In a COVID-19 altered season, there is an intrinsic need to embrace the weirdness. With challenges in importing foreign prospects and with the St. Louis Blues AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, opting out of competition, unique solutions to player development are required.
Most of the Blues’ AHL talent has been reassigned to the Utica Comets. The Comets serve as a dual affiliate for both St. Louis and the Vancouver Canucks for the 2020-21 season, solving most of the problem. 12 Blues have found a new home in the Northwestern New York team and have recently kicked off the AHL season.
But for one prospect, in particular, that solution was not possible.
Of the 12 Blues prospects currently with the Comets, 11 are North-American based – the 12th is Welsh-born prospect Nathan Walker. For those anchored in North America, living, working, moving, and developing in a pandemic are far less problematic than those who live abroad, especially when playing time and development opportunities aren’t promised in a minor league where a team will be splitting time with another prospect pool.
Throw in the fact that there are immigration complications involved as reported by Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (from ‘Blues announce their 40-man training camp roster’, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/31/20), and it is not easily within general manager Doug Armstrong’s control to bring foreign players into the fold.
For first-round pick and Blues prospect Klim Kostin, a unique solution was the best one, all things considered.
Competing at the Highest Level
The Russian-born forward has been on loan to Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and has been making the most of the situation. This being Kostin’s first real tenure in the KHL, having played for Moscow Dynamo back in 2016-27 when he played just eight games when at the end of that year the Blues drafted him with the 31st pick in the 2017 draft. Before that, Kostin bounced between several clubs across the Russian junior and minor leagues like the MHL and VHL as a teenager. Since being drafted, he has played in the AHL.
In 41 games in Russia’s top league, Kostin has racked up a very respectable 18 points, on 7 goals and 11 assists. The 21-year-old prospect has been a significant contributor in arguably Europe’s top league.
As a younger player and still very much a prospect, Kostin has established himself as both an offensively capable producer and a physical presence in the league. His overtime winner earlier this week is an excellent example of how proficient he is in using his strength and superior skating ability to shake off defenders and push play.
Kostin has put together an awe-inspiring recent stretch of games. He shows off various new skills that have him marked as a candidate to be a late-season addition to the Blues roster when the KHL season ends. While he has not played an exceptionally disciplined game, tallying 42 penalty minutes in just 41 games, adding to the troubling trend where he totaled 102 and 59 penalty minutes in each of the two previous seasons in the AHL for the San Antonio Rampage, he has shown increased offensive capabilities when playing off the puck and in his shooting ability. He fits in far more adeptly within a system that is allowing for his physical play.
This month he has had two three-point games and has helped Avangard breakout and take the lead in the Chernyshev Division with 35 wins. The team has a shot at setting a franchise record for wins, and has a real chance at winning the Gagarin Cup. Playing under former Calgary Flames coach Bob Hurley, Kostin has played a role similar to what the Blues would ask him to play and has excelled in doing so.
The Benefits of Staying in Russia
There have been significant advantages to having Kostin play overseas this year. The largest and most noticeable is the ability to play in a top league rather than a minor one. While there are certainly arguments for and against the comparability of the KHL to the NHL, the Russian league’s competitive nature is far more similar to that of the National Hockey League than any other in the world. So, while teams like Omsk aren’t likely to concern themselves with Kostin’s development, he is learning to compete in a far more similar situation than perhaps the AHL could provide.
His recent streak of success also seems to imply Kostin has begun to figure his game out at the highest level. Getting a significant portion of his points in recent weeks and moving up in the lineup implies his game is peaking at the right moment.
The next most significant benefit is that Kostin has played significantly more than any of the Blues prospects in North America. With the AHL opening up just earlier this month, Blues prospects with the Comets have played only five games. The Blues themselves have played just 18 games themselves. Kostin’s Avangard Omsk club has played 58 games now, with Kostin appearing in 41 of them, making him by far the most prepared and experienced skater in the Blues pipeline for the 2020-21 season.
While it seems unlikely in a typical year that Kostin would have a red carpet to the NHL roster after returning home, with NHL.com’s Lou Korac reporting that Kostin will likely report to the AHL upon returning to the United States, and his target year remains the 2021-22 season. With so many injuries plaguing the Blues lineup, a shot in the arm from a young prospect who can fold into the system and style Craig Berube wants to play might be exactly what the Blues need right now. With injuries plaguing the NHL roster and the Blues having a hard time finding X-factors in winning hockey, a high-energy physical forward might be just what the doctor ordered.
While the KHL season is coming to an end, it could be weeks before Kostin is available to go stateside, with Omsk being a favorite for a deep run in the KHL playoff. But when he does, he will be ready and capable of providing, which, given all the barriers involved, is making the most of a situation that is handed to you.