Whether fans are ready to admit it or not, the St. Louis Blues will be transitioning during the 2020-21 season. Captain Alex Pietrangelo departed for the Vegas Golden Knights. Perennial top scorer Vladimir Tarasenko will enter the season on the Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), and after two injury-riddled seasons, will have a long road to recovering his previous form.
Without two of the most important players from the past decade, the Blues will be searching high and low for more scoring. They have yet to make a major addition in the offseason, though, as new forward Kyle Clifford is expected to play on the fourth line. Clearly, general manager Doug Armstrong is expecting young forwards like Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou to take a significant step forward. But one lesser-discussed player who could make just as big an impact is rookie Russian power forward Klim Kostin.
Kostin’s Rocky Road to the NHL
The Blues drafted Kostin at the end of the first round in 2017 under very unique circumstances. They drafted Thomas with the 20th pick and traded the 27th pick that had been theirs for forward Brayden Schenn. But as the final pick arrived, Commissioner Gary Bettman walked to the podium to announce that the Blues had surrendered Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Oskar Sundqvist and the 31st pick. The Blues used that pick to take Kostin, a Russian prospect who many believed would have been taken much higher but for a shoulder injury.
Kostin averaged two points per game in 33 contests with the Dynamo Moskva U16 team in 2014-15, then added 21 points in 30 games in the MHL the following season. He looked poised to play serious minutes in the KHL in his draft year before the shoulder injury that cost him most of the season. He ended up playing just 18 games across three levels of Russian hockey. But the Blues had seen enough talent in him to take the chance with a second first-round pick.
Kostin’s transition to North America has not been smooth. He joined the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League (AHL) the season after his draft, and managed 28 points in 67 games. But the team was not controlled by Blues coaches or scouts, so he was not put in a prime position to succeed. He did perform well at the international level, an effort he repeated the following season, despite some controversy at the World Junior Championship (WJC). But his AHL performance still underwhelmed, finishing at minus-28 with 102 penalty minutes (PIMs).
Hope in 2019-20
Kostin entered 2019-20 with a lot to prove. But he had better fortunes in the AHL, finishing the season with 30 points in 48 games (though he still had 59 PIMs). He even earned his first shot at NHL minutes, logging four games and scoring his first NHL goal (along with a world-class celebration that won over many fans).
Despite not logging any playoff minutes, Kostin did get to join the team after COVID-19 paused the season, participating in camp and getting to know his teammates better. At the time of this writing, Kostin is on loan with Avangard Omsk in the KHL, where he’s tallied two assists without a single penalty minute in 12 games.
Kostin’s Role With the Blues
The Blues have something of a logjam of middle-six forwards. Kostin will have to compete with more experienced players like Sammy Blais, Zach Sanford, and Oskar Sundqvist, plus Thomas and Kyrou who are looking at expanded roles. But even though he is just 21, Kostin is entering his fourth professional, North American season. It’s time for him to begin to show the player he can become, the player the Blues drafted in the first round.
Head coach Craig Berube will give Kostin a chance to prove himself in the preseason, whatever that looks like under these strange circumstances. He may even be drawn to the young player’s size and physicality. But the burden will be on Kostin to prove that he has what he takes to stay in the NHL. If he can, he could be a huge boost to a weakened St. Louis attack.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.