Blues’ Cup Window Hinges on Early-Season Success

For the St. Louis Blues, June 12, 2019, will forever be the most important date in franchise history — the day they finally won their first Stanley Cup. From a team that had just fired head coach Mike Yeo and, by all accounts, was likely to get blown up to a team on top of the hockey world. In the unlikeliest of ways, that is when the Blues’ championship window opened.

St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
St. Louis Blues pose for a photo with the Stanley Cup on the ice after the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

A lot has changed since then. I’ll go over the three seasons following their first championship, roster decisions made with the most impact, and how everything leads up to this coming season.

Blues’ Post-Cup Run

2019-20 Season Was Very Promising Before COVID

The Blues were on fire throughout the 2019-20 season after their Stanley Cup run. With goalie Jordan Binnington building upon his phenomenal rookie campaign that proved to be the catalyst for turning around their season, the Blues were poised to make another deep run through the playoffs and were, by all accounts, considered to be a major threat to repeat. They were 42-19-10 through 71 games and led the Central Division before COVID shut down the league (and the world, for that matter).

When play finally resumed, the NHL had the infamous playoff bubbles where the Blues got fairly well handled by the Vancouver Canucks, 4-2, in the series. In that offseason, captain Alex Pietrangelo departed for the Vegas Golden Knights, Torey Krug was brought into the fold, and longtime Blue Alexander Steen announced his retirement. This is when the initial roster turnover really began.

2020-21 Was Tough For Many Reasons

Fast forward to the COVID-shortened 56-game season in 2020-21. There were newly-formed divisions for this one unique season and zero fans in attendance. The Blues scratched and clawed the entire way, enduring plenty of rough patches along the way, and barely earned a playoff spot (27-20-9). All of that just to get steamrolled by the Colorado Avalanche 4-0, and Vladimir Tarasenko only managed to play in 24 regular season games due to his lingering shoulder injury. After the playoffs were over, the rumors of him requesting a trade began to swirl, leading the Blues to leave him unprotected in the Seattle Expansion Draft, though he did not get selected.

Related: Blues’ Five Burning Questions for 2022-23 Season

During this offseason, veteran forward and long-time enemy Brandon Saad joined the team. The team also made the savvy move of acquiring undervalued forward Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick. This trade was seen as an immediate win for the Blues as Buchnevich showed the potential of being a top-6 winger, while Blais was having an issue staying healthy and finding consistent ice time on the fourth line.

Team Philosophy Shifted Toward Offense 2021-22

This past season was a resounding success for the Blues. They had nine 20-goal scorers, a comeback season for Tarasenko (34 goals, 48 assists, 75 games), and breakout seasons from Robert Thomas (20 goals, 57 assists), Jordan Kyrou (27 goals, 48 assists), Pavel Buchnevich (30 goals, 46 assists), and Ivan Barbashev (26 goals, 34 assists) — all of whom set career highs in points.

These were crucial ingredients to the Blues finishing third in a strong Central Division (49-22-11) behind the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. At the trade deadline, the team acquired defenseman Nick Leddy from the Detroit Red Wings to help bolster the blue line. Although the Blues handled the Minnesota Wild in the first round (4-2), they were once again defeated by the much stronger (and eventual champion) Avalanche (4-2). The Blues appeared to be the Avalanche’s toughest test throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading many to wonder if they could’ve bested them in a 7-game series if Jordan Binnington hadn’t gotten injured in Game 3.

This offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Blues and general manager Doug Armstrong. While the team seems to be firmly in the top half of the Central Division, they may have potentially taken a step back offensively. The loss of David Perron and how it went down is a looming cloud over St. Louis. Leddy is a nice piece, but at four years, $4 million per year, many argue that cap space should’ve been used to keep Perron. Not to mention that Leddy is a left-handed shot, in which the Blues have plenty of depth (Torey Krug, Niko Mikkola, Marco Scandella, Scott Perunovich, Calle Rosen).

As a result, the choice of Leddy over Perron is going to be one that will need evaluation this entire season. The offseason isn’t officially over by any means, but with only $625,000 remaining in cap space, barring any trades to offload some of that cap, it is safe to say the Blues are done adding to the roster.

Blues’ Cup Window Hinges on Season’s Start

How hot the Blues come out of the gates to begin this upcoming season is going to be the key to the franchise’s hopes of contending for the Stanley Cup for at least the next two to three years. To be successful, for a team without any bonafide “stars,” they’re going to need to replicate the depth scoring they showed last season. While they may not be able to have nine 20-goal scorers for a second straight year, their current forward depth should allow them to score at a similar pace.

Consistency in Net is Crucial

The real catalyst to this window staying open or closing, though, is going to be the defense, and in particular, the goaltending. Last season was undoubtedly the worst we’ve seen from incumbent starter Jordan Binnington (18-4-4, 3.13 goals-against per game (GAA), .901 save percentage (SV%) in 37 games played. To make matters worse, 2021-22 was Binnington’s first year of his freshly signed six-year, $36 million extension.

Throughout most of the regular season, Binnington was fairly inconsistent when healthy. He ceded a lot of playing time to backup Ville Husso, who, without him, the Blues might’ve sunk out of the playoff race. Husso (25-7-6, 2.56 GAA, .919 SV% in 40 games played) solidified the position while Binnington worked out his kinks in practice and in spot-start duty. During the last month of the regular season and playoff time, Binnington seemed to be back to form before his aforementioned injury.

Thomas Greiss Detroit Red Wings
Thomas Greiss will serve as the Blues’ backup goaltender to start the 2022-23 season. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Husso getting dealt to the Detroit Red Wings during the 2022 NHL Draft and veteran backup Thomas Greiss coming in on a one-year deal, Binnington’s safety net is essential gone. At 36 years old, Greiss’ best days are well behind him. In 31 games as the backup with the Red Wings last season, he was 10-15-0 with a 3.66 GAA and a .891 SV%. Granted, he was playing behind a very porous Red Wings defensive unit, but he did little to help himself in the crease. It’s possible last season was a blip on the radar more than a downward trend, as his career numbers are much better (2.72 GAA, .912 SV%). At this stage in his career, Greiss shouldn’t be relied on for more than 25-30 games.

Which Binnington shows up for the Blues at the beginning of the season will likely dictate what type of start the Blues will get off to.

Win or Lose, Crucial Moves Will Have to be Made

With core players coming up on expiring contracts (Ryan O’Reilly, Tarasenko, Jordan Kyrou, Ivan Barbashev), the 2022-23 season is going to be the key to the Blues’ title window. If this season starts on the right foot and they’re a contender that is able to realistically compete for the Cup, then you’re going to see a lot of the same faces in the lineup next season. Tarasenko is very much a long shot to stay no matter what, but extensions for O’Reilly, Kyrou, and Barbashev seem to make sense.

Robert Thomas St. Louis Blues
Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, if the Blues exit early in the playoffs, or even worse, get off to a slow start and miss the postseason altogether, that’s the signal of the end to this iteration of the team. Kyrou should still remain with the team regardless, but Tarasenko is likely already gone at that point, and it’s really unclear whether or not O’Reilly would be back either. Robert Thomas signed to a massive deal this summer, essentially ensuring that he’s the piece they’ll be building around for their next window.

Related: Predicting the Blues’ Top-6 Forwards for 2022-23

As such, fans will be able to watch this team’s title window stay open or begin to close in real time this season. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see which way this team goes: all-in or a retooling.

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