Welcome to this edition of the St. Louis Blues’ 3 Up, 3 Down. This is the first in what will be a weekly column released each Wednesday detailing ups and downs of the week that was.
It would be hard to find a team that had a better preseason than the St. Louis Blues. The team wrapped up its exhibition schedule on Saturday with an emphatic 6-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to finish the preseason with a 6-2-0 record. A number of players were impressive in the showing, highlighted by Jordan Binnington stopping all 24 shots he faced, Ivan Barbashev recording two goals, and Brayden Schenn, Robert Bortuzzo, and Jake Neighbours recording two assists apiece.
With so many players having a tremendous camp and preseason, the competition for the Blues’ few remaining open roster spots all boiled down to the final game. Nikita Alexandrov, Jake Neighbours, Josh Leivo, Klim Kostin, and Logan Brown all came into last Saturday’s game vying for NHL jobs. For the most part, they were each impressive enough and had the talent to be on a roster. But alas, moves had to be made in the best interest of the club, both to succeed at the NHL level and ensure proper player development.
Plus One: Nikita Alexandrov Nearly Makes It
The Blues had a number of players on the bubble competing for a job with the big club. One of the names that rarely got mentioned – at least outside of the Blues organization – was 22-year-old center Alexandrov. Once again in camp with the Blues, at first it seemed like he was just going to serve as another young body who would get in some games early on and be sent down once roster cuts started to get made. After the Blues’ 7-0 loss to the Blue Jackets, the team assigned eight players to the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League (AHL), but Alexandrov’s impression made on Berube was strong enough that he wasn’t on the list.
Fast forward to Saturday’s win over Chicago, Alexandrov scored a goal in the preseason finale while logging nearly 11 minutes of ice-time. Ultimately, his two goals in five games weren’t enough for him to crack the team’s initial roster, as he was assigned to Springfield following the game. Several veterans had great things to say about him, including Robert Bortuzzo:
“I think it’s his compete level; he’s not the biggest guy, but he’s tenacious on the puck. I think as a (coaching) staff, they appreciate him being hard on the puck. They don’t want him to murder guys, but he plays with a bite and an intensity. He competes and he’s doing that all camp. He’s made his way to the end, played in that last preseason game today, which I’m sure was exciting for him,” (from ‘Notebook: Blues send ‘tenacious’ Nikita Alexandrov to AHL’s Springfield’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10/8/2022).
Alexandrov figures to be one of the first call-ups in the event the Blues need to make any adjustments to the roster.
Minus One: Klim Kostin Era is Over
To call it an “era” is very much an overstatement, but Kostin’s tenure with the Blues has officially come to an end. The team placed him on waivers on Saturday (alongside Martin Frk and Matthew Highmore). Once he cleared, the Blues began exploring options to move the Russian forward elsewhere. On Sunday, they found a willing partner in the Edmonton Oilers, who sent 23-year-old defenseman Dmitri Samorukov back to St. Louis in return.
This is a fitting end to Kostin’s time with the Blues. Once a highly touted prospect, the former first-round pick never showed the same potential at the NHL level that flashed as a teenager. In 40 games with the Blues in 2021-22, he managed just nine total points (four goals, five assists) and failed to impress head coach Craig Berube. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, he should be fairly easy to find, but there were times he seemed to be invisible once he got on the ice – adding to the frustration voiced by Berube before camp even started.
“Klim Kostin is back, and he’s a big guy that’s been around. He needs to take another step here. He has the ability to do the things that are needed, but again, you’ve got to go and do it,” (from ‘Craig Berube Q&A: Blues coach offers hints on line combinations, camp battles and more’ The Athletic, 9/23/2022).
Related: St. Louis Blues Best & Worst Trades
After he was acquired, the Oilers sent Kostin to their AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, but it’s possible this was just a move to get the team cap compliant to start the season. The Blues and Oilers first square off on Oct. 26.
Plus Two: Samorukov Adds to Depleted Depth
In moving Kostin, the Blues acquired left-handed defenseman Dmitri Samorukov in return from the Oilers. With Marco Scandella and Scott Perunovich out for at least the next six months, what once was a cabinet full of NHL-ready left-handed defenders now has started to look quite bare behind Torey Krug, Nick Leddy, and Niko Mikkola. Samorukov, a 6-foot-3 former third-round pick, will provide some sorely needed depth to the left side.
He made his NHL debut last season with the Oilers against the Blues, but that was the lone action at that level. In 51 regular season games at the AHL level with the Bakersfield Condors, he tallied 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) and had a plus/minus of plus-16. His once-strong offensive game in juniors hasn’t translated into much production against the tougher competition of the AHL. This has forced him to lean more into the defensive aspects of his game and moving the puck out of the defensive and neutral zones.
On the depth chart, Samorukov will begin the year in the AHL with Springfield. He’s currently behind lefties Krug, Leddy, Mikkola, and Calle Rosen at the NHL level. He’ll compete with fellow lefty Tyler Tucker when it comes to being one of the first names called up to St. Louis if a need arises.
Minus Two: Logan Brown’s Status
Forward Logan Brown suffered an upper-body injury in the Blues’ loss to the Dallas Stars in Kansas City, MO. After that game, unfortunately, he didn’t see any further preseason action. While his name is on the team’s initial roster to begin the season, his status to be active is currently up in the air.
Brown, now 24 years old, was off to a great start in the preseason and was arguably the Blues’ hottest player up until his injury. In three exhibition games, he recorded five total points (four goals, one assist) and was playing well all over the ice. He appeared to have the inside track at earning a spot on either the third or fourth line. The severity of his injury is still unknown, as the team has yet to make any formal announcements on the subject.
Plus Three: Neighbours, Leivo, & Toropchenko on Initial Roster
In order for the Blues to be cap compliant to begin the 2022-23 season, they had to make a few “paper moves,” meaning that players would have to be assigned to the AHL via a direct assignment or in the way of clearing waivers. In the case of Jake Neighbours, the move was simple with him being assigned to Springfield. In the case of Josh Leivo, he had to clear waivers in order to be assigned to Springfield. Fortunately for the Blues, he did in fact clear waivers and was technically assigned to the AHL as well.
Related: 3 Blues Players Standing Out in Preseason
These moves had to be made in order for the Blues to be compliant with the 2022-23 salary cap, as the cap hits for both Marco Scandella and Scott Perunovich remained on the books. Once rosters around the league were official, then the Blues moved both Scandella and Perunovich to their long-term injured reserve (LTIR), their cap hits came off the books and gave the team the financial flexibility to bring Neighbours and Leivo back to the big club.
The real surprise move is that forward Alexey Toropchenko is officially a part of the opening night roster. He underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, with his original timetable to return being around the beginning of December. However, a few weeks ago it was reported that he was progressing very well and was healing ahead of schedule. Although he didn’t appear in any preseason games, the team feels confident enough in the forward’s progress to not put him on the LTIR. It remains unknown if he will be in the lineup on opening night, but it’s a great sign that he’s been placed on the active roster.
Minus Three: One Will Have to Sit
When fully healthy, it is likely that one (or two) of Logan Brown, Josh Leivo, Alexey Toropchenko, Nathan Walker, or maybe even Jake Neighbours will have to watch the game from the press box as a healthy scratch. With Neighbours being as young as he is, I can’t imagine a scenario where he’s a consistent scratch. If that were the case, he would be sent to the AHL to play top-line minutes every night. If he remains in the lineup every night, likely on the third line with Brayden Schenn and Ivan Barbashev, that leaves Brown, Leivo, Toropchenko, and Walker to battle for fourth-line roles alongside center Noel Acciari.
As I mentioned previously, the extent of Logan Brown’s upper-body injury remains a mystery. But if/when he’s healthy, he should have a spot in the lineup each night. The same should be said about Toropchenko. Coach Berube loves his hard and fast style of play, and at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he’s the imposing presence on the ice that the team lacks elsewhere. That likely leaves Leivo and Walker as odd men out – at least on paper right now. I envision a scenario where the team rotates guys in and out of the fourth line depending on the match-up.
That’ll do it for this week’s edition of the Blues’ 3 Up, 3 Down. The Blues kick off the regular season at home this Saturday (Oct. 15) against Johnny Gaudreau and the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ll follow that up with a trip to Seattle to take on the Kraken on Wednesday, Oct. 19.