Blues’ Five Burning Questions for 2022-23 Season

The St. Louis Blues’ 2022-23 season may be one of the most impactful seasons in recent memory. With expiring contracts and prospects inching toward their NHL debut, the organization will have the tall task of addressing its roster to remain competitive and hope to secure a second Stanley Cup.

Tarasenko’s Future with St. Louis

One of the most polarizing opinions among Blues fans stems from the outlook and future regarding the Russian sniper, Vladimir Tarasenko. Plagued with two shoulder injuries in 2019 and 2020, he has been the rumor of trade discussions after a public trade request was made in July of 2021. The offseason came and went, and Tarasenko saw a resurgence with St. Louis to have one of the best seasons of his career, showing the masses that he can still play at an elite level. Over 75 regular-season games last season, he scored 34 goals and 82 points. The 30-year-old has entered the final year of his contract, leaving many wondering what his future will be with the Blues. 

With a current price tag of $7.5 million, it is unlikely that the Blues are willing to offer Tarasenko a pay raise. Given his age and injury history, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong will certainly be prioritizing the future of his organization and not letting one player handicap the team’s financial future. While this may be the final year the remaining portion of the Stanley Cup team is still around, Tarasenko’s future may not be dictated until the trade deadline.

The organization currently has just over $24 million in projected cap space for the 2023-24 season with only five forwards currently under contract. They will need to provide 24-year-old forward Jordan Kyrou with a contract extension and likely team captain Ryan O’Reilly as well. However, the team will not have the financial flexibility to carry all three. Armstrong will have some difficult decisions ahead and cannot afford to lose another franchise piece for nothing as he has in the past with David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, and David Perron.

Which Defenseman Will Be Moved?

Heading into the 2022-23 season, the Blues’ coaching staff will have multiple options and pairings available with their defensemen. Looking over the roster today, the team currently boasts five left-handed defensemen available in Torey Krug, Niko Mikkola, Marco Scandella, Scott Perunovich, and Nick Leddy. In Krug and Leddy, the organization has invested significant funds recently to the combined value of $10.5 million and are all but guaranteed to play as the teams’ No. 1 and No. 2 defensemen on the left side. The organization is now left with three defensemen to take the role of either the third-pairing unit or substitute, with a combined salary of $5.925 million.

Marco Scandella St. Louis Blues
Marco Scandella, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At $3.275 million, Scandella carries the heaviest contract among the remaining three options. However, it is the 23-year-old Perunovich that has the highest offensive upside and the cheapest contract at $750,000. Fans were given a brief glimpse of his offensive abilities this past season and part of the postseason where he managed six assists in 19 regular-season games, and four assists in seven postseason games.

With Perunovich and Krug, the team carries a bit of redundancy as both players stand at 5-foot-9, which is a smaller size for an NHL defenseman. While the overall league desire is growing for a mobile, puck-moving defenseman and a need to find point production from every player, the Blues will not have the ability to utilize both players to their highest potential. This may leave the club with a desire to part ways with Krug and shed his annual $6.5 million contract to create an opportunity for a younger, cheaper player to take his place. While fans may wish to part ways with Scandella, it may be the puck-moving defenseman Krug that is moved while he still holds high trade value, despite the remaining $32.5 million remaining on his contract.

Which Binnington Will Fans See?

Blues fans were provided with a treat as it seemed like the vintage, Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Jordan Binnington had found his groove and was returning to form. Winning five of his final six games of the regular season, he managed a .916 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.53 goals-against average (GAA). In the postseason, after fellow goaltender Ville Husso lost back-to-back games, surrendering a combined nine goals, Binnington was re-inserted into the lineup, managing a 4-1 record with a .949 SV% and a 1.72 GAA. During the second round of the playoffs, the 28-year-old collided with Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, forcing him to leave the game and miss the remainder of the playoffs. 

Related: Blues Should Extend Ryan O’Reilly Soon

Over the three seasons since winning the Stanley Cup, Binnington is 66-41-19 with a 2.75 GAA and a .908 SV%, and a 0.1 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating. Given the small sample size of his potential returning-to-form performance, he will need to play well early on to convince the fans and executive staff that they made the right move by moving on from Charlie Lindgren and Husso. The Blues will need him to find and keep his groove and confidence flowing all season long as the backup goaltending option in veteran Thomas Greiss does not present a viable long-term solution should he begin to falter in his outings.

What Will O’Reilly and Kyrou’s Contracts Look Like?

The organization’s front office will have two very different tasks ahead of themselves in signing both O’Reilly and Kyrou this year. The eight-year, $65 million contract extension to Robert Thomas signals the team is ready to let the 23-year-old continue to hold his responsibilities with the team and perhaps even take on a larger role moving forward. While he and O’Reilly have been one of the league’s best first- and second-line center combinations in the NHL, the day that Thomas surpasses the team’s captain could be sooner than later. While O’Reilly currently holds a $7.5 million cap hit in his final season, it has been speculated that he could be re-signed for significantly less. The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford stated: 

“I’m thinking more along the lines of three years and a $5 million AAV. I know that sounds low, but when people were saying $5 million to $6 million per year for Perron, I believed it would be a lot less and a two-year deal ($4 million to $4.5 million AAV) would’ve gotten it done. I don’t know for sure that O’Reilly would take less, but, yes, Armstrong offering up a rare no-movement clause might make it work.”

(from ‘What is Doug Armstrong thinking? Where do the Blues stack up? Mailbag
,’ The Athletic, Aug 4, 2022)

When it comes to Kyrou, the Blues will have the task of re-signing a potential star in the NHL to a long-term contract extension. The forward scored a career-high 24 goals and 75 points in 74 regular-season games, along with seven goals, and nine points in 12 postseason games. It may not be out of line to expect the organization to want to mirror Thomas’ contract in this situation. Both parties may wish to wait to re-sign until other contracts around the NHL have been signed giving them a better sense of a price tag to offer. However, the Blues will likely do everything possible to keep Kyrou around for a long time.

Will Bolduc and Neighbours Make the Team?

Two of the organization’s top prospects made significant waves for their respective junior teams over the past season. Twenty-year-old Jake Neighbours was provided a nine-game NHL tryout at the beginning of the 2021-22 season where he scored one goal and two points. After reassignment to the Western Hockey League (WHL), he led the team as captain in a championship-winning season. He finished the year with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 30 games.

If Neighbours can crack the lineup this season, he will face the same situation and reason that forced his demotion last season and need playing time. He has proven that he can play at the NHL level. However, it may be best to start him in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season to continue his development and progression to the professional stage, rather than keeping him contained to a bottom-six role. With the Springfield Thunderbirds, he will likely earn a spot in the top two lines and an opportunity to play a significant role on the team’s power play. The organization has the time to be patient with his development and not rush him along faster than needed.

Jake Neighbours St. Louis Blues
Jake Neighbours, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Zachary Bolduc, the Blues have to love what they are seeing from their 2021 first-round draft choice. Throughout the 2021-22 season with the Québec Remparts of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), he scored 99 points (55 goals, 44 assists) in 65 regular-season games. At 19 years old, there is very little for him to prove in the junior leagues.

As the situation goes with Neighbours, unless the Blues can offer a spot in the top three lines, he will likely return to the junior leagues once more. Due to his age, he is unable to play in the AHL this season, or the team would likely have him with the Thunderbirds as well. Bolduc is projected to be a top-six forward for the organization with a heavy shot and a knack for shooting the puck often. If a return to the junior leagues is in his future, he should see a substantial offensive impact in the QMJHL, maturity, and physical growth amongst his peers.

The Blues have plenty of talent on their current roster and their AHL depth to make a significant playoff run this upcoming season. However, the questions listed are just five of a list of questions and answers that will need to be addressed moving forward that will have a significant impact on the franchise’s future and success over the next decade. The team’s executive staff and front office will have their work cut out for them, along with the difficult task of decisions that may be unpopular among fans.