The St. Louis Blues had several players break out in a big way in 2021-22. Robert Thomas proved that he was elite player with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) in 72 games. Jordan Kyrou flashed as well, more so in the first half of the season, scoring 27 goals and recording 48 assists (75 points) in 74 games. Ivan Barbashev (26 goals, 34 assists, 60 points) and Pavel Buchnevnich (30 goals, 46 assists, 76 points) also recorded career highs in all scoring categories. Even with these players having broken out, the Blues still have three players who are potential breakout candidates for 2022-23.
Scott Perunovich is the Blues’ most obvious potential breakout player. At 24 years old, the former second-round pick and Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner is at an age where he needs to begin producing at the NHL level. He made his debut last season, logging six points (zero goals, six assists) in 19 regular season games, and was kept on the bench to begin the playoffs until Torey Krug was injured. In Krug’s absence, Perunovich saw seven postseason games and tallied four assists while quarterbacking the Blues’ top power play unit. His biggest hurdles to NHL success are Krug and the Blues’ depth on the left side.
In Perunovich and Krug, the Blues have two very similar players. Both are smaller (Krug: 5-foot-9; Perunovich: 5-foot-10) offensive-minded defensemen who excel at distributing the puck on the power play. However, having both players occupy two of their three left-shot defense spots really weakens the Blues defensively on that side. They also have Nick Leddy in the fold who is a similar player as well, though he’s not relied on as much on the power play.
Between lefties Krug, Leddy, Niko Mikkola, and Marco Scandella, Perunovich currently seems to be the one without a clear spot on the NHL roster. But if he were able to break camp with the team and earn a spot giving him significant minutes, then he would have a legitimate chance to put up points – especially with his penchant for dishing the puck on the power play. The Blues played a number of games last season with eleven forwards and seven defensemen in which Perunovich was the extra defender. Head coach Craig Berube could get creative like that again this season to maximize the rookie’s ice time and help improve his defense in the process.
It appears that Australian winger Nathan Walker is finally going to get his shot at being in the lineup every night this season. In 30 regular season games with St. Louis last season, he recorded a career-high in points with 12 (eight goals, four assists) while logging an average time on ice (ATOI) of 11:33 per game. Three of his goals came in one game last season in the form of his first career hat trick. After bouncing around between the Blues and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate for the past three seasons, the team rewarded him this summer with a one-way contract.
Walker will most likely begin the 2022-23 season as a bottom-six winger. This season is going to be his best opportunity to seize the moment and attempt to keep a job at the NHL level. If he can get somewhere between 12-14 minutes ATOI, it’s not too far-fetched to think he could score 25-30 points and be a solid bottom-six forward that can play up the lineup when needed.
The 2021-22 season was another up-and-down one for Klim Kostin. At one point in time, he was regarded as the Blues’ top prospect and was sure to be a steady presence at the NHL level. Now he finds himself fighting for a bottom-six forward spot. To be fair to him, the Blues really have not given the Russian winger an extended shot to showcase his entire game. On the other hand, his inconsistencies both offensively and defensively have left many wondering if he really wants a job badly enough.
This season is likely going to be Kostin’s last chance to prove to the Blues that he belongs with the big club. With the team re-signing him to a one-year, one-way contract this summer, that is essentially the organization drawing their line in the sand. If he wishes to continue in the NHL, be it with the Blues or another team, this is his year to prove it. In 40 games last season, he managed only nine points (four goals, five assists) and an ATOI of only 9:01 per game.
On the positive side, Kostin did manage to record 90 hits during his 40-game stay in St. Louis last season. He has never been much of a scorer, whether it be in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), AHL, or NHL, but he’s always been a physical presence when on the ice. What the Blues need from him this season is to score enough to be a threat and to bring his hard hat to the rink every night. If he can record 30-40 points and maintain a high level of physicality, that would be great news for Kostin’s future.
Honorable Mention: Alexey Toropchenko
Last season, Alexey Toropchenko provided the Blues with size, speed, physicality, and a willingness to both forecheck and backcheck in every situation. Much like Kostin, he likely won’t be a high-level scorer in the NHL but can make an impact on the game every night with his physical play. In 2021-22, he appeared in 28 games and recorded just two points (two goals). He had offseason surgery on his shoulder that is going to keep him out until December, but once he is ready to return, there will be a spot in the Blues’ bottom six waiting for him.
The Blues’ upcoming season is sure to be one to watch. It’s going to be full of playoff expectations, Cup aspirations, and questions abound for their pending free agents. If the players mentioned here can have breakout performances, the Blues are surely going to be in the mix when it comes to being Stanley Cup contenders in April.