The St. Louis Blues entered the 2019 NHL Draft as the defending Stanley Cup Champions. But that wouldn’t deter general manager Doug Armstrong from preparing to build a foundation for the future.
Coming off the back of a 2018 Draft where he selected a future Hobey Baker Award winner (Scott Perunovich) and a future World Junior Championship national hero (Joel Hofer, though neither had done it yet at the time), Armstrong had a long tenure of success to live up to. Without a first-round pick thanks to the trade that brought in Conn Smythe Trophy and Selke Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly, he would start with just five picks, the earliest coming 62nd overall.
It’s been almost a year now since the 2019 Draft, and though the COVID-19 pandemic shortened many of these prospects’ seasons, it is still an appropriate time to look back at the players Armstrong selected a year later and begin to judge how he and his team did.
Nikita Alexandrov (Pick 62, F, Charlottetown Islanders, QMJHL)
Nikita Alexandrov, whom the Blues selected from the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders at 62nd overall, is a prototypical middle-round Blues selection. Armstrong has built his drafting resume off of targeting players with high hockey-IQ, and the young Russian center certainly has that.
This is what The Athletic’s Senior Prospect Writer Corey Pronman said about Alexandrov after the draft: “he’s a very smart center who makes high-level plays and is a creative passer. He can run a power play off the flank with his skill and vision… It’s hard to find a true weakness in his game” (from ‘Grading the St. Louis Blues’ 2019 draft class,’ The Athletic NHL, June 22, 2019).
In a shortened 2019-20 season, Alexandrov looked ready to improve on 61 points in 64 games in his draft year. He finished with 54 points in 42 games, an 82 point pace over 64 games. But the highlight of his season was probably the 2020 World Junior Championship, at which he shined. He was one of Russia’s best players, finishing second with two goals and six assists, and winning “player of the game” honors for his team in their failed effort during the gold medal game.
Alexandrov’s stock has not necessarily skyrocketed since the 2019 Draft, but it certainly has not sunk, either. He looks on track to be an NHL player, and probably a good one. Blues fans will recognize many of the same characteristics in his game as they see in Ivan Barbashev, another Russian import drafted out of the QMJHL. But Alexandrov has one advantage Barbashev does not: his wicked shot gives him significantly more scoring potential than his counterpart has yet displayed at the NHL level.
Colten Ellis (Pick 93, G, Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL)
If program history has a role in developing NHL talent, then Blues fans will be excited to know that Colten Ellis has played with the Rimouski Océanic, the program that produced Sidney Crosby where he played this season with the presumptive first-overall pick in 2020, Alexis Lafrenière.
The Blues drafted Ellis despite a relatively small frame for a goalie. He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 187 pounds. But they believed in his athleticism. Pronman labeled him “one of the most athletic goalies available for [the 2019] draft,” saying “He can get to pucks most goalies can’t.” But he shared the popular concern about Ellis’ size.
Ellis posted similar numbers in 2019-20 that he did in 2018-19: a .904 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.41 goals-against average (GAA) in 29 games compared with .910 and 2.47 in 46 games last season. But he did undergo one significant change just days ago: ironically, the Océanic traded Ellis to the Islanders, where he’ll join Alexandrov when QMJHL hockey resumes next season.
Goalie development is always a roller coaster, and the Blues have seen recent success with a former third-round goalie selection in Jordan Binnington, after many years of delays in the process. Ellis will be well-served playing on a competitive team in the 2020-21 season and will have the added bonus of joining his fellow Blues draftee in the locker room. The athleticism is there. If he can nail down his mechanics, he could have a very bright future.
Keean Washkurak (Pick 155, C, Mississauga Steelheads, OHL)
If Keean Washkurak ever makes the NHL — which is no guarantee for a late fifth-round draft pick — he will become a fan favorite in St. Louis. He has the blue-collar, brawler mentality that Blues fans are immediately drawn to. Pronman spoke fairly high of him, pointing out his “high compete level” and ” good talent base,” saying “he skates well with the ability to push the pace.” He did note an overall lack of dynamism for his size at 5-foot-10.
Washkurak showed an improved ability to score this season, collecting 52 points in 49 games for 1.06 points per game. That’s a significant increase from the 0.71 points per game he posted in his draft season. That is a big change, but Washkurak still has a long road to walk. With his determination and work ethic, though, he has a chance to make it to the NHL one day.
Vadim Zherenko (Pick 208, G, MHC Dynamo Moscow, MHL)
It’s rare that a team would select two goalies in the same draft class, particularly when limited to only five picks, so the Blues must really have seen something in Russian goalie Vadim Zherenko, especially since they traded back into the draft to get him. But plenty of great goaltenders have started as late-round selections, including many of the top ten NHL goalie prospects. Zherenko played his draft season in the Russian junior league, the MHL, and he split this season between the MHL and the VHL, Russia’s second-tier professional league.
Zherenko had strong numbers in his draft year, with a 2.29 GAA and .936 SV%, but he played just 19 games, so he had a lot to prove. He began to prove it during the 2019-20 season, which he got to play to completion in the MHL. In his VHL time, he played 16 games and had a 2.28 GAA and a .915 SV%, but he dominated the junior league. In 21 games, his GAA was 1.62 and his SV% was .936, and he played an additional four games in the MHL playoffs with a 1.30 GAA and a .952 SV%, despite the early exit.
Zherenko is still just 19, turning that age on the day he was eliminated from the playoffs. At such a young age, he has plenty to prove. But goalie development is always a crapshoot, and Russia has produced plenty of fine netminders, so it seems like a low-risk, potentially high-reward pick for Armstrong’s crew.
Jérémy Michel (Pick 217, F, Val-d’Or Foreurs, QMJHL)
In most sports, the last selection on draft night is known dismissively as “Mr. Irrelevant.” Jérémy Michel, a QMJHL forward, is looking to overcome that label. And no one can argue he regressed in the first season after his draft. In 2018-19, he scored 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points in 64 games. In 2019-20, he scored 18 goals and 24 assists for 42 points in 63 games. He’s a consistent player, but clearly, he has a lot to prove before he reaches the NHL.
A Good Start for Armstrong
With just five picks, no first-round selection, and coming off a Stanley Cup Championship, it was always unlikely that the 2019 Draft was going to be a massive winner for Armstrong and crew. But a year later, they seem to have a good start. Alexandrov looked strong and seems like a pretty certain NHLer, and no player seemed to regress significantly. Both goaltenders, Ellis and Zherenko, look to have taken a significant step forward in their development. All told, it seems to have gone as well as one could expect given the circumstances.
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.