The St. Louis Blues are about to begin their Stanley Cup defense, and with few changes on the team until last week, many fans had fallen into a sense of familiarity.
While the arrival of Justin Faulk shouldn’t shake up the whole roster, it’s still a new season, and that means a whole lot of new possibilities. Here are five bold Blues predictions to chew on entering the season.
1) Jordan Binnington Will Lead the West in Wins
One of the biggest questions about the Blues entering 2019-20 is what to make of their breakout goaltender Jordan Binnington. Readers know his story: he began the season as an AHL backup and finished it as the first rookie ever to win 16 games en route to a Stanley Cup.
Even so, Binnington finished with just 58 combined regular and postseason games, so it’s difficult to know exactly what kind of goalie he is. What will the first full season as a starter have in store for the Calder finalist?
Binnington will lead the Western Conference in wins in 2019-20. The NHL lead may be out of reach, as Andrei Vasilevsky of the Tampa Bay Lightning has taken that spot two seasons running and that team shows no signs of slowing. But the Western Conference lead is up for grabs, and Binnington will be the one to grab it.
He has several things in his favor: he is an unquestioned starter, playing for one of the best teams in the NHL, who should be due for 50-60 starts next season. It only took 36 wins for Martin Jones to take the lead last year despite a dreadful season. With enough starts, taking first in wins in the Western Conference should be the next feather in Binnington’s cap.
2) Robert Thomas Will Pass 50 Points
Beyond Binnington, Robert Thomas was the Blues’ breakout player in 2018-19. After a rocky start, the former top prospect found his form and finished with 33 points in 70 games. But it was the postseason where he really found his form. He gelled with linemates Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, and in the second series against the Dallas Stars, head coach Craig Berube was double-shifting him. In fact, was Thomas whose incredible playmaking created the climactic goal of the playoffs.
He missed the end of the playoffs with an injury, but now Thomas is fully healthy and ready to take on the world. Even though Maroon departed, Thomas is still on a line with Bozak. Early reports suggest it will be the highly-skilled Robby Fabbri, who is desperate to prove himself while still battling back from consecutive serious knee injuries, on his opposite wing.
In that position, with exposure on the power play and increased opportunity to move up and down the lineups, 50 points should be very attainable for Thomas. In fact, he might push beyond that and climb towards 60. He is loaded with talent, and the sky is the limit.
3) Sammy Blais Will Score 20
This one is a little less certain, only because it’s difficult to know whether Sammy Blais will stick on his current line. But if he does (or if Zach Sanford takes his place), the winger that joins Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron consistently on the second line should score 20 goals.
O’Reilly and Perron are both playmakers, and at times during the regular season, their line looked unstoppable. O’Reilly elevated Perron to heights he’d never reached as a Blue, and the center himself reached career highs in his first season in St. Louis.
Zach Sanford found great success with the duo at times last season, especially in the Stanley Cup Final, when he collected four points in the final five games and netted the final Blues goal of the series. But for Opening Night, it looks like Blais will take his spot on the second line.
It’s an incredible opportunity for the French Canadian who himself proved a valuable asset during the postseason run, and if he sticks on the line, the former 2014 6th round pick who scored 26 and 17 goals in two consecutive seasons in the American Hockey League should be able to reach the 20 goal plateau for the first time in the NHL.
4) Vladimir Tarasenko Will Reach Career Highs
It’s been a rough few seasons for Vladimir Tarasenko as an individual, despite the team’s incredible success. The Russian sniper peaked with 40 goals in 2015-16 and set a career-high with 75 points the following season. But the past two campaigns have seen him score only 33 goals apiece, with 66 and 68 points respectively.
During much of that time, Tarasenko has struggled to recover from a nebulous shoulder injury. Now, he should enter the season fully healthy. Moreover, it is well known that Tarasenko put tremendous pressure on himself to bring a Stanley Cup to St. Louis. Now, the pressure is off his shoulders. Instead, he enters the season motivated to taste glory yet again.
One [title] is not enough. We don’t want to lose anymore… Before we won, I think if we won one, I think it [was] going to be enough, but we just want to win again.Vladimir Tarasenko to NHL.com
A healthy, motivated, unincumbered Tarasenko is one that should terrify Western Conference and Central Division opponents. Blues fans have long waited for their star to return to the 40 goal threshold. This season, they should expect him to pass it, and to set a new career mark in points as well.
5) Pietrangelo or Schenn Will Be Traded
It may not be a happy note to end on, but at some point, major pieces of the Stanley Cup roster will leave. It began with Maroon, but in the future, more will have to go their own way. Right now, Brayden Schenn and Captain Alex Pietrangelo are in the final seasons of their contracts. With Faulk’s arrival, Pietrangelo’s future especially has been further clouded.
The Blues have a very bright future and expect to contend for years to come. But they simply cannot afford to lose two players as important as Schenn and Pietrangelo for nothing, particularly at the same time. Plus, both players were at the center of many trade rumors during last season’s rocky start.
The Blues have extraordinary depth both at center and right-handed defenseman, and players can step up and fill the void if these players depart. During the season, if contract talks remain stagnant, expect to see general manager Doug Armstrong trade one of these players to prevent a total loss in the offseason.
Repeat or Hangover?
In recent years, we’ve seen teams succeed and struggle after a Stanley Cup victory, so which will the Blues do? The team looks primed for further success with an almost fully returned roster and a major new addition in Faulk. If they’re firing on all cylinders, expect bright things for the 2019-20 Blues.
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.