Though the season is about to start, it’s never a bad time to look ahead at the future of an organization. The St. Louis Blues just won the Stanley Cup, but did they mortgage their prospects to do it?
The puck drops tonight on the 2019-20 season, but there’s no time like the present to answer that question. So without further ado, here’s a look at your 2019 Blues prospect pyramid.
Prospect Pyramid Refresher
You may be wondering, “what is a prospect pyramid?” Originally created by Youtuber Steve Dangle, the prospect pyramid is a way to sort a team’s prospects into tiers without the mindless bickering over an exact ranking. Is Austin Poganski the Blues 12th best prospect? The 10th? The 14th? With the prospect pyramid, it doesn’t matter.
Instead, prospects are sorted into tiers. Tier 1 is reserved for the league’s elite prospects. Currently, only Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, and possibly Cale Makar fit into that tier. Tier 2 is meant for prospects who are likely to be very, very, very good NHL players; strong top-six forwards, top-pairing defensemen, or starting goalies, and should be there soon. Tier 3 is for players who could fall into the Tier 2 category but might be further off, with slightly lower ceilings.
Tier 4 players have a shot at being pretty good NHL contributors; in the top nine, starting defenders, or fringe starters/strong backups. Tier 5 is where a player’s chance of making the league taper off a bit. If they do make it, they’ll likely be bottom-six forwards, seventh defensemen, or backup goalies. Finally, Tier 6 is a catch-all category for the rest. These players either have an uphill battle to make the NHL or there is too little information available to make an assessment.
Two more things to consider: NHL arrival date is an important factor. So players with high skill levels who might take a few years to reach the NHL (like 2018 first-round pick Dominik Bokk before the team traded him) might drop a tier as a result. Finally, the rankings for 2019 draft picks are very preliminary. There is only so much information available for these players, so take their ranking with a grain of salt. With that said, let’s get to tier 1.
Tier 1: Nobody
It might not surprise you, but as with last year, Tier 1 is empty for the Blues. Fans should view this as a good thing: rarely is a Tier 1 prospect in the system for an otherwise healthy franchise. Teams like the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and to a lesser extent the Colorado Avalanche had to struggle and earn top picks to get players like Hughes, Kakko, and Makar.
The Blues have not had a Tier 1 prospect in the system for many years, at least since Vladimir Tarasenko graduated, and perhaps before even then. But last season, they proved they can build a championship-caliber team without elite, first overall type talent.
Tier 2: Jordan Kyrou
Many fans will be surprised, but the Blues only have one tier 2 prospect right now: the 2016 second-round pick Jordan Kyrou. The 21-year old possesses elite skating speed and technique and has the potential to be a very high-level playmaker in the NHL. Our Josh Bell recently ranked him 32nd among all NHL prospects for the upcoming season.
Kyrou made the opening night roster last season but failed to thrive in the NHL with limited playing time. But he succeeded in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Blues’ affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. There, he scored 43 points in 47 games before a dislocated knee ended his season slightly early.
Kyrou isn’t fully healthy, but he’s close. He will start the season with the Rampage, making sure he’s in top form. But Blues fans should expect to see another taste of him in the top league this season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he caught on permanently this time.
Tier 3: Toropchenko, Reinke, Perunovich
The Blues have two talented Russian forward prospects, but many fans will think we put the wrong one first. The truth is, Alexei Toropchenko, the former 2017 fourth-round pick, had shown more in recent months than Klim Kostin, his first-round counterpart from the same year.
Toropchenko exploded with 13 goals and 19 points in the OHL playoffs with the Guelph Storm last season. Then, he excelled at the annual prospect tournament in Traverse City. Training camp was a mixed bag, but those short, highly pressurized windows are never a great way to grade players. There are concerns about whether Toropchenko’s offense will convert to an NHL game, but there’s no question that his size, determination, and skating will serve him well and make him a valuable asset for the Blues down the road.
Beyond Toropchenko, the Blues have two strong defensive prospects in tier 3. Mitch Reinke went undrafted until the Blues signed him out of Michigan Tech in 2018. In his first pro season, he set a Rampage franchise record, breaking Keith Yandle’s mark for points by a rookie defenseman with 45. At just 5-foot-11, Reinke is undersized for an NHL defenseman, but his mobility and playmaking skill more than compensate for it.
Speaking of undersized defensemen, teams passed on Scott Perunovich in two consecutive drafts due to concerns about his size. But the third time, the Blues were so excited to take him in the second round that they had already stitched his name on a team sweater.
Perunovich announced that he would return to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to try for a third consecutive national championship earlier this summer. He possesses elite offensive sense and very strong skating, but at just 5-foot-9, he will still have a lot to prove at the NHL level.
Honorable Mention: Dominik Bokk
We would be remiss not to pay homage to the departing Dominik Bokk, whom the Blues traded to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of the deal to acquire Justin Faulk. He would have been a Tier 3 prospect in the Blues system due to his very high skill level. In fact, he has the skill to be a higher tier; however, he will play this season in Europe again and is probably at least two seasons from an NHL debut.
Tier 4: Foley, Kostin, Alexandrov, Mikkola, Tucker, Husso, Hofer
Forwards: Foley, Kostin, Alexandrov
The Blues have several talented forwards in Tier 4 who could potentially push into Tier 3. In fact, Kostin probably already belongs there, after an incredibly strong performance in the Blues’ preseason.
Erik Foley joined the Blues organization when they traded Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets. He is a strong skater who could contribute as a middle-six power forward. Unfortunately, Foley has now been off the ice for over a year dealing with a concussion he suffered last year in Traverse City. The Blues hope to get him healthy so they can see what he still has in the tank.
We’ve already touched on Kostin, but the powerful Russian forward has everything it takes to become a top impact player in the NHL. Historically, there has been an issue with his consistency. But when he’s determined, he can bring it with the best prospects out there, as he showed at last season’s World Junior Championship and during this preseason. He is in Tier 4 because of consistency issues, but if he can show the effort and skill he showed in the preseason, he won’t be in Tier 4 or the AHL for very long.
Nikita Alexandrov, selected with the 62nd pick, is the first player in this pyramid from the 2019 Draft so far. Blues fans haven’t gotten many chances to see him, but the German-born Russian collected 61 points in 64 games in the QMJHL last season. Like many Blues draft picks, he has high hockey-IQ, but Alexandrov pairs it with a wicked shot and power play creativity. A strong season with the Charlottetown Islanders could easily propel him up these rankings, but Tier 4 is appropriate now as he is still several seasons from the NHL.
Defensemen: Mikkola, Tucker
Niko Mikkola has been in the Blues’ system for a long time since the team took him 127th overall in 2015. He is a mixture of modern and vintage: there is virtually no offense to his game; however, he is a very strong skater and at 6-foot-4, no one is going to question his size. Mikkola had a superb showing this summer at the World Championships, helping Kakko and Finland take home gold. He’s really not waiting for anything more than an opportunity, which could well come this season with an injury to anyone on the left side.
Tyler Tucker is a newer arrival to the system, coming just last season in the 2018 Draft. So little was certain about the seventh-round pick that he wasn’t on last year’s pyramid anywhere, but he’s graduated to Tier 4 this season. That comes courtesy of Tucker’s offensive breakout. Previously known primarily for his size and physicality, he exploded offensively, with 59 points in 68 games, which ranked him seventh amongst OHL defensemen. He already has four assists in three games this season, showing that his success was more than a flash in the pan.
Goalies: Husso, Hofer
Ville Husso was the goalie-in-waiting entering last season, but the rise of Jordan Binnington and a rough season in the AHL changed that picture significantly. Still, Husso has the track record to overcome a brutal .871 save percentage (SV%) in 27 games with the Rampage last season. He’s 6-foot-3, a solid goalie who won the 2015-16 Urpo Ylönen Trophy as the top netminder in the Finnish league, and 24 is hardly old for a goalie. He could see starts in the NHL this year in the event of injury.
Joel Hofer was a 2018 addition to the franchise and the fourth-round pick had an interesting season in the Western Hockey League. He started with the dreadful Swift Current Broncos and struggled mightily, but after a midseason trade to the Portland Winterhawks, Hofer excelled. He is 6-foot-4 with strong athleticism, but he showed poor rebound control in his starts at Traverse City. If the off-and-on goalie can find more consistency, he will be a promising NHL prospect.
Tier 5: Poganski, Stevens, LaFerriere, Joshua, MacEachern, Waskurak, McGing, Walman, Borgman, Ellis, Fitzpatrick
Forwards: Poganski, Stevens, LaFerriere, Joshua, MacEachern, Washkurak, McGing
The Blues have a number of interesting prospects in Tier 5, all of whom provide some level of intrigue for a future in the NHL. Austin Poganski is a powerfully built forward who had an impressive preseason, and his four seasons at the University of North Dakota give him a lot of experience. He could well be a power forward in the bottom-six at the next level.
Nolan Stevens is also a four-year college vet but had a tough first season in the AHL. In his sophomore season with the Rampage, he needs to show the skills and leadership that earned him the captaincy in his final season at Northeastern University.
Analysts viewed Mathias LaFerriere as a boom-or-bust prospect when the Blues selected him in the sixth round in 2018. Last season, with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL, he was more boom than bust, as he posted 74 points in 68 games, adding 10 more in 11 playoff games. He has a high skill level and could develop into a much more highly-rated prospect with more consistency.
Dakota Joshua is a new arrival after the Blues acquired him from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The former 2015 fourth-round pick has size and skill but should spend the whole season in the AHL. MacKenzie MacEachern made his NHL debut last season after an unlikely seven-year road to the Blues. He probably won’t be much more than a fourth-line grinder / AHL forward type, but he scored three NHL goals last season, and those memories will last forever.
Keean Washkurak is a newcomer who won an OHL coaches poll for the hardest worker in his conference. The Blues took him in the 5th round this summer, and he’s returned to the Mississauga Steelheads, but if he makes the NHL, Blues fans will love his gritty style. The same can be said for Hugh McGing, an undersized but speedy and determined forward who had a strong junior season with the Western Michigan University Broncos. He could project as a bottom-six utility forward who kills penalties and scores, not unlike Vladimir Sobotka who became a fan favorite in his first stint in St. Louis.
Defensemen: Walman, Borgman
Jake Walman is a promising defenseman with high offensive skill, but he was supposed to have arrived by now. He’s 23 and entering his third full season in the AHL. He needs to find it soon, or else he will fall off the prospect radar.
The Blues traded former-first round pick Jordan Schmaltz to the Maple Leafs to add Borgman, a left-handed defenseman who is a veteran of 48 games in Toronto. He has size, can skate and hit, and has plenty of raw tools. And after the departure of Joel Edmundson in the Justin Faulk trade, Borgman figures to be important depth on the left side for the Blues.
Goalies: Ellis, Fitzpatrick
The Blues took Colten Ellis this summer with the last pick in the third round based on a strong season with the Rimouski Océanic of the QMJHL. At just 18, he’d already played in 100 QMJHL games by his draft year, an impressive total for such a young goalie. There are fears about Ellis’ size at just 6-foot-1, but he should have the athleticism to compensate. It’s just too early to place him any higher than Tier 5.
Evan Fitzpatrick won high praise when he backstopped the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to a Memorial Cup Championship after coming over from the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the 2017-18 season. His 2.10 goals against average (GAA) and .925 SV% in 20 playoff games were extraordinary. But he had a brutal first pro season bouncing between the ECHL and the AHL. He actually performed better with the Rampage than with the Tulsa Drillers, where his .874 SV% and 3.30 GAA in 25 games were abysmal. He’s just 21, so he’s got plenty of time to re-establish himself, but scouts will want to see more in his second pro season.
Tier 6: Helt, Krag Christensen, Kaspick, Michel, Zherenko
Tier 6 includes several players who likely won’t be on the pyramid next season and two players from the seventh round of this year’s draft. Filip Helt and Nikolaj Krag Christensen are both European forwards (from the Czech Republic and Denmark, respectively) in the final year of contract eligibility. Krag Christensen, in particular, has an interesting skill set, especially at 6-foot-3, but it’s likely neither will sign with the Blues and will play out their careers in Europe.
Tanner Kaspick falls into a middle category. The 2016 fourth-round pick has some time left with the organization but showed almost nothing in his first pro season in the AHL. Unfortunately, an upper-body injury (possibly a concussion) derailed his Traverse City opportunity and much of his training camp. There’s still hope for the former Brandon Wheat Kings captain, but he certainly needs to pick it up in year two.
Finally, the Blues selected Vadim Zherenko and Jérémy Michel with the numbers 208 and 217 picks respectively in this past summer’s draft. Zherenko is a Russian goalie who played 19 games for MHK Dynamo Moskva last season and posted great numbers. Michel collected 42 points in 62 games with the Val-d’Or Foreurs in the QMJHL last season. That late in the draft, most GMs just point to a member of the staff to say a name, so if either player becomes something in the NHL, it will be the result of an impressive scouting job.
The Bottom Line
The Blues do not have the loaded farm system they had last season, thanks in part to the graduation of top prospect Robert Thomas and the evolution of players like Binnington, Zach Sanford, and Sammy Blais. But there is still a lot to like here.
The Blues have prospect depth at all positions (except right-handed defense, where Reinke is the only standout). They still have several very valuable prospects at the top levels and a good foundation of potential diamonds in the rough.
Most importantly, the Blues have a Stanley Cup. Right now, the NHL roster is a tough one to penetrate, as evidenced by the fact that Kostin is back down in the AHL despite an incredible training camp. That’s a good problem to have. But as injuries, trades, and departures start to mount, the Blues will certainly look to some of these players to fill the void. And with the crop of talent they have right now the future is in good hands.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.