The St. Louis Blues’ offensive struggles and defensive missteps in the first half of the season have been linked to a rash of unexpected injuries. Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, the unsung hero of Game 3 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, was lost for the season on February 22 when he took a puck off the ankle. He had to be helped from the ice. Gunnarsson was expected to play a crucial role in the Blues’ defense this year, the final year of his contract.
To further complicate matters, Robert Thomas broke his thumb on Feb. 6, which took his scoring punch out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks. He only recently started skating, head coach Craig Berube told the media on Mar. 16. Add in the loss of alternate captain Colton Parayko (upper-body injury), Tyler Bozak (upper-body), Jaden Schwartz (upper-body), Ivan Barbashev (lower-body), Mackenzie MacEachern (upper-body), and that makes seven Stanley Cup champions who have been unavailable to play much this season.
But given the Blues’ “next man up” mentality, these injuries have created a golden opportunity both for rookies and veterans. Here are three young players who have stepped into the lineup and created some big moments:
In 28 games, Kyrou has been a pleasant surprise, although the highly touted prospect was expected to produce some goals. So far, he has netted eight goals and 13 assists, and he is a plus-1 while averaging 15:06 of ice time. His goals have mainly been the result of his quickness and a burst of speed that allows him to get to the puck when others simply cannot.
He ranks fourth among Blues scorers this season, trailing leader David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brayden Schenn, all NHL veterans.
According to NHL.com, Kyrou impressed the Blues during training camp in the fall of 2018 and was selected for the opening-night roster – a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He scored his first NHL goal weeks later, on Dec. 9. He had three points (one goal, two assists) in 16 games with the Blues that season and 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) with their AHL affiliate, San Antonio Rampage. The Blues sent him to the Rampage to start the 2019-20 season, but he was recalled in early December.
His first goal of the 2020-21 season was scored against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 13. He took a pass from Bozak and Zach Sanford at even strength and buried it at 13:15 of the first period. Weeks later, his speed and theatrics with the puck resulted in a highlight-reel goal just 20 seconds into a January 30 game against the Anaheim Ducks.
“It’s not an overstatement to say Kyrou is likely the fastest player on the ice every shift he plays,” wrote Corey Miller of WKYC in Ohio.
While Kyrou has shown flashes of greatness dating back to his days as a top prospect in the Blues’ system, he has gone through a cooling-off period lately after a blazing start. He has just one point (an assist) in his last five games, with his last goal coming on Mar. 1. Kyrou did piece together a three-game point streak in late February/early March with a goal and an assist against Anaheim, and a goal against the San Jose Sharks.
On February 2 against the Arizona Coyotes, his two assists gave him a remarkable seven goals and 17 points through 18 games and propelled him to second place on the team in points behind Perron. When Barbashev left the game on February 18 with a lower-body injury, Kyrou was elevated to top-line minutes playing alongside O’Reilly and Perron.
Why It Matters: With prolific scorers like Thomas, Tarasenko and Barbashev out of the lineup, Kyrou’s speed with the puck has been one of the Blues’ few offensive weapons in 2020-2021. Berube will need him to contribute in the second half of the season, either by scoring or assisting on goals by players like Tarasenko and Thomas. Both are expected to add a much-needed offensive spark when they return. Tarasenko is already returned, and Thomas is still weeks away from being activated. Schwartz will be back soon as well, Berube told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jim Thomas (from ‘Looks Like Bozak’s Back and, Schwartz is Close For the Blues,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 15, 2021).
Speaking of Kyrou, Berube told Tom Timmerman his young player still has much to learn. “You’ve got to be ready to go at the start of the game. You can’t come into a game and feel your way into it, you can’t be turning pucks over early in games, and being tentative. It’s just about preparing in practice, being the best player in practice on a daily basis.There’s no reason he shouldn’t be with his skill and speed.” (from ‘Blues Notebook: On-the-Job Training Is Proving To Be Tough For Kyrou,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 11, 2020)
The rookie from Finland has played in 18 games, scoring his first NHL goal against the Sharks. He has also posted a minus-6 with 15 shots on goal while logging 13:20 ice time per game.
“Clearly, the Blues see something in him as he was signed to a two-year extension worth $787,500 per season, it’s also a one-way deal,” wrote Ethan Carter of THW.com. “With it being a one-way deal, (Mikkola) would make the same salary in the AHL as he would in the NHL. They likely want him to have some sort of role in the NHL this season or next.”
Why it matters: In his debut, Mikkola logged 12:31 ice time and managed to get a shot off. His defensive play has been stellar and necessary, given the injuries to key players.
“He’s an aggressive guy. He checks well,” Berube told Blues’ flagship Fox Sports Midwest of the tall, lanky 24-year-old defenseman from Kiiminki, Finland.
The Blues selected Mikkola in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He saw some action briefly in 2020 when he was called up from the Rampage to fill the roster spot vacated by an ailing Parayko. He had an assist in five games and averaged about 14 minutes of ice time.
“He has matured nicely over the last few seasons and was a major factor in helping his native Finland win the World Championship Gold last summer, ” THW reported in June 2020. “He played five games with the big club this season, and he looked solid, prompting some fans to question why he didn’t get a longer stay in the NHL.”
“On any other team, Niko Mikkola would likely already be a lineup fixture,” THW reported last summer.
“I think Mikkola’s been pretty solid to be honest with you,” Berube told Lou Korac according to his February 10 blog post, ‘Blues Notebook,’ In The Slot. “I think he’s done a good job on the penalty kill, I think he’s been closing plays out. I think the other night, a little bit of a tough night for him, a couple goals he was on the ice for. It’s not all his fault, I’m not saying that, but he’s a young kid yet, still learning, but overall, his game’s been pretty good.”
He signed a two-year deal with the Blues on January 30, 2020 worth $1.5 million.
Played sparingly to spell starter Jordan Binnington, Husso has appeared in 10 games this season with a 5-3-1 record. He has a .879 save percentage and a 3.57 goals-against average. Binnington is clearly the starter and, to be clear, there is no goalie controversy in St. Louis. Well, not just yet.
Why it matters: The St. Louis hockey community has always backed the goalie who’s not playing, like most other NHL markets whose teams have underperformed. The 2020-2021 season is no different. The star goalie just inked a six-year, $36 million deal to be the team’s netminder now and in the future. Even Binnington’s rise as the starter was accelerated in part by public opinion that swayed against previous No. 1 goalie Jake Allen. He was eventually dealt to the Montreal Canadiens in September. In true St. Lous fashion, Allen’s emergence as the starting goalie pushed veteran Brian Elliott out of favor with fans and management, which, eventually, led to his exit from the Gateway City.
Since Grant Fuhr solidified the position from 1996 to 1999, a cavalcade of goalies have run the gamut, from a distinguished list of the Who’s Who Among Pro Goalies to some tough luck players and a few future Zamboni drivers/youth coaches.
Familiar names like Jamie McLellan, Brent Johnson, Roman Turek, Fred Brathwaite, Curtis Sanford, Chris Osgood, Manny Legace, Tom Barrasso, Chris Mason, Ben Bishop and Jaroslav Halak have all tended goal in St. Louis this decade. There have been plenty of unfamiliar names as well – the immortal Chris Beckford-Tseu, Reinhard Divis, and Jason Bacachichua, to name a few.
“There was a time not that long ago when Husso was rated higher on the Blues’ depth chart than Jordan Binnington,” wrote Blues beat writer Jim Thomas (from ‘Updated: Husso Makes His Blues Debut Tonight,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 24, 2021).
Husso made his debut on against the Avalanche who jumped all over Binnington to take a four-goal lead heading into the third period. Binnington, a 2020 NHL All-Star, headed for the showers as Husso replaced him in net. Not only did the young goalie face a 4-0 deficit, but the Avs were also on the power play. It was baptism by fire.
“I’ve been very impressed with ‘Huss’ the way he’s been working,” O’Reilly told the Post. “The guy shows up.”
Dakota Joshua – Honorable Mention
Joshua got the attention of Blues fans in a skirmish with the Vegas Golden Knights’ Keegan Kolesar after he laid out Ryan Reaves with a legal – and nearly lethal – check. The Dearborn, Michigan native was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He toiled in the minor leagues for years before joining the AHL’s Utica Comets. Toronto traded him to the Blues in July 2019 for future considerations.
He played his first game for the Blues on March 1. In his first seven NHL games, Joshua has a goal and is minus-1, while averaging 8:25 of time on the ice this season.
Scouts have seen potential in Joshua since he was drafted in 2014, but six years in the minors hasn’t helped his stock.
Joshua is a “big-framed developmental project with excellent reach, puck skills and a 200-foot game,” noted NHL Draft analyst Bill Placzek for Lines.com. “A good skater who once in a specialized weight training program will gain power in his stride and get a lot bigger. That will make him even more of a problem when he sets up in front or battles along the wall.”
Why it matters: Listed as 6-foot-2 and 199 lbs, the 24-year-old immediately provided the grit and youthful exuberance the team sorely needed. In his first start against the Ducks, Joshua bumped in a trash rebound for his first NHL goal.
“Right in the midsection. I’m not too sure, it all happened really fast. A nice greasy, go-to-the-net goal,” Joshua told KSDK.
“I thought he did a good job tonight in his first game,” Berube told KSDK of Joshua’s performance. “He skated and got on top of things. He seems like he’s got some pretty good intelligence out there on the ice… He did a real good job. I’m very happy for him and proud for him to come in and get a goal in his first game in the NHL. That’s a huge thing for a young kid like him.”
In his first pro season (2019-20), Joshua, an Ohio State star, appeared in 30 games with the Rampage, scoring three goals and four assists. He also played 20 games with the Tulsa Oilers of the ECHL, scoring three goals and adding eight assists. He played four games for Utica before he joined the Blues’ taxi squad.
As the Blues limp past the season’s midway point, their next slate of games against the Sharks and Golden Knights will determine the team’s success or failure in 2020-2021. For St. Louis to have success, Berube’s squad will have to rely on Husso, Kyrou, Mikkola and Joshua to spell the veterans as they return to the roster. If the team’s fortunes go south, and the Blues find themselves outside of playoff picture, expect these players to earn even more ice time as the team assesses their long-term value to the club.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1