The St. Louis Blues should have a fairly quiet offseason. The team only has six total free agents: two restricted, and four unrestricted. Most notable of those four unrestricted free agents (UFA) is David Perron, the 34-year-old who continues to get better with time. This season, his 27 goals were the most he’s scored in a single season since 2013-14 when he was with the Edmonton Oilers.
Perron is on his third stint in St. Louis, and according to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford, he doesn’t want to go anywhere any time soon. Given his ties to the city and the value he brings to the team, expect Blues general manager Doug Armstrong to make quick work of re-signing him.
After Perron, the rest of the Blues’ free agents are question marks. Ville Husso is a UFA and has set himself up for a fairly large payday, likely more than what Armstrong can offer. Nick Leddy and Tyler Bozak are also unrestricted, while Scott Perunovich and Niko Mikkola are restricted free agents (RFA) — all solid depth players.
While all this is going on in St. Louis, the Springfield Thunderbirds made it all the way to the Calder Cup Final. Even though they ultimately lost to the Chicago Wolves, it serves as a reminder of all the talent in the system, so replacements for guys like Bozak or Husso could already be in-house.
There are 13 players currently with the organization that spent time with both the Blues and Thunderbirds this season, and there have been varying results. Let’s take a look at some of the top players from that group, and then we can piece together which of those players have the potential to crack the opening night lineup in October.
Alexei Toropchenko is as much of a shoo-in for the opening night roster as you’ll find on this list. Since the 6-foot-6 Russian came into the lineup in late March, his play has made it difficult for the coaching staff to keep him off the ice. His big, powerful play style uses his size to win 50/50 battles and drive to the net, creating chances for others, which fits perfectly into head coach Craig Berube’s system.
“He’s a detail guy,” Berube said. “He’s got great size, and his skating, if you see how he drives wide, he puts those D on edge all the time, takes pucks to the net and things like that…He’s hard in the forecheck and big [and] heavy” (from “Blues Notebook: Toropchenko Moving Up In the World”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/26/22).
Toropchenko also shined in the playoffs, even moving up to the third line alongside Brayden Schenn and Jordan Kyrou, so expect the 22-year-old to be right back there in October.
It’s safe to say Logan Brown isn’t going to live up to the hype of being an 11th-overall pick. However, he still offers plenty on the ice, as his size and playmaking abilities allow him to create scoring chances in front of the net. He’s a versatile player on offense who can use his size to create against smaller players. His four goals don’t quite tell the full story of what he’s capable of.
Brown got the short end of the stick with Berube’s decision to play 11 forwards and seven defensemen in the playoffs. However, once next season rolls around, especially if Bozak leaves in free agency, Brown will fit nicely into the center slot that Bozak operated in for much of last season.
Nathan Walker, like Toropchenko, carved out a spot in the lineup towards the end of the season and into the playoffs. Similarly, he also made it hard to scratch him from the lineup. Furthermore, Berube had glowing reviews of his late-season performance.
“[Walker] added some real good energy for us,” Berube said. “Whether it’s on the ice or with his ability — how he plays the game. And just his chatter and everything. He’s an edgy guy out there. He gets under people’s skin, and he plays the right way and plays hard. I think he’s an effective guy.”
Walker played on the fourth line throughout the latter part of the regular season and playoffs, and he’s played well in limited opportunities. While he is undersized, he’s played at a high enough level to remain on that fourth line next season. It also helps that Brown and Toropchenko are both 6-foot-6.
Dakota Joshua only played in 30 games last year, but the advanced stats crowd love what he’s done in that time. According to MoneyPuck, his 1.06 expected goals per 60 trailed only Vladimir Tarasenko for the highest by a Blue. He also blocked 2.4 shots per 60 minutes, the third-most on the team. He’s a Swiss Army knife, as he is able to contribute just about anywhere, making him a real net positive when he’s on the ice.
The only thing that will prevent Joshua from cracking the lineup will be the lack of space on the roster. With the lineups that Berube rolled out at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, the most likely fourth line for 2022-23 will consist of Brown, Toropchenko, and Walker. In case of an injury, Joshua will make a great replacement, similar to his role with the Blues this year. However, there isn’t a scenario where I can see him being a lineup regular.
Klim Kostin is the lowest of these forwards on the totem pole at the moment. When the Blues drafted him in the first round in 2017, he was supposed to develop into a big power forward that could get in the corners and consistently win possession battles. Simply put, he hasn’t done that yet.
Kostin started the season on the NHL roster, but after 40 games, a lackluster nine points got him demoted to Springfield, and he hasn’t been back since. Even in the American Hockey League (AHL), he only has 12 points in 32 games, so he didn’t do much to make the Blues want to recall him. Unless he shows marked improvement in Springfield, expect him to stay in the AHL for the foreseeable future.
Scott Perunovich is in a strange situation. As mentioned above, he’s an RFA. The Blues’ lack of depth on defense makes his return more valuable than a forward in his situation.
The biggest issue with Perunovich is his fit with the roster. The puck-moving power-play specialist role already belongs to Torey Krug, who the Blues have locked up for another five years. Additionally, Justin Faulk normally quarterbacks the second power-play unit and has done well in that role. Unless Berube decides to keep another offensively-minded defenseman and give Faulk’s power-play spot to Perunovich, there isn’t much space for his skillset in St. Louis.
Given his age and talent, however, the former Hobey Baker Award winner has plenty of trade value, which Armstrong could package into a deal for a premier trade target like Jakob Chychrun. While Perunovich’s talent is certainly enough to land him a spot on the roster, issues with fit could find him in another city by the start of the 2022-23 season.
Calle Rosen is the only other Thunderbirds defenseman that saw real ice time, not counting Steven Santini, who only played three minutes as a Blue. Rosen played most of his minutes late in the year — 20 of his 27 games came after March 28 — but he played solid minutes for the parent club down the stretch.
Rosen wasn’t anything particularly eye-opening, but he wasn’t bad, either, which the Blues could need as a depth defenseman. If Perunovich doesn’t get traded and Leddy re-signs, he would serve in the same role as he did in 2021-22. If either a trade is made or Leddy walks, he could slide into the lineup as that sixth defenseman.
In all likelihood, Ville Husso is gone next season, which means the starter’s net will belong solely to Jordan Binnington again. The search for his backup will come down to a decision between Charlie Lindgren and Joel Hofer, and it only makes sense that the Blues choose the former rather than the latter.
While his stats in 2021-22 are clearly unsustainable next season, the numbers that Lindgren put up in his four starts — 5-0 record, .958 save percentage, 1.22 goals-against average — give the Blues no other choice but to reward him with the backup role. In addition, he is 28, while Hofer is 21, so adding Lindgren to the roster also gives Hofer more time to develop with the Thunderbirds before playing with the Blues full-time. Plus, how can you resist more of those postgame interviews?
Given the general lack of roster turnover, there simply aren’t many spots in the lineup open for competition. If Bozak and Husso leave, that leaves three forward spots, one defenseman, and one goalie. However, with the success that these players had with both Springfield and St. Louis should inspire plenty of confidence in the Blues’ depth going forward.
Jacob Stinson is a writer for The Hockey Writers covering the St. Louis Blues. In addition to his work for THW, Jacob also covers Michigan State hockey for WDBM 88.9-FM and studies journalism at Michigan State University.