The St. Louis Blues are still squarely within their Stanley Cup window. There’s no doubt that the Central Division is going to be tough yet again in 2022-23, but this is a team with championship aspirations. With the offseason all but officially over, the moves made by general manager Doug Armstrong and company seem to have left Blues fans with more questions than answers.
The good news is the team is still deep, with eight of their nine 20-goal scorers returning from last season. They’ve got two of the top centers in the league in Ryan O’Reilly and Robert Thomas, promise on the wings in Jordan Kyrou and Pavel Buchnevich, and a solid top four on defense headlined by Torey Krug and Justin Faulk. But for the Blues to make a deep playoff run, they will need these three players to step up and be catalysts all season.
Calling Vladimir Tarasenko an X-Factor isn’t ground-breaking by any means. Since he was drafted 16th overall in 2010, he has been a focal point and in the middle of the team’s successes and shortcomings. In 2019-20 and 2020-21 combined, he appeared in only 34 of a possible 138 games due to multiple shoulder injuries and subsequent surgeries. In 2021-22, he seemed to have returned to his All-Star-worthy form, and fully healthy, Tarasenko led the team in scoring with 82 points (34 goals, 48 assists) in 75 games.
In 2022-23, head coach Craig Berube will need someone to step up offensively to help fill the gap left by David Perron at five-on-five and on the power play. We’ve seen countless examples of players taking their game to new heights in a contract year, with a big payday looming in the offseason (see Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri, and Filip Forsberg from last season). If Tarasenko shows up as he did last season and is a point-per-game player or better, not only will he be in a position to land a substantial contract, the Blues should be in Stanley Cup contention.
After Alex Pietrangelo left via free agency in the summer of 2020, Colton Parayko was supposed to fill his shoes in the lineup and in the locker room. While he has been serving as an alternate captain the last two seasons, injuries and inconsistencies have kept him from growing into his game. In 2020-21, he played in a career-low 34 games due to a nagging back injury.
Fully healthy in 2021-22, Parayko put in a solid campaign of 35 points (6 goals, 29 assists) and had a career-high in average time on ice (ATOI) at 23:34. He’s never been much of a goal scorer, but he is one of the better shutdown defenders on the Blues due to his combination of size (6-foot-6 and 230 pounds) and speed. When he’s forced to be a more offensive-minded defenseman, that is when the holes in his game open up.
For the Blues to contend, they need him to regain some of his 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff form when he put up 10 goals, 22 points, 42 blocked shots, 36 hits, and was in consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He was partnered with Jay Bouwmeester that season, which proved to be an incredible tandem. Since Bouwmeester retired, Parayko didn’t really mesh with a partner until Nick Leddy was brought into the fold. With Krug and Faulk coming back as the first defensive pairing, he and Leddy should work well on the second pairing; they did well in their limited time together last season. If they can build on that success, the Blues will have a solid top-four on defense.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jordan Binnington’s success is going to define the 2022-23 season. With Ville Husso out and Thomas Greiss in, Binnington’s safety net is essentially gone. In 2021-22, his first full season after signing a six-year, $36 million contract extension, he did little to justify the deal (18-14-8 record in 41 regular-season starts). He followed that up in 2021-22 with an 18-14-4 record in 37 regular-season starts and a career-low .901 save percentage (SV%). His lack of production gave Husso the reins for most of the season to guide the team back to the playoffs. But something happened toward the end of the regular season that gave the Blues hope for a return to form.
Berube knew he’d need Binnington down the stretch, so he was given more starts when April rolled around. In his final six starts of the regular season, he went 5-1-0 with a .915 SV%. He took over for Husso in the playoffs before being injured and earned a 4-1-0 record with a .949 SV% and goals-against average (GAA) of 1.72. He was the player that led the Blues out of the cellar and to the Stanley Cup in 2018-19. He’s at his best when he’s playing with a high level of confidence, and a confident Binnington will be the biggest key to their success in 2022-23, which is what makes him the team’s biggest X-Factor heading into the season.
The Blues’ game relies on a team effort rather than having a few stars and a supporting cast. Because of that, their successes and failures will not fall squarely on the shoulders of Tarasenko, Parayko, and Binnington. However, if these three players can push for career years, the Blues will be in great shape to make another run for the Stanley Cup.