When the puck drops for the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, there will be a lot of fresh faces in the lineup, but it won’t just be the players the team acquired in trades and through free agency this offseason. In a move that felt more and more likely as the Blues progressed through the preseason, the team has also committed to having many rookies on their initial squad as well.
With the team announced, the Blues will be rostering five players who have played in 30 or fewer games in the NHL level, including three (Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, and Niko Mikkola) who have yet to make their NHL debut.
The Blues have been listed among the better farm systems in hockey all offseason, but few expected the youth movement to arrive so soon, particularly with the high number of additions already made in the offseason. While injuries may have forced their hand on a few of these players, the Blues have made some significant commitments to playing the young guys this season. Here is a word about each of the players affected by these moves.
Thorburn, Jaskin Waived
To make space for the players we’ll discuss, the Blues had to make some tough decisions on two forwards. The first, Chris Thorburn, was signed as a free agent last season on a two-year, $1.8 million contract. The Blues made the decision to bring in Thorburn after trading Ryan Reaves, no doubt wanting to replace his muscle and grit with a similar enforcer.
It was ultimately something of a panic move to bring in Thorburn, though, and he only started in 50 games for the Blues last season. Despite the fact that Thorburn entered training camp as one of the Blues’ most improved players physically, there simply wasn’t a clear role for Thorburn in the 2018-19 club, and so he was waived by the team. Thorburn cleared waivers and is expected to join the team’s AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.
The Blues also decided to waive Dmitrij Jaskin. Originally a second-round pick of the Blues in 2011, Jaskin struggled to find a consistent rhythm wearing the Blue note, fighting the high expectations laid upon him by being one of the team’s top prospects at one point. Jaskin once drew comparisons from former head coach Ken Hitchcock to Marian Hossa, but the offensive side of his game never became consistent.
Army says Jaskin asked for a trade months ago but the GM couldn’t find one. Army says the mindset changes with a player who wants a new opportunity. #stlblues
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 3, 2018
Jaskin’s game had evolved over time, and he had become quite a reliable defensive forward. We projected him as the defensive anchor for the Blues’ evolving fourth line, a role he might have excelled in. As it turned out, though, the Blues envisioned an even younger fourth line than we expected, and Jaskin was waived with Thorburn. The defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals picked Jaskin up off waivers, meaning he will likely be joining them for the banner-raising ceremony on Wednesday.
New Faces on Defense
The Blues are facing a number of injuries on the back-end early in the season, as well as the one-game suspension for Robert Bortuzzo. Joel Edmundson has a nagging injury that has made him questionable for the home opener, and Carl Gunnarsson is on long-term injured reserve, meaning he’ll be out until at least November. With those difficulties came an opportunity for a pair of young players, Niko Mikkola and Jordan Schmaltz.
Niko Mikkola is a former fifth-round draft pick of the Blues in 2015. Since then, he’s quietly climbed up the ranks of the team’s defensive prospects and now will enter the season on the opening night roster. Fans won’t miss Mikkola on the ice: he stands at 6-foot-5, 198 pounds, a commanding presence that could be confused with Colton Parayko in terms of pure size.
Mikkola will be an interesting tool for the Blues to deploy this season. His game is polished, and he’s a solid leader (he wore an “A” for the Blues’ roster in Traverse City), but he doesn’t have the high upside of some other defenders. Still, with his size and confidence, he’ll be a strong option for the Blues on the third pairing and is a great backup to have in the event of injury.
A month ago, we listed Jordan Schmaltz as one of the worst draft picks the Blues have made this decade, citing his first-round pedigree and his lack of production at the NHL level. Now, Schmaltz has his chance to prove doubters wrong, something he did well in the preseason.
Schmaltz does have the offensive upside to still become a very fine modern defenseman in the league, and with the ink still drying on a new, two-year contract, he’s got a little security as well. This could be a huge year for Schmaltz, as an unexpected opportunity has already opened for him to grab a foothold with the Blues and stick around in the NHL. He’ll need to make an impression fast, though, because some of those veteran defensemen will be back quickly.
Three Fresh Forwards
Chris Thorburn and Dmitrij Jaskin were given their walking papers in no small part because of the arrival of three forwards, two of whom in particular forced the Blues’ hand in the preseason.
Samuel “Sammy” Blais is a young Quebecois forward who has recently risen to be one of the Blues’ brightest prospects. Blais was taken late in the sixth round back in 2014, due in part to his diminutive size. But as the young prospect’s game has grown, he himself has grown as well, now standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 205 pounds. With that growth spurt, a late round draft pick has become a promising, young, NHL-ready forward.
Blais wowed fans and coaches in last year’s preseason and was one of the team’s final cuts. He played sporadically in the NHL while battling injuries, finishing with three points in 11 games. Blais looked sharp once again this preseason, finishing with four goals, tied for fifth among preseason scorers. Blais’ performance was enough to earn him a shot on the Blues’ new-look fourth line, where he will play to the left of Robert Thomas and Ivan Barbashev.
Along with Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou is one of St. Louis’ top two prospects. Kyrou has a rare mix of speed, shot, and hockey IQ that could make him a very dangerous scorer in the NHL. Last year, he scored at a rate of 1.95 points per game and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the OHL for the effort. He then went on to impress as the team’s most impressive prospect at the tournament in Traverse City.
In the preseason, Kyrou continued to show off with his speed and ability. While many assumed he would start the year in the AHL, Kyrou showed enough to earn a spot on the opening night roster. Not only that, but according to Blues’ beat reporter Jim Thomas, Kyrou will get a crack in the top-6 with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn. If he plays on that line consistently, it’s very possible he will receive votes for the NHL’s rookie of the year. He is that kind of special talent.
Now on to the cream of the crop, Robert Thomas, who is widely considered the Blues’ top prospect and one of the elite young prospects in the league. Thomas has all the makings of a potential top-line center, something the Blues have sought for years, and of all these players making the roster, Thomas is by far the least surprising.
But fans should prepare for the team to ease in Robert Thomas. With his current role coming on the fourth line, it’s possible it will take longer for Thomas to flash than it might for Kyrou on the second line. But don’t be deceived, both young players have unbelievably bright futures, and will be part of the team’s core for a long, long time.
Inexperience or New Energy?
The Blues have staked much of their success this season on these rookies, particularly on the forwards Blais, Kyrou, and Thomas. So now we’re left wondering: will the inexperience of these players come back to haunt the Blues? Or will they provide valuable new energy to the team as they look to fight their way back into a playoff spot?
Time will tell whether this youth gamble pays off for the Blues, but if these prospects are as good as they are believed to be, there are many reasons for excitement in St. Louis.
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.