After a disappointing 2017-18 season that saw the St. Louis Blues miss the playoffs by just one point, they made it their priority to improve this offseason – and they did just that. After a series of offseason moves that substantially upgraded the roster, they are now a playoff team. With that being said, in order for the Blues to get back into the playoffs this year they will need some of their returning players to be better than they were last season. Here are three Blues players that will have something to prove in the 2018-19 season.
Last season, Barbashev was given an excellent chance to build off of the fantastic rookie season that he had as a 21-year-old in 2016-17 when he had 12 points in 30 games. Although, last year things did not go as planned as he struggled to find his groove offensively. He played an average of 12 minutes a night where he tallied 13 points in 53 games and even saw his faceoff percentage drop to 38 percent. Barbashev also spent time in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves where he tallied 10 points in a total of 20 games. He is turning 23 so he still has some growing to do but this year he will have something to prove for a number of reasons.
First off, he’s entering the last year of his rookie contract which means if he wants to get paid and earn a one-way deal, he will have to prove that he is a full-time NHLer. That’ll be hard to do if he has another season bouncing between the AHL and NHL. Secondly, there are promising centre prospects right behind him gunning for his spot. Prospect Robert Thomas could crack the Blues and beat out Barbashev for a roster spot this year. Even if he doesn’t, Thomas will be a full-time player during the 2019-20 season.
The Blues also have NCAA graduate Nolan Stevens, who was the captain for Northeastern University, as another promising option up the middle. On top of that, the Blues have locked up Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak for the next couple of seasons which means Barbashev will have some stiff competition for the fourth line centre position for years to come. This is a massive year for Barbashev to show Blues management that he should be a part of their long-term plans.
One quick flick of the wrists and Ivan Barbashev scores another NHL goal! pic.twitter.com/LEutl9KSyk
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) January 31, 2018
All in all, Barbashev is a solid two-way centre with a ton up upside both offensively and defensively. This year, he will need to produce more than 13 points and get his faceoff percentage up over at least 40 percent. With Kyle Brodziak, Patrik Berglund and Scottie Upshall leaving, Barbashev could be a big part of the Blues’ penalty kill.
Arguably one of the most durable and consistent players in recent memory, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester has something to prove this year. First, he is coming off a season in which he only played 35 games, a career low. Prior to last season, he had missed a total of 43 games over his entire 14-year NHL career.
What is hard to believe, is that from the 2005-06 season to 2013-14 he had missed a total of one game. Overall, the iron horse has played in more than 1,100 NHL games. The fact that Bouwmeester, who is turning 35, had a season-ending hip injury last year raises a few red flags. Can he stay healthy? Can he still produce? Is this the end of the line?
#STLBLUES INJURY UPDATE
Jay Bouwmeester will miss the rest of the season with a left hip injury. Scottie Upshall will be re-evaluated in four weeks with a left MCL sprain.https://t.co/xzYWvhkNCE
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 5, 2018
Secondly, Bouwmeester needs to bounce back and improve on the seven points in 35 games that he registered last season. He has seen his offensive numbers decline over the past couple of years which is expected as he ages, but he should still be a 20-25 point player if he plays a full season. Most importantly, Bouwmeester is entering the final year of his contract which means he has to prove that he can stay healthy and still be a viable two-way defenseman before heading into free agency next summer. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong spoke about Bouwmeester’s injury:
“We’re hoping that within four to six months that he’ll be able to resume playing… He’s still an elite skater in our game, and if the hip responds to the surgery, I think he’s got time left.”
Bouwmeester is still 34 years old so he should have some gas left in the tank but this season will define the future of his career with the Blues. If he responds well to hip surgery, the Blues could re-sign him but if he regresses, the Blues may decide to move on next summer. Expect Bouwmeester to line up on the third defensive pairing with Robert Bortuzzo or Jordan Schmaltz this season.
Another defenseman that has something to prove this year is Jordan Schmaltz. Schmaltz split the 2017-18 season with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL and the St. Louis Blues. In the AHL, he showcased just how skilled and offensively effective he can be as he tallied 23 points in 31 games and was the only Blues AHL All-Star.
With the Blues last year, he appeared in 13 games and tallied one point. Schmaltz was also called up in 2016-17 and has three points in 22 career NHL games. Although it is a small sample size, expectations are higher for Schmaltz to produce at the NHL level.
Much like Ivan Barbashev, Schmaltz has a group of prospects right behind him. Jake Walman and Mitch Reinke are young and capable defensemen and if they get off to a good start in the AHL, they could be rewarded with an opportunity over Schmaltz. Also, Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzo and Bouwmeester are all set to be UFAs next season and the chances of the Blues re-signing all three of them is unlikely, which means if Schmaltz impresses this season he could earn a bigger role next year.
He has a lot of offensive upside, there is no question about that. He is mobile, has a good shot, is big and can make that first pass out of his own end very well. Head coach Mike Yeo had this to say about Schmaltz’s talents:
“You look at what the NHL game is today and, on the back end, you’re talking about guys who can skate, guys with good feet, guys who can distribute the puck and move the puck and see the ice. And [Schmaltz] has all those elements,”
Schmaltz is still without a contract heading into the 2018-19 season but he is an RFA which means he should agree to a deal before the start of training camp. He has proven himself at the AHL level, now he needs to prove himself at the NHL level.