The St. Louis Blues will start the 2017-18 season shorthanded.
Both forward Zach Sanford and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester are scheduled to miss time with respective injuries, the team announced Tuesday.
Sanford dislocated his left shoulder on the first day of training camp and will be out for 5-6 months. Bouwmeester fractured his left ankle during the Blues scrimmage on Sunday. The 34-year-old blueliner will be re-evaluated in three weeks. Forward Patrik Berglund remains off the ice after injuring himself during the offseason while training, rounding out St. Louis’s wounded trio.
Sanford and Bouwmeester’s latest injuries present quite a problem for the Blues’ roster; their depth will be tasked with resolving it.
While Carl Gunnarsson’s role will be elevated on the back end in Bouwmeester’s absence, head coach Mike Yeo should also seek answers through the Blues’ pipeline. Yeo mentioned Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman, and Vince Dunn as possible reinforcements on defense.
“You need guys that are going to have to come in and play games for you,” Yeo said to NHL.com. “Whether it’s September or October or later in the season, it’s up to these guys right now to see who is going to solidify their position.”
In the meantime, it’s likely that the Blues will pair Bouwmeester’s usual partner, captain Alex Pietrangelo, with shutdown defenseman Joel Edmundson. That leaves Gunnarsson to slide up onto the left side of the second pairing with breakout candidate Colton Parayko.
After posting six points in 50-plus games last year, Gunnarsson will hope to return to his offensively-minded ways and assume veteran leadership. With two years left on his contract and plenty of talent behind him, it’s fair to say this is a make-or-break year for him in a Blues sweater.
Defensive Prospects Eying NHL Time
As far as the third defensive line goes, however, it’s open season for both spots. Robert Bortuzzo bounced in and out of the lineup at that position last year and hasn’t convinced Blues brass he’s capable of staying healthy. Bortuzzo implements a hard-nosed style of defending, using his wide frame to shoulder opponents off the puck.
Schmaltz falls in that same boat, suiting up for nine regular-season games and two postseason contests in 2016-17. He’s come into training camp hungrier, attempting to solidify his role on a deep Blues defense. The first-round pick in 2012 has noticeably improved on his poise with the puck in all three zones. Whether he can translate that into an 82-game season is a whole other story.
Beyond Bortuzzo and Schmaltz on the Blues’ depth chart are Walman (21 years old) and Dunn (20 years old), who have yet to taste NHL action in their respective careers. Walman was a star at Providence College, scoring 69 points in 107 games spanning over three years. He recently led the Blues in ice-time (24:15) during their first preseason game versus the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night. Walman’s name is one you want to remember.
If you are watching, check out young Offensive minded "D" Jake Walman who is wearing #46. Elusive with quick feet/hands. LS that is on RS.
— Darren R Pang (@Panger40) September 8, 2017
Dunn made his mark with the Chicago Wolves, shining in the American Hockey League last season with 45 points in 72 games. He’s got physicality in his game that is as relentless as can be. Adding to that, he’s receiving rave reviews from those at camp, too. Anticipate at least one of them surviving the cut and skating in Pittsburgh for the first tilt of the year. Don’t be surprised if both do, especially in the face of Bouwmeester’s injury (reminiscent of Parayko and Edmundson in 2015).
The Kids Up Front
Sanford was envisioning a top-nine role in his first full season with the Blues after being traded from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Kevin Shattenkirk last February. That’ll have to wait until near the trade deadline in 2018.
For now, St. Louis turns its attention to young forwards like Tage Thompson, Samuel Blais, Klim Kostin and Robert Thomas. Thompson led all players at Traverse City with nine points (four goals, five assists) in four games. The 26th overall pick of 2016 is a big-bodied centerman with crafty hands around the net. In other words, exactly what the Blues need to venture through a difficult Western Conference.
Blais is arguably the most peculiar name out of this bunch, fresh off of a terrific rookie campaign with the Wolves. He scored 26 goals and added 17 assists, but a strong summer has skyrocketed him onto a line with Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko. Yeo explained that he wanted to see young players in roles they are accustomed to.
A top-line scenario is where Blais flourishes as opposed to a bottom-six spot. Four seasons with the Victoriaville Tigers of the QMJHL have paid off for the 2014 sixth-round selection. His singing voice, though? Not the best.
2017 Picks Standing Out
With a Stanley Cup-contending roster in St. Louis, it’s not often draft picks from the previous June have a shot at playing with the big-league club the same year. That could be the case for both Thomas and Kostin, who each stood out at Traverse City.
The Blues utilized the 20th overall pick at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft to snag Thomas, citing his superb vision and playmaking ability. In the OHL, Thomas tallied 50 assists in 66 games with the London Knights in 2016-17. He presents a mature structure in his 200-foot game, excelling in the defensive area. At 18 years old, it’s unlikely that he’ll crack the NHL roster, but don’t bother telling him that.
Kostin is another 2017 draft pick betting on staying in St. Louis for the 2017-18 season. The Russian winger was the last selection in the first round of the draft. Fan-favorite Ryan Reaves and a first-round pick were dished off to the Penguins in exchange for center Oskar Sundqvist and the 31st pick. Kostin then opted out of his KHL contract and made a beeline to St. Louis, sending a message to the Blues that he was serious about his professional hockey aspirations.
At Traverse City, Kostin had three goals and tacked on two assists. In his first NHL preseason game, he lit the lamp in the opening period. He’s well-advertised: composed with the puck, but can make you pay in a heartbeat if you give him space.
In early October, there’s no telling which players will have their number called by the Blues (or if they’ll be effective, for that matter). Schmaltz, Dunn, and Walman should get an evaluation on the blue line. Thompson and Blais can rise up the depth chart if they adjust to the level of play that is the NHL. An inexperienced talent like Thomas will head back to the Knights; Kostin will begin his career in North America with the Wolves.
Injuries to a promising center and a veteran, stable defenseman would have crippled a number of NHL teams out of the gate. But, despite early-season misfortune, the Blues remain flexible enough to assemble a competitive opening-night roster with the talent they’ve developed in their own backyard.
Cristiano Simonetta is in his third year studying broadcast journalism at the University in Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the executive producer and lead play-by-play broadcaster for Illini Hockey’s ACHA DI club. Follow him on Twitter at @CMS_74_.