Blues’ 4 Burning Questions Heading Into 2021-22 Season

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The St. Louis Blues might be one of the biggest question mark teams in the league this season. They’ve lost key forwards, and replaced them with better ones, but their defense is a big question.

I could come up with a lot more than four questions, but these are the most pressing ones. A veteran team comes up with questions, as you never know about regression or slow starts.

1. How Much Longer Will Tarasenko Be Here?

Tarasenko has been the number one story for the Blues in this offseason, being that he requested to be dealt out of town. Well, it’s September and he is still here with training camp just weeks away. The Blues have had reported suitors for him, such as the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, but haven’t found a deal. He might be one of the hardest players to figure value for as he has missed a ton of time over the last two seasons.

St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko
St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

The other question becomes what line we could see Tarasenko play on. It feels as if he will slot in as a middle-six forward and could see time with Robert Thomas or Brayden Schenn as his center. I wonder if the Blues even give him a shot to play with Ryan O’Reilly or David Perron, despite not doing so before the injuries popped back up.

Either way, if Tarasenko starts the season with the Blues, I don’t see a ton of scenarios where he is traded during it. He needs to either have a bounce-back season and be replaceable or the team has to be serious sellers. The way for him to be replaceable would be a breakout season for Klim Kostin, who deserves a serious look in the top-nine forward group.

Tarasenko will always be viewed as a legend in St. Louis, but this entire saga has been odd. I have no idea how it ends, but it will be especially intriguing if he enters the season as a Blue. I don’t see him holding out, but you never know these days.

2. Who Will Be in the Bottom Six?

This question somewhat links to the one above, Tarasenko changes everything in terms of who could get bumped out of the top six.

There are lot of players that will get the chance to break into the lineup, especially with Oskar Sundqvist inevitably missing time to start the season. Another looming question is whether we will see Thomas play in a second- or third-line role, which is interesting as he struggled last season.

Ivan Barbashev St. Louis Blues
Ivan Barbashev, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I’ll go against my August prediction for the third line with Thomas centering a line with Tarasenko and Zach Sanford. This line can be a good one with talented offensive players and a chance for Sanford to improve his already respectable defensive game.

The biggest thing with the third line is if Thomas and Tarasenko can both be rejuvenated while playing with each other. Obviously, health is the biggest question mark for both of them, but they make for an interesting duo if it happens. Many thought that Thomas could be the key to success last season, and that still remains true for the third line, not the entire team. Kostin could seriously break out here if Thomas stays healthy and dishes the puck like we’ve seen in the past, but I don’t the young Russian winger will get the chance right away.

I don’t think I see a scenario where Pavel Buchnevich or Brandon Saad starts on the third line, as the team paid top-six salaries to both of them. As for the fourth line, it’s going to be tough sledding early into January and possibly beyond without Sundqvist. Ivan Barbashev is a lock for one of the bottom-six lines, and I could see him on either one. Kyle Clifford makes a lot of sense, as he was a solid veteran forward for the Blues last season. They really got what they should have expected with a guy like him. There is an opportunity for players like Kostin or MacKenzie MacEachern in this lineup.

Kyle Clifford St. Louis Blues
Kyle Clifford, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After those two, I don’t know if anybody else has a legitimate chance — maybe Dakota Joshua or Nathan Walker. Blues head coach Craig Berube has some serious decisions to make when it comes to the forward group. A lot of the decisions hinge on whether Tarasenko is on the team or not, and they’re likely planning for that to be the case.

3. Will the Defense Find Its Form?

The defense is likely the weakest part of this roster, which is odd since it was the strongest just three seasons ago. A lot of changes have been made and they expect to reach a different level this season — who knows if that will happen with their weaknesses. The Blues are paying their top three defensemen $6.5 million each, that being Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, and Torey Krug. That’s nearly $20 million for three players who don’t play a balanced two-way game at this moment, the closest being Faulk.

Justin Faulk St. Louis Blues
Justin Faulk, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While the top three may be questionable, outside of that is where the questions start to get even deeper. Marco Scandella has been a train wreck since the Blues played in the 2020 bubble playoffs. Robert Bortuzzo has his limits, but as a solid fifth or sixth defenseman, he’s good enough. I feel like we will see guys like Niko Mikkola, Jake Walman, Scott Perunovich, Calle Rosen and a few others get looks as the sixth defenseman. The first five are likely locked in with Faulk, Krug, Parayko, Scandella, and Bortuzzo.

The Blues had 167 goals against last season, which is five above the league average of 162. That stat isn’t good, but there are much more problematic ones. The Blues’ scoring chances against last season, which is the number of shot attempts that are taken from goal-likely areas, was a total of 724. The league average for scoring chances against was 632 last season — they was way above and that is problematic for a team that prides itself on its defensive structure.

They didn’t do anything to improve on the back end to this point of the offseason, so they must expect a healthy Parayko and a bounce-back Scandella to rejuvenate their team defense. They are putting a lot of trust into their players and coaches, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but the pressure is on.

4. What Will Jordan Binnington’s Numbers Look Like?

Jordan Binnington having a bounce-back season may be the biggest make-or-break factor for the Blues this season. He just hasn’t been the same goaltender since the bubble, which is a common theme for many players on this team. Another common theme is long-term contracts, and he signed a six-year extension last season.

I’ve gone over his numbers since the bubble a number of times, so all I’ll say is he has a playoff save percentage (SV%) of .875 since then. In the regular season, his numbers have been average, and below his rookie season where he was dominant in the run to the Cup.

Jordan Binnington St. Louis Blues
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Although the move made sense at the time, the Blues put a lot more pressure on Binnington when they traded Jake Allen to the Montreal Canadiens. It appeared last season that Ville Husso is a below-average backup goaltender, he could certainly improve with a better structure in front of him, there is potential for that. The Blues’ team philosophy doesn’t call for $10 million against the cap for goaltending, and that is why they moved Allen out. But at the end of the day, it has clearly hurt Binnington’s game with the heightened pressure.

I expect that we will see Binnington play around the same percentage of games as last season’s 56-game slate. He started 41 of 56 games last season, which is good for 73 percent of games. He would have to play 60 of 82 games this season to do 73 percent against, which is likely if he stays healthy. That number is troubling since Binnington has never started more than 50 games in his career, 10 or more games on top of that this season is concerning. If they can get 30 to 37 regular season wins out of him, that would be ideal. In terms of his SV%, anywhere from .912 to .923 would be marvelous, although being in the middle of that range would be perfectly fine.

The only way for the Blues to reach their goals is for Binnington to bounce back and for Husso to take some pressure off of him. It’d be an added bonus if the defensive unit would take pressure off of them as well.

There are many more questions that must be asked for the Blues and how they will play this season, but I feel as if I covered the biggest ones. All three units must show improvement and their offseason moves have to pan out in some way.

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