The St. Louis Blues ended their prospect tournament in true feast or famine fashion with a 7-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, bringing their record to 1-2. However, the team’s overall record does not tell the complete story as the players leave Traverse City. Let’s take a look at three key takeaways from the weekend tournament.
Blues Roster Depth Produces Mixed Results
For the second year in a row, the prospects failed to produce a winning record. After splitting a 1-1-1 record last year, they seemed poised to remain competitive this year, or go down swinging. While the team may have chosen the latter path, the Blues looked flat and outmatched throughout the majority of the tournament.
The opening match against the Columbus Blue Jackets felt like a tall task for St. Louis to overcome. Thanks to the hard work and skill of Blue Jackets forward Jordan Dumais, the Blues were quickly down two goals within the first five minutes of the game and were seemingly dominated until roughly the halfway point of the first period. While the Blue Jackets rostered a group of players in which several were selected in the first and second rounds, this does not immediately guarantee success. However, it is safe to say this was not the case. The Blues were outgunned in their first game of the tournament against a Blue Jackets squad that featured players like Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Luca Del Bel Belluz, Denton Mateychuk, and David Jiricek; all of which were drafted in either the first or second rounds of the NHL Entry Draft.
The second matchup of the tournament brought forth the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like the Blues, the Leafs have not selected many high draft choices over the last four years. In fact, they have selected only one player in the first round over their last four seasons. While the team has continued its push for a Stanley Cup over the last few years, high draft picks have become expendable, creating a shallow pool of highly-talented prospects. However, it was not only the Blues’ top prospects getting in on the scoring in their 8-3 victory. The franchises’ sixth-round draft pick of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Landon Sim, ended up leading the squad with two goals and four points.
The final game of the weekend reunited two Central Division rivals when the Blues took on the Stars. After the penalty-killing unit successfully killed off all eight power play attempts against the Leafs, they allowed two goals on the Dallas man advantage in the first 12 minutes of the game. The squad overpowered the Blues through the depth of their own prospect pool as forwards Riley Damiani and Matej Blumel combined for five goals and six points in the Stars’ 7-1 victory. The Blues’ depth was nowhere to be found throughout the game, despite the lone goal from forward Zach Bolduc midway through the second period.
Many fans were expecting to see first-round draft picks Bolduc and Neighbours show off their offensive abilities over the three games of the tournament and while Bolduc produced four points (two goals, two assists), Neighbours’ presence was felt, just not on the scoresheet.
“I thought he was really good again this tournament.” said Blues coach Drew Bannister, “A very detailed hockey player. High work ethic. Understands the game and processes the game very well. When players like that have those kind of details, the transition for them to pro hockey and the NHL becomes much easier. But from last year to this year, I see a lot of improvement in his skating, too. He seems to have a little bit more separation speed, especially through the neutral zone, than he did last year. He reads the play well. He understands the game, and he picks up on things quickly” (from ‘Blues close prospect tournament with another clunker in Traverse City,’ St. Louis Post Dispatch, 9/18/22).
The Blues received positive results from a handful of players including five points from Sim, and three points each from Matt Kessel and Nikita Alexandrov. However, they saw little to no offensive production from the remainder of the squad.
Blues Special Teams – A Lone Bright Spot
Over the three-game tournament, the Blues saw only eight power play opportunities to the combined 15 opportunities given to their opposition. They managed an impressive eight-for-eight on the penalty kill in their game against the Maple Leafs while surrendering three goals on six opportunities to the Stars. The penalty-killing unit had not allowed a single power play goal during the tournament through their first two games, as it finished the tournament with an impressive 80 percent on the penalty kill.
The Blues scored three goals on the man-advantage over the course of the tournament, all from three separate players. St. Louis’ top prospects, Neighbours and Bolduc, each added a power play goal throughout the tournament. Neighbours goal would be his only one of the tournament, while Bolduc added one on the power play, as well as at even strength. Blues defenseman, Kessel scored his only goal of the tournament on the power play during the teams 8-3 route over the Maple Leafs. While the Blues prospects were not provided with many opportunities over three games to showcase their offensive talents, they made the most of it when they did.
Cranley Called Upon Each Game
The Blues brought three goaltenders with them to the tournament – Colton Ellis, Will Cranley, and Vadim Zherenko. Of the three, Cranley and Ellis were the only two that saw game time. The 21-year-old Ellis struggled over his two games against the Blue Jackets and Stars surrendering a combined nine goals through 64:01 of play. His final stat line of the tournament resulted in 8.44 goals-against average (GAA) rating, and a .710 save percentage (SV%).
In both of Ellis’ games, the Blues opted to send in Cranley in relief, as he allowed five goals on 30 shots. Through his three appearances, he logged 115:59, and allowed eight goals, with a final 4.14 GAA, and a .869 SV% stat line. The 6-foot-5 goaltender recently signed his three-year entry-level contract with the Blues on March 2, 2022, and should get a strong look moving forward as a reliable depth option for the franchise.
When it came to the teams’ goaltending, the biggest surprise was the decision to not put the 21-year-old Russian, Zherenko in once throughout the tournament. Over 30 games in the SM-Liiga this past season, he managed an 11-8 record with a .902 SV%. The coaching staff could have opted to rest Cranley after playing in back-to-back games Thursday and Friday, including a complete game against the Leafs. When Cranley was brought in against the Stars, the Blues prospects were only down by a score of 3-1. The deficit was still within reach for Zherenko to backstop his team to a victory and showcase what he can do on the smaller North American surface.
The Blues’ 1-2 record over the three-game tournament was not the outcome many expected this year. Performances from the franchise’s top players resulted in a mixed bag of opinions and ultimately left fans wanting more. Rostering a group that recently played in the Calder Cup Final, and a player in Neighbours that captained his team to a championship-winning season, a minus-7 goal differential and a losing record tournament certainly left many wanting more.
Mike is a writer for The Hockey Writers and covers the St. Louis Blues since November of 2021. He has a keen love for statistical analysis, prospects, signings, and trades. Follow Mike on Twitter for further Blues or Central division hockey discussions, interview requests, or to provide content info.