The 2022-23 season was, plain and simple, a disappointment for the St. Louis Blues. After four consecutive playoff appearances and 10 appearances in the last 11 years, to miss out on postseason play was a somber feeling for Blues fans. Missing the playoffs would be one thing if it were a battle down to the final game and ultimately missing out by the skin of their teeth. However, going from a 109-point team only one season ago to a team finishing with 81 points, a 28-point difference, many have screamed and pleaded for this club to go running for the hills and calling for general manager Doug Armstrong and company to manufacture a full-blown rebuild.
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Despite missing out on the playoffs this year, the Blues appear to be a lot further along in their re-tool than fans may want to give them credit for. After the 2023 Trade Deadline, they mustered a 10-9-2 record. They scored the NHL’s seventh most goals for per game (3.52) while allowing 3.62 goals against per game, good enough for 22nd in the league. The 21-game sample size emphasized the defensive issues and trouble preventing goals against per game, but found the club reclaiming their offensive dominance, making them a dangerous team.
Let’s look at the pieces currently on the roster or in the Blues system that provide hope and optimism for a postseason appearance next season.
Blues Forwards Can Provide Goals in Waves
The Blues have committed long-term to their players and leaders of the future with matching eight-year, $65 million contracts to forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou. While their contracts will not kick in until next season, they have already proven their worth by being among the club’s leading scorers this season. Next year, while the team’s highest-paid and veteran players in Kyrou and Thomas, along with Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad, will bring forth the most criticism throughout the year, it could be the 2023 Trade Deadline acquisitions that help lead the team back to the playoffs.
The re-acquisition of Sammy Blais, along with the waiver wire claim of Kaspari Kapanen, and the addition of Jakub Vrana have brought a sense of optimism when it comes to the club’s forward core next season. After not scoring a goal for the New York Rangers, Blais enjoyed his return to St. Louis by tying a career-high nine goals in 31 games, while adding an additional 11 assists in that time span. Kapanen responded well to his increased responsibilities with the Blues seeing nearly four and a half minutes more ice time per night accumulating 14 points (eight goals, six assists) over 23 games. Meanwhile, Vrana has seemingly reclaimed the offensive side of his game scoring 10 goals and 14 points in 23 games, a 35.6-goal, 49-point pace over a full 82-game season.
Along with the influx of veteran options that the Blues currently have on their NHL roster, they also have a multitude of forward prospects that could make a strong case to remain in the NHL out of training camp. Among the highest on the club’s prospect list, forwards Zachary Bolduc and Zach Dean are gaining the highest amount of attention in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Both at the age of 20, Bolduc was drafted 17th overall by the Blues in 2021 and has gone on to score 105 goals and 209 points over 126 regular season games with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
As for Dean, who was acquired by the Blues in the trade for former forward Ivan Barbashev, he too has been no stranger to finding his way on the scoresheet. Over the past two seasons, he has accumulated 54 goals and 122 points in 97 regular season games with the Gatineau Olympiques, also in the QMJHL. While Bolduc would benefit from some time in the American Hockey League before making his way to the big leagues, Dean could be a surprising addition to the roster with a strong showing at training camp.
The Defense Offers Options
There is no way of sugar-coating it, the Blues’ defense will need some tweaking before the start of the 2023-24 season. The team ended the 2022-23 season with an expected goals-against (xGA ) of 196.1 at five-on-five, 19.3 goals higher than the league average. The defense looked lost at times and oftentimes was out of position with a lack of urgency to defend against the opposition. However, even if it were not for a lack of urgency and below-average performances, the club currently finds itself with nine defensemen that could all be viewed as nightly regulars.
This season, Tyler Tucker found himself earning not only a call-up to the NHL but suiting up for 26 games. He appears ready to be inserted into the lineup on a regular basis as a bottom-pairing, shutdown defender that plays with an edge. Over his 26 games, he scored his first NHL goal while adding three assists and averaging one blocked shot and 1.9 hits per game over 14:39 of time on ice. The Blues also have highly-regarded offensive defenseman, Scott Perunovich, ready to make his return to the NHL after a series of injuries that have kept him to only 19 NHL games and 29 games in the AHL.
The Blues currently have just under $28.5 million accounted for on their NHL roster with three players taking up $19.5 million (68.4%) of that total. There were a number of trade rumors that surrounded the Blues defensemen before the NHL trade deadline, some of which were speculating that veteran defenseman, Colton Parayko, could be shipped out of St. Louis. The 29-year-old’s performance over the past few seasons has been polarizing but remains one of the top defensemen for the team while averaging 23 minutes of ice time this past season.
With any trade that they look to make this offseason to improve their playoff hopes and chances for next year, a move that would ship Parayko out will need to be taken with caution with the number one question of who will be his replacement at the top of the list. Despite the number of questions that surround the future of these players, the Blues currently hold a number of options that they could play to create cap flexibility and trades at their disposal.
Looking to the future, the goaltending duo of Jordan Binnington and Joel Hofer could prove to be one of the most dynamic goaltending tandems in the NHL. Despite a 27-27-6 record this season, Binnington remained one of the lone bright spots for his team before the NHL All-Star Break. While his team was suffering loss after loss, he was doing everything he could to stop every shot from going in and keeping his team alive in games, and bailing out the defense in front of him. While his on-ice antics leave much to be desired, at times, it seemed as if Binnington was the only one that was ready to show any form of emotion to stick up for his teammates and re-energize the team.
Binnington’s counterpart for the 2023-24 season, Joel Hofer, has done everything he needs to do in the AHL and will be a viable backup and contender for a starting role in the NHL next season. This past season, the 22-year-old started six games for the Blues with a 3-1-1 record, a .905 save percentage (SV%), and a .500% quality start rating. In the AHL, he appeared in 47 games amassing a 27-15-5 record and a .921 SV%.
Blues fans may be pessimistic about the future of the club. After all, they went from Stanley Cup winners to one of the NHL’s bottom dwellers in only a few seasons. There is a large question still surrounding the future of the salary cap and the amount of money dedicated to players and how they will perform with age not being on a few of their sides. Despite the number of questions surrounding the team, the Blues have the talent and depth to make a playoff push and find themselves in the postseason in 2023-24 and in many seasons to come.