The St. Louis Blues are currently one of the top teams in the Western Conference, recovering from several injuries and an extended COVID outbreak, and on a strong road trip through the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. Many players on the team have made substantial leaps forwards this season. Others have struggled to perform to expectations. Their 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night marked the exact midpoint of their season. With 41 games behind them and 41 games ahead of them, what better time to step back and evaluate each player in turn? We will grade every player who has appeared in 10 or more games this season on an A-F scale, and briefly discuss why they earned the corresponding grade. On the whole, this is a season of happy surprises and promising futures, but a few key veterans have underperformed thus far.
Starting with the player most deserving of a high grade, if there was something higher than an “A+,” Ivan Barbashev might be worthy. The Russian utility forward drafted in the second round in 2014 has spent much of his career in the bottom six. But he’s received a three-minute per game increase in time on ice this season, and he’s making the most of it. At the midway point of the season, he has already set career highs in goals, assists, and points.
The biggest question now is whether he can continue this pace for the second half of the season or not. It’s easy to have the knee-jerk reaction and assume that a player whose previous career high was 26 points won’t suddenly finish the season with 30 goals and 68 points (his present pace), but he is showing every sign of having significantly leveled up this season. At just $2.25 million per season, with another season left on his contract, he is certainly one of the team’s most high-value players right now.
Knowing what they know now, with the emergence of several key depth players, would general manager Doug Armstrong still sign Tyler Bozak to a one-year contract late in the offseason? It’s hard to say. When everyone is healthy, Bozak arguably blocks a younger player from a roster spot. But this season more than any other, quality depth is at a premium. And he is a veteran who is popular in the market. In any case, Bozak has been fine playing in a diminished role in the bottom six. The biggest concern with Bozak is that his faceoff percentage, normally 54 percent or higher, has dropped over 10 percentage points from last season. That could be a sign of age catching up with his quick-twitch reactions.
How quickly things change in the NHL. The Blues got hometown kid Logan Brown during training camp, trading away Zach Sanford to the Ottawa Senators to add him. No one was sure he’d even get an opportunity in the NHL, especially since the conditional pick in the trade incentivized Armstrong to limit his exposure this season. But injuries forced the Blues to call Brown up, and he’s been good to great ever since. He isn’t the game-breaker the Senators probably hoped for when they drafted him 11th overall, and he probably never will be. But he’s evolved in some areas, especially using his size on the forecheck and in the defensive zone, elements he was criticized for lacking by Senators fans. It’s not clear what his ceiling is, but with a decent two-way game, he will almost certainly remain an NHL fixture, and that’s a big evolution in just half a season.
Armstrong’s trade of Sammy Blais and a second-round pick to the New York Rangers for Pavel Buchnevich is already earning a reputation as one of the best trades in his tenure. Buchnevich is second on the team with 36 points and is comfortably on pace to shatter career highs in goals and points. That is especially impressive, as he’s averaging almost 30 seconds a game fewer in St. Louis than he did in his final season in New York.
Metrically, Buchnevich is one of the Blues’ top players in almost every category. He is a brilliant two-way forward, spending time on both special team units. He leads the team in power play points, helping the Blues build the second-best man advantage record in the league. Despite all their success this season, the Rangers still have to have some regrets about trading Buchnevich for so little. He is primed to become a fixture of the Blues’ offense for years to come.
Dakota Joshua has evolved from a depth addition to the organization to a reliable fourth-line forward. He is continuing his strong performance from last season and is clearly one of head coach Craig Berube’s favorite players in the bottom six. The team did not relish sending him down out of training camp, and now that he’s back, he probably won’t be leaving again. He’s not a game-changer, but every NHL team would be happy to have a Dakota Joshua at the end of their bench.
Klim Kostin is a tough nut to crack. He may never become the superstar that most Blues fans hoped they had stolen at the end of the first round in 2017. But at just 22, he’s finally evolved into a regular NHL player, and that is a big step forward. Last season, he won the Gagarin Cup in his native Russia because he couldn’t play in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Blues’ affiliate canceling their season. That opportunity seems to have been a big win for both player and organization. Now, Kostin has at least a shot to be the Blues’ rookie of the year.
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Kostin has just five points and is averaging just nine and a half minutes per game, but he’s carved out a place in the regular lineup. He’s finding his physical side, though he is still prone to unnecessary penalties. Right now, he is still growing and adjusting to the NHL game. For as long as he’s been in the organization, he is still very young. There is plenty of time for him to solidify his role, or even still take a step forward in his career.
There’s no need to belabor the point: Jordan Kyrou is a budding superstar. The Blues’ representative at the All-Star game, he currently leads the team with 41 points. He became the first-ever player to register four points in a single Winter Classic earlier this month, and he has hardly slowed down since.
Kyrou has game-breaking speed and skill and should be fun to watch in the fastest skater competition during All-Star Weekend. He and former World Junior Championship gold medal teammate Robert Thomas are set to be future centerpieces of the Blues. It’s tough to criticize anything in Kyrou’s game. Like many high-skill youngsters, he can continue to improve defensively. But if he produces at this level, average defense will be more than enough.
Some fans will expect to see James Neal receive a harsher grade, as he hasn’t done much for the team on paper. But he always was signed to be a glue guy and locker room veteran on the Blues. Metrically, he’s been very strong defensively and lackluster offensively. The Blues waived him earlier this season, and now he is a member of the taxi squad. But as long as he and his big personality are around the team, he will be serving a purpose.
Yes, it’s a tough grade for the captain, arguably a little too tough. But when someone sets as high a standard for himself as Ryan O’Reilly has in his time with the Blues, stiff expectations become the norm. After he missed time in COVID protocol, he seemed to struggle to regain his form. He still doesn’t seem to be the same threat offensively that he has been in seasons prior, although that may be a byproduct of the teamwide explosion in offensive production (in other words, with more cooks in the kitchen, O’Reilly doesn’t have to be the sous chef all on his own).
He is still an exceptional defensive player and Selke Trophy candidate, and he still dominates the faceoff circle. The D grade truly is more a reflection of the sky-high standard the captain has set for himself in St. Louis. But a resurgent O’Reilly in the second half could make an already dangerous team nearly unstoppable.
Grading David Perron depends on how you evaluate him at this stage of his career. If you’re comparing him to the dominant, point-per-game player from last season, his output is a little disappointing. If you’re judging him as a 33-year-old forward making just $4 million per season, you still likely see him in a strongly positive light. As ever, Perron has tended to take some dumb penalties, and his offensive output has slowed down, likely due in no small part to O’Reilly’s corresponding slowdown. The two were inseparable last year and are close friends off the ice. But Perron is a tremendous defensive player and still is on a 63 point pace for a full season (he missed time due to COVID and injury), so it is tough to criticize him too much.
Maybe it’s a bit of recency bias because he has six points in his last five games, and has addressed the imbalance in goals and assists that he carried for much of the season, but it is difficult not to be at least somewhat pleased with Brandon Saad’s performance this season. It is always hard to adjust to a new team, but Saad certainly hasn’t lacked for goals after signing his five-year, $22.5 million contract in the summer. He is fifth on the team in goals with 13 and tied for the lead in power play goals, with five.
The Blues have evolved as a team. In previous seasons, their identity was built around their strong defensive backbone. Now, it’s their explosive and deep offense that carries them through many games. And that may be exactly what they need to keep pace with conference rivals like the Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights. Saad is a luxury and might be slightly overpriced for a third-liner. But if he keeps producing goals at a 25-plus per season pace, and keeps delivering on the man advantage, absolutely no one will complain.
Brayden Schenn is another player who is tough to evaluate due to the time he has missed this season. Metrically, he has not performed especially well. But if he’s struggling with COVID aftereffects, it’s hard to blame him too much. He still averages 0.71 points per game, which is a fine level of output. Schenn’s role is evolving. He no longer needs to be one of the team’s top scorers, and he is no longer a regular at center. With that change, it’s to be expected his output will evolve, too. Given that and the health challenges this season, a patient approach is warranted.
Here is another player who deserves a dash of patience. Oskar Sundqvist has gone from fan favorite to a player many are including in hypothetical trade packages as a way to balance cap considerations. It’s an unfair demotion, given that he is still overcoming missing most of last season with a devastating ACL injury. He certainly needs to improve, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt this season. Assuming he finishes the campaign healthy and still with the Blues, that will be a big win for him.
Maybe it is a bit generous to give an “A+” to a former superstar player who is once again playing like a superstar, but given the circumstances of Vladimir Tarasenko’s season, he deserves it. Reports swirled rapidly that he wanted a trade away from St. Louis in the offseason, but for whatever reason, it never materialized. From the first moment of camp, Tarasenko had the right attitude, brushing off questions about the request, and explaining that he was “here to work.”
But it wasn’t just the trade request that the Russian sniper had to overcome. The series of serious shoulder injuries he suffered, which played a role in his request, had left him looking like a shell of the former EA Sports cover athlete, with just seven goals across 34 games in the two seasons prior. If he wanted the trade, he had to perform well and prove to other teams that there was something of one of the league’s former top goal scorers left in him.
Tarasenko has answered all those questions and then some. He could easily hit 30 goals this season and has collected a point per game in 37 games (like so many, he has missed a few games due to protocols). Most importantly, he has looked happy and healthy. No report has surfaced suggesting that his desire to move has changed, but many fans are hoping that his renewed performance and the Blues’ abundance of fellow Russian forwards could help placate him and keep him in St. Louis. Even if he is traded, though, no Blues fan can fairly have any complaints. He has done everything the exact right way this season, and if his days in the Gateway City are numbered, he will still be an iconic player in franchise history.
Robert Thomas has finally taken the step many have expected for a long time. He is the most creative and dynamic playmaker on the Blues, and his reputation will quickly spread around the league. Like Kyrou, he is set to be a centerpiece of the team for the next decade or more. The only reason he earns an “A-minus” when his counterpart carried an “A” boils down to Thomas’ lingering hesitance to shoot the puck. He regularly opts for passes even when he is behind the defense and alone on net. To be a truly top forward in this league, he still needs to find enough scoring touch to push for 20 goals a season, even if 50-60 assists per season is very much within his ability.
Believe it or not, Robert Bortuzzo is one of the longest-tenured Blues’ players. He’s earned that title for two reasons: he does his job without complaint, and he has a big, popular personality. His metrics don’t reflect too kindly on him this season, but he is still about average defensively. And he’s playing a third-pairing role. It remains to be seen whether the Blues will bring him back as an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer, but it is tough to complain about what he has contributed to the franchise over the years.
In his first season in St. Louis, Justin Faulk truly struggled. He did not adjust quickly after Armstrong acquired him from the Carolina Hurricanes, where he’d spent his entire career until then. In his second season with the Blues, he evolved into easily the team’s best defenseman, one of the few players who earned unabashedly strong marks after the season. In the 2021-22 season, he seems to have settled into a middle threshold: certainly more dependable than he was in his first season, but not quite as impactful as he was in season two.
Faulk is performing well offensively, tied with Torey Krug in goals by defensemen after his nasty deflection in Vancouver on Sunday night. He is about league average on defense when judging by metrics like expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) and Corsi Against per 60 (CA/60). That is a pretty accurate level for his entire career, and it’s where fans should expect him to be. He has been fine this season, and now, somehow already 160 games into his Blues’ tenure, he looks as comfortable in St. Louis as he ever did in Carolina.
This will be a controversial grade to some, but it shouldn’t be. Like Faulk, Krug struggled to settle in after signing a seven-year, $45.5 million contract as a UFA before last season. But this year, he is back to his old self, which means he is a borderline elite offensive defenseman. In fact, he is outperforming Cale Makar heavily in goals for per 60 (GF/60) and about even with him in expected GF/60 (xGF/60) at even strength this season. Of course, no one is saying he is anywhere near the player Cale Makar is. But it is a telling comparison for judging his offensive contributions to the team.
Krug is the target of unfair criticism from many fans who view him as a lackluster defender. In reality, he is about league average this season, performing slightly below average in xGA/60 and slightly above in CA/60. But the bigger issue is one of expectation. If Armstrong is disappointed to see Krug producing at a borderline-elite level offensively and playing mediocre defense at best, he should never have signed him in the first place. That is exactly the player Krug has always been. But, chances are that Armstrong is plenty satisfied, and fans need to adjust their expectations. It points to the evolving nature of the Blues’ identity discussed earlier. Krug is helping the team win games 5-3 instead of 2-1, and in today’s NHL, that’s perfectly laudable for a power play quarterback on defense.
The Blues may have found another diamond in the rough in Niko Mikkola, the towering Finnish defenseman. Thrust into top-line minutes that he wasn’t truly prepared for, he seems to be evolving game by game. Now, he is performing better-than-average in both xGA/60 and CA/60 at even strength. The Blues are rumored to be shopping for just about any defensive help they can get at the trade deadline, but Mikkola is at least giving them options. They may not believe he truly projects as a top-pairing defenseman long-term, but he continues to evolve and improve. He will never have any offensive upside to speak of, but players like Faulk, Krug, and Scott Perunovich can more than makeup for that.
It’s a tough grade, but a necessary one. Colton Parayko hasn’t been good enough this season after signing an eight-year, $52-million contract extension in the summer. The logic for Armstrong was obvious: during a summer where a rash of right-handed defensemen signed massive contracts or demanded huge trade prices, just over a year after losing his former captain in free agency, he tried to lock down his top blueliner at a discount after a season plagued with injury. That gamble may still pay off, but the early returns are troublesome.
Related: Blues’ Parayko Extension is a Big Gamble
Parayko’s role with the Blues has to be to provide the defensive stability the team sacrifices by having Faulk and Krug in top roles. This season, he isn’t providing that. He is roughly league average in shot and expected goal suppression, and well below average offensively at even strength. He may have taken a step forward in power play production, but he still has just 18 points in 38 games. He might challenge previous career highs of 35, but he certainly isn’t the dynamic, two-way defenseman that qualifies as a modern-day “cornerstone” blueliner. If any individual truly deserves the fan’s ire for the team’s defensive struggles (although it is overly simplistic to try and cast blame), Parayko is the one who has most disappointed expectations this season. He can still claw it back, and a deadline acquisition of a steady defensive partner might be just the remedy he needs.
Perunovich, the former Hobey Baker Trophy winner, impressed at every level in the preseason after missing most of last season with a serious shoulder injury. He was a star at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament before training camp and had a strong preseason where he was one of the last players cut and sent down to the Springfield Thunderbirds. There, he immediately found his grove and managed to collect 20 points in 12 games before he forced the Blues’ hand and earned a callup when the team had injuries.
Since then, he has done enough to remain in the lineup, averaging about 15:30 per game. And he has actually been pretty steady defensively, which is impressive for a young, diminutive defender in his first season at the top level. The issue with Perunovich is deployment. To make the most of his skill set, he should have plenty of opportunities in the offensive zone and on the power play. He is getting regular starts in the offensive zone, but few chances to quarterback the power play. And that likely won’t change soon, as Berube tends to trust his veterans. The circumstances suggest the Blues could look to trade him in a package for a defender on term, like Jakob Chychrun, whose name has been constantly in the rumor mill this season.
Marco Scandella’s extension is one Armstrong would like to have back. Signed after 11 good games during the confusion of early COVID circumstances and in the shadow of the loss of Jay Bouwmeester, Armstrong overpaid to solidify his left side. The problem is, Scandella hasn’t solidified much since signing. He is the team’s roughest defender metrically and is still owed $3.275 million per season for this season and two more. Realistically, the Blues will be looking for a team to take his salary off their books in the near future, even if it costs them some assets to do it.
Jake Walman has evolved from someone who seemed destined for an AHL career into a perfectly adequate seventh defenseman at the NHL level. The coach seems to trust him, and he is capable at both ends of the ice. Walman’s contributions are fairly replacement-level, but it is always nice to see a long-time prospect find a real NHL role.
Push pause on the talk of a goalie controversy. Though Ville Husso is playing out of his mind at the moment and has much stronger numbers than Jordan Binnington on the season, there is no question which netminder the team is married to for the long haul. Binnington is in the first season of a six-year, $36 million contract extension and, like Parayko, is struggling to prove his worth in his first season.
Binnington has struggled, but his numbers aren’t as poor as some might suggest. He is 11-8-3, with a .906 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.05 goals-against average (GAA). He has minus-2.0 goals saved above average (GSAA), putting him below average, but not severely so. Realistically, Binnington is struggling to adjust to a team whose defensive structure is shifting, and the team hasn’t seemed to perform as well around him as they have Husso. His counterpart will certainly earn more playing time in the near future, but in the long run, that could be the best thing for an overworked starter, anyway.
For his part, Husso is doing everything to prove he’s starter material. He’s now 8-2-1 with two shutouts, with a .941 SV% and a 1.93 GAA, coming off back-to-back incredible starts against the Seattle Kraken and the Canucks in which he made 65 saves on 66 shots. He has 12.6 GSAA as well. Entering the season, there were questions about whether Husso could serve as a consistent backup at the NHL level. Now, the discussion centers on whether he should be a starter. That’s quite an evolution in a single season, and he deserves all the hype.
What Will the Second Half Bring?
The Blues have three players on pace to hit 30 goals, and a few more in punching distance. They have two goalies fighting for playing time and a defense searching for an identity (with a general manager possibly looking for reinforcements). How many players will hit the 30-goal threshold? Will central players like O’Reilly, Parayko, and Binnington rebound? Can the Blues maintain their pace as a top team in the West and compete for another Stanley Cup? The second half begins tonight against the Calgary Flames, and the team is healthy and in top form. The sky could be the limit for the 2021-22 Blues.
Disagree with any of our grades? Let us know who you think deserves to be higher or lower in the comment section! We’d love to hear your feedback!