The St. Louis Blues have clearly taken a few steps back defensively over the last couple of seasons, as their blue line is no longer the true strength of their team like it was in 2018-19. As THW’s own Stephen Ground wrote, the Blues’ defense needs an identity — will they be able to find one going into next season, though? Let’s take a look at the potential blue line.
Under Contract for 2021-22 Season
The Blues currently have eight of their nine rostered defenseman under contract for next season: Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Colton Parayko, Marco Scandella, Robert Bortuzzo, Niko Mikkola, Jake Walman, and Steven Santini. All of these players count more than $25 million towards the 2021-22 salary cap.
Keep in mind that they also have Scott Perunovich under contract for next season as well, and he will push for a potential spot in the unit as well. Faulk has become a solid two-way, dependable defender for the club. He’s certainly bounced back from his 2019-20 struggles, so I don’t think he’s going anywhere.
Some may think that Krug could be exposed for the Seattle Kraken to take, but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think Armstrong would have signed Krug to that long-term deal without the thought of keeping him around for a while. He’s been better defensively than some may think or expect, and his presence on the power play has been seen over the last couple of months.
Parayko is a tricky one. There have been people calling for the club to either make him the anchor of the blue line for the next decade, or trade him in order to reset and get assets back. I personally think if he is healthy, he can be that No. 1 guy — he hasn’t been that this season due to injuries. We’ve seen over the last couple of weeks that if healthy, Parayko is a more aggressive and better player.
Scandella has clear potential to be on a shutdown pair with Parayko as they’ve tried over the past couple of seasons. He came here to try and replace Jay Bouwmeester after his retirement, and he’s been solid in doing that. Bortuzzo is a solid plug-and-play guy for this team. I don’t think he will be in the lineup to start the 2021-22 season, but he is there whenever they need him. He is a physical player who kills penalties well as long as he isn’t in the box himself.
Mikkola and Walman have seemingly earned a serious look to break into the lineup for next season, but I don’t think both will get into it. As far as Santini goes, we haven’t seen him much, but he has been solid as a physical hitter as well as an aggressive passer and shooter. I like his game and expect him to be a solid taxi squad or top pair AHL guy who can come up when needed.
Question Marks for 2021-22
The Blues have a few pending unrestricted and restricted free agents at defense after this season: Vince Dunn (RFA), Carl Gunnarsson (UFA), and Mitch Reinke (UFA). I truly believe the Blues will lose a defenseman in the expansion draft, and I expect it to be somebody like Dunn. It would be unfortunate to lose him, but unless general manager Doug Armstrong swings a deal with Seattle, it’ll be a key loss.
I think we’ve seen the last of Gunnarsson as a Blue. He had a major knee injury this season and will be 35 years old soon. He was a dependable Blue, a solid defender and a guy who played for the Stanley Cup team in 2019. Reinke is set to be a “Group 6 UFA,” meaning that he is over the age of 25 and has not played 80 NHL games, so he will hit the open market. I’m thinking they will move on from him as he wasn’t extended to a smaller deal as we’ve seen them do with other AHL players like Santini.
Projecting the Blue Line for 2021-22
I don’t foresee the Blues being as active in making major changes on the back end as maybe they should be, but I’ll give the projection a go.
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For the top pair, I think it will be Faulk and Krug, two skilled offensive blueliners who have defended better than past years in the Craig Berube system as head coach. I also expect even more comfortability for both of them as Krug enters his second year in the system and Faulk his third.
There have been rumors and other things said about the Blues moving on from Parayko, but I think he sticks around and will be on the second pair with Scandella. They need to both stay healthy so they can re-create some magic that Parayko had with Bouwmeester.
The third pair is where things become tricky, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’ll be Mikkola and Perunovich. With my expectation that Dunn finds himself in Seattle, I think the Blues finally give the former Minnesota-Duluth Hobey Baker winner in Perunovich a chance. Perunovich did miss the entire 2020-21 season with a shoulder injury. It’ll be a young pair, but Mikkola has proven he belongs with that size and Perunovich has the chance to be a near-elite puck-moving defenseman.