Fear gripped every St. Louis Blues fan, and indeed the entire hockey community, as news spread that veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester had collapsed on the bench in a game last Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks. When it became clear that paramedics on the scene had brought him back from the brink, fear became panic, which in turn became relief. Bouwmeester is stable and recovering, which is good news for every hockey fan.
Still, with the news that doctors implanted an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD), similar to a pacemaker, it seems unlikely that Bouwmeester will return this season if he can ever return to the ice at all. While Bouwmeester’s health is of primary importance, the stark hockey reality is that the defending Stanley Cup Champions are without a cornerstone defenseman as they approach the trade deadline.
It may seem uncomfortable for fans, or even for general manager Doug Armstrong, but he has just one week to assess Bouwmeester’s health and identify a subtable replacement entering the final postseason push. In this article, we will look at the best candidates within the organization and, with the trade deadline in mind, the best candidates that might be available via trade.
The Blues have a number of potential in-house options to fill the Bouwmeester void, one that stands above the rest in terms of readiness and fan excitement. We’ll start there.
23-year-old Finnish defenseman Niko Mikkola might be the fan-favorite choice to step into the large skates that Bouwmeester leaves behind. The Blues drafted Mikkola in 2015, 127th overall, and he’s slowly developed into a defenseman who could potentially eat top-four minutes, though without much scoring upside. He wouldn’t be the first late-round defenseman the Blues have developed, and now, he might be reaching NHL-readiness at the perfect time.
Mikkola is in some ways an eerily similar player to Bouwmeester. He stands 6-foot-4, the same height as the veteran, and skates extraordinarily well for his size (as did Bouwmeester, particularly as a younger player). Neither has much scoring touch, but they are good enough defensemen that even in today’s NHL, that doesn’t hinder them.
Mikkola’s breakout performance came last offseason when he was a major contributor on the Finnish team that won gold at the World Championship. It was enough for The Athletic‘s Senior NHL Prospect Writer, Corey Pronman, to label him a “legit NHL prospect” and offer him high praise:
The argument on Mikkola is simple, he’s 6-foot-4, is a great skater and is hard to play against. When he’s skating up the ice with the puck, he immediately draws your eye because of his size and speed. Not even his biggest advocates will be under the illusion his game has much offense, as he scored nine points all season in the AHL and is not much help on the power play. He was one of Finland’s best players at the worlds and a big reason why they won gold because of his defense and his ability to occasionally jump up offensively.Corey Pronman (from ‘2019 NHL farm system rankings: No. 19 St. Louis Blues,” The Athletic NHL, 08/20/2019)
Mikkola made his NHL debut earlier this season, got in five games, averaged over 14 minutes per game, and even collected his first assist. His time with the big club impressed many fans. If anyone already with the Blues is going to step right into Bouwmeester’s role and eat most of his minutes, it will be Mikkola. And indeed, that’s who the team recalled when they officially put Bouwmeester on injured reserve.
In the short term, Carl Gunnarsson has stepped into Bouwmeester’s role, but the Blues are 0-2-1 in that time. That isn’t Gunnarsson’s fault, necessarily, but he isn’t ready to occupy the whole role that Bouwmeester vacated. Plus, with his injury history, the Blues can’t rely on him to play the 21 minutes a night that he’d need to fill.
Everything that was true of Gunnarsson is true of Bortuzzo, too, except that Bortuzzo would be playing on his off-hand side in Bouwmeester’s place. He’ll see increased opportunities with the veteran out, but he isn’t an everyday player at this point, and the Blues cannot enter the postseason treating him as such.
The Blues do have one interesting option in top-defensive prospect Scott Perunovich. The 2018 second-round pick is a star at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he has 33 points in 28 games this season as a junior. The Blues could, in theory, sign him to an entry-level contract (ELC) and have him join the team as soon as his college season is over, much like the Colorado Avalanche did with Calder Trophy contender Cale Makar last season.
Perunovich has a very bright future, but he’s not the kind of elite prospect Makar was. Still, there is growing concern about Perunovich’s willingness to sign with the Blues, especially as his senior year approaches. Could Armstrong use this unfortunate turn of events to lure the college defenseman with the possibility of immediate playing time? To do so would require burning a year of his ELC. It seems unlikely, but it is a possibility, one of which Blues fans should be aware.
According to TSN’s Trade Bait board, there are three left-handed defensemen that make a fair amount of sense for the Blues. The first is Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, who is certainly available, and has one year remaining on his contract after this season. He comes with a four million dollar cap hit.
Martinez would be something of an ideal solution for the Blues if the price is right. He is an experienced defender, and most importantly has playoff and Stanley Cup experience. He even scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2014 in double-overtime.
Martinez is playing 21:33 on average with the Los Angeles Kings and can contribute on special teams. The added year on his contract gives the Blues flexibility at an affordable cost, especially if they planned to re-sign Bouwmeester for another season. It won’t be cheap — consider the price the Tampa Bay Lightning just paid for Blake Coleman with another season left on his deal — but he could certainly step right into the role and do well.
If Armstrong is looking for a cheaper option with no obligation for next year, Brenden Dillon of the San Jose Sharks might make sense. He averages just over 19 minutes a game this season and contributes a bit more offensively than Martinez. He’s also younger but doesn’t have quite the same postseason experience as the Kings’ veteran. Still, he’s played in 62 playoff games in his career, so he’s not a liability there.
Dillon’s metrics are more promising than Martinez’s. Whereas Martinez has a negative relative Corsi for percentage (CF% rel), Dillon’s is strong at 3.1. His total CF% is 52.0, meaning the Sharks maintain a slim possession advantage with him on the ice. Dillon is also a strong penalty killer, averaging almost two minutes per game with a CF% rel of 1.6 on that unit.
As a pure rental, Dillon should cost less than Martinez, but he still won’t be cheap. He’s one of the better defensemen available at this deadline, and if Armstrong wants to acquire his services, he’ll need to be prepared to pay up.
If Armstrong prefers to shop in the discount lane as the deadline approaches, NHL super-veteran Ron Hainsey is an additional option. The 38-year-old is on an expiring contract and has managed to play over 20 minutes a night with the Ottawa Senators this season. He won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017 as well.
There’s no illusion that Hainsey is an elite defender anymore, but he would provide a good veteran presence and could eat some minutes, especially down the stretch as the Blues look to rest players after a long season following a long postseason. He would almost certainly be the cheapest of these three players to acquire, as well.
The Real Solution
The Blues have plenty of options to fill the void Bouwmeester leaves behind as they attempt to rebuild after an unforeseen turn of events. But they have to decide quickly, with the trade deadline just a week away. Armstrong isn’t afraid to make a move if he believes it will help his team, but he’ll want to make sure it’s the right move, not forced by the panic of the moment.
In reality, the Blues will probably fill the hole Bouwmeester leaves with some combination of these players. Mikkola will get more opportunities (although they have yet to start him in three games since his call-up), Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson will continue to see more time, and Armstrong may look to add some reinforcements from outside the organization.
Whatever the solution, Bouwmeester’s health is of primary importance, and everyone in St. Louis is relieved to know that he is through the worst of things and recovering well. Whether he ever plays again or not, he will retire a Blues legend and a Stanley Cup Champion.