The St. Louis Blues remain a very competitive team this season once again. They are three seasons removed from their first Stanley Cup in franchise history but are a different-looking team today.
The Blues clinched a playoff spot for the fourth season in a row and 10th time in the past 11 seasons with their eighth consecutive win, reaching 100 points. They are the third team in the Western Conference to clinch a spot after defeating their likely first-round opponents in the Minnesota Wild.
For the first time since their Stanley Cup win, the Blues are trying to make it out of the first round. With the team they have this season and likely next season, their window is small but they have all the tools to succeed.
Blues’ Expiring Contracts a Key Factor
This season the Blues are strong at all three positions – forward, defence, and goaltending. The defence isn’t something they really have to worry about other than paying three defencemen $6.5 million AAV (average annual value) for the next five seasons at minimum.
Age may become a factor, as Torey Krug is 31 and Justin Faulk is 30. They are hoping the third player being paid that much money, Colton Parayko, will continue to grow as he hits the prime of his career. Other than Scott Perunivoch who has an expiring contract but is expected to sign a bridge deal and be among the top four next season, the Blues’ problem doesn’t lay in their defencemen.
The contract issues the Blues face will come from mainly their forward group and also from their goaltending. Starting with goaltending, Jordan Binnington was awarded a two-year, $8.8 million contract following the incredible run he took the Blues on to win the Stanley Cup. That season saw him make just $650,000.
The 24-5-1 run he went on to help the Blues even qualify for the playoffs in 2018-19 was some amazing hockey that was very rare with the scoring increased around the league. His 1.89 goals against average (GAA) and .927 save percentage (SV%) were also stellar. They had to realize those numbers would be very improbable to repeat. Binnington’s SV% has dropped each season since, all the way down to .902 in 2021-22, and that’s where we find ourselves today.
After posting a .910 SV% last season, Binnington was again awarded a contract, this time much less deserving. He signed a six-year, $36 million deal that saw him make $6 million AAV. He is in year one of that deal. Luckily for the Blues, Ville Husso has broken out in a big way and provided the team with the goaltending that they very much needed to be where they are in the standings. If they had run with Binnington all season, there is no telling how many points back of their current state they would be.
Husso has started over twice the amount of games as he had last season in his rookie year. With that, he has increased his SV% from .893 to .923 and GAA from 3.21 to 2.44. The numbers he has posted this year are among the best in the NHL and he has been a key contributor to many of the Blues’ wins this season.
The problem they face is that he is making just $750,000 this season and will be looking for a big pay raise, whether the Blues can give him that or not. It is likely Husso will want a starting job, and he will get that somewhere (from “LeBrun: With some quality goalies potentially available this offseason, who could be on the move? Who stays?”, The Athletic, April 13, 2022). The Blues already have Binnington making $6 million for five more seasons as the man they chose to be the guy in net for the foreseeable future. With Binnington locked up and no easy option to move him out and sign Husso, they have this season to go all the way with him manning the crease.
The Blues’ forward group is one of the best and deepest in the NHL. They have seven with 50-plus points already this season and two more between 46 and 49. Surprisingly, the top line is the least productive offensively. It is made up of Ryan O’Reilly, Brandon Saad, and David Perron.
The entire second line of Robert Thomas, Pavel Buchnevich, and Vladimir Tarasenko is above a point-per-game. There is no issue this season and not a huge one next season either. It’s the 2023-24 season that the Blues have to worry about and when I predict their Stanley Cup window will be closed for at least a few years.
On the active roster, the Blues have just two forwards with expiring contracts, Perron and Dakota Joshua. The latter could easily return on a cheap contract, but Perron will require more term and money than the Blues should be willing to commit to.
So the Blues’ team this year is fine and is a dark horse to win the Cup while they can easily replicate the success next season with the core group of players sticking around. It is the 2023 offseason that will see changes come with many pay raises thrown into the mix. The unrestricted free agent (UFA) forwards after the 2022-23 season include O’Reilly, Tarasenko, Ivan Barbashev, and Nathan Walker. The first three are the key players there. Then there are Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Alexei Toropchenko, and Logan Brown. Each of these players is 24 years old or younger and should factor into the future. Thomas and Kyrou are going to see significant pay increases with their elevated play and age, and the Blues should definitely prioritize them over anybody else.
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With the mass number of impact players’ contracts ending, the Blues will have their hands full and won’t be able to bring everybody back. It remains to be seen if the next batch of talent can come in and contribute on cheap deals like a few players have done this season.
Blues’ Next Batch of Talent
Perunovich and Toropchenko have arrived in St. Louis, and I don’t see them heading back to the American Hockey League (AHL) anytime soon. Klim Kostin is another story but is still a former first-round pick of the Blues. The other names that have the potential to make an impact in the NHL by the time the roster will be shaken up are Jake Neighbours and Zachary Bolduc.
Neighbours and Bolduc are still in junior for their final season. Neighbours is lighting up the Western Hockey League (WHL) after returning from his nine-game trial with the Blues to open the season. Bolduc has continued to progress and is creeping up in the top-10 in scoring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). I would say Neighbours could make the jump next season while Bolduc will require at least another season to adjust to pro hockey in the AHL. They should both be key players moving forward and hopefully will fill some holes in the next couple of seasons for cheap.
Kostin played 40 games this season for the Blues but has continued to struggle to find his footing in the NHL and was sent down to the AHL. In a fourth-line role, four goals and nine points isn’t horrible, but other facets of his game could be improved. His inconsistent play is worrisome, and the Blues could even consider using him as a trade chip to keep their Stanley Cup window open a bit longer. He was chosen just 11 picks after Thomas in the 2017 Draft and those two are miles apart right now. It remains to be seen if Kostin can be the right player to fill a hole left by a top-nine player down the line.
Competition is Tough in 2021-22
The toughest test for the Blues will be getting out of their division since they will have to go through the Minnesota Wild who are also an excellent and well-rounded team, and then the Colorado Avalanche who are Cup favourites and have already sealed the title of the best team in the Western Conference.
There are even more Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference if the Blues manage to make it all the way to the Final. Between the Florida Panthers, who have an unstoppable offence, Carolina Hurricanes, two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, and even possibly the Toronto Maple Leafs, they would have their hands full every series this postseason and another battle again in 2023.
Sure the Blues could prove me wrong and stay among the NHL’s best for longer than next season. I don’t think they will fall from being a playoff team but there are other teams that will pass them by with fewer players to worry about paying and leaving the team.