasenko, both of whom are expected to enter the season on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR). And as of this writing, young defenseman Vince Dunn remains a restricted free agent (RFA) with little salary cap space to sign him.
With all of that turnover, there will be holes to fill, and solutions aren’t likely to come from outside the organization under current circumstances. In this article, we’ll look at three candidates likely to break out with the Blues during the 2020-21 season. But before we begin, we should recognize: not every breakout candidate has to be a young, unproven player. In fact, our first candidate is not.
General manager Doug Armstrong traded for right-handed defenseman Justin Faulk weeks before the 2019-20 season began, then immediately signed him to a costly seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension. Faulk never looked settled in his new home and hit a career-low in goals per game (0.072) and points per game (0.232). The man who ranks fifth amongst defensemen over the past nine seasons with 41 power play goals (PPG) had just one, having dropped from 2:56 in time on ice on the power play the season prior to just 1:05 with the Blues.
It’s clear that whatever his other motives, Armstrong acquired Faulk at least in part as an insurance policy should Pietrangelo negotiations stall. Now, he is forced to cash in that insurance policy, and many fans are understandably nervous given Faulk’s subpar performance the season prior.
But the likelihood of at least something resembling a return to form for Faulk is high. He would hardly be the first player to struggle during his first season in a new home. But beyond that, his role was never settled in the 2019-20 season. He played with different linemates, often on his offhand side, and was never given a role to shine on the power play where he’d built much of his resume in the past.
Entering this season, Faulk will have a clearly defined role in the top-four, and he is likely to see substantially increased power play time, potentially even surpassing Colton Parayko, who will be more heavily relied upon on the penalty kill with Pietrangelo now departed. If Faulk has a consistent role and more power play time, especially if he plays opposite new arrival Torey Krug, he should improve substantially this season. That could even make him bait for his former general manager Ron Francis in the upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft.
Moving onto the most obvious breakout candidate for the 2020-21 Blues team, Jordan Kyrou has played 44 games in the NHL over the last two seasons, and has been an AHL All-Star in that time. The former OHL Most Outstanding Player and World Junior Championship gold medalist will have to take the next step in his NHL development if the Blues’ offense is to have a chance at recovering from the loss of Tarasenko, not to mention Pietrangelo’s point production.
After two seasons of partial NHL playing time and a postseason debut inside the bubble, Armstrong expects that Kyrou will at least be an everyday player going forward. “I’m hoping he’s at that point now where when I talk to [head coach] Craig [Berube] about his lineup — like I never wonder if Schwartz or Schenn or Perron are playing — I’m hoping that’s Kyrou now. That I’m never wondering, ‘Is he going to be a guy sitting beside me (in the press box) that night” (from ‘Blues GM Doug Armstrong won’t rule out another signing, but cost may be too high,’ The Athletic NHL, Oct. 30, 2020).
Kyrou certainly has the skill and the elite skating of a top-six NHL scorer, as his two 90-plus point seasons with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting certainly demonstrate. Now it is incumbent upon the former 2016 second-round pick to prove that he is a full-time NHL player and, hopefully, prove that he can replace some of the scoring lost by the Blues over the last few seasons.
Though there will likely be some sort of competition during the preseason, it seems all but certain that longtime prospect Ville Husso will be tabbed as the Blues’ backup goalie entering the season. Last season, Armstrong signed Husso to a one-way, two-year contract extension. Then earlier this offseason, he traded goaltender Jake Allen to the Montreal Canadiens for a draft pick. Only Jon Gillies, who hasn’t played an NHL game since the 2017-18 season, has joined the organization, leaving Husso as the obvious favorite to backup Jordan Binnington.
It is a critical juncture for the Finnish netminder, who will enter the season as a soon-to-be-26-year-old. After a sterling career in his native country, Husso has had ups and downs in North America and has never fully established himself at the American Hockey League level. But he has had brilliant stretches, and finished with a .909 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.56 goals against average (GAA) in 42 games last season.
Now, he’ll be tasked as the backup during a season where the schedule is likely to be compressed and the demand for a reliable backup is likely to be high. Moreover, Binnington will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end after looking incredibly shaky in the postseason.
Though it isn’t likely that the Blues would move on so quickly from the goaltender that won their first-ever Stanley Cup, a strong performance from Husso this season would give the Blues a solid argument to make him their longterm goalie solution. That was always the plan before Binnington derailed it. A breakout season from Husso in 2020-21 could put that train right back on its tracks.
The Biggest Breakout of All?
Of course, these three candidates are not an exhaustive list of the players the Blues are hoping will take a step next season. Zach Sanford and Sammy Blais are among the forwards that Armstrong likely hopes will contribute much more offensively. And Scott Perunovich, Niko Mikkola, and Dunn’s statuses remain uncertain defensively.
But the biggest breakout candidate may be someone entering his third NHL season, none other than Blues’ 21-year-old center Robert Thomas. A fuller treatment of his potential as a breakout player and what fans can reasonably expect from him this season is coming. Check back at the Hockey Writers in the coming days to learn more.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.