Hockey is back. The St. Louis Blues kicked off training camp on Friday at their beautiful new facility in Maryland Heights, Missouri. The team that took the ice was largely the same one that left the ice in the TD Garden in Boston as Stanley Cup champions just over three months ago.
But even so, there are several questions to answer before the season starts: who will replace hometown hero Pat Maroon, who left for the Tampa Bay Lightning? How will the Blues look to improve a power play that was a disaster in the playoffs, and for which they brought in new assistant coach Marc Savard? And which prospects, if any, could rise to make an impact on the 2019-20 squad? Let’s take a look at that question now.
The Blues signed defenseman Mitch Reinke out of Michigan Tech just over a year ago when the youngster was a college free agent. He had just finished a 3 goal, 21 assist campaign in 35 games with the Huskies, and had earned recognition as a Western Collegiate Hockey Association Third Team All-Star. Reinke even made his NHL debut for the Blues immediately after signing, as the team’s defensive core was ravaged by injuries.
Last season, Reinke was one of the shining stars with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League. He finished second on the team in points with 12 goals, 33 assists and 45 points in 76 games. That total also broke a Rampage franchise record for scoring by a rookie defenseman. Reinke shattered the 33 point mark previously set by Keith Yandle in the 2006-07 season.
Now, he’s hungry for more. And if any rookie is going to make a massive impact for the Blues in 2019-20, Reinke makes a lot of sense. The Blues have four NHL-level left-handed defensemen, but just three on the right side, where Reinke plays. One of those is Robert Bortuzzo, who has traditionally served as a seventh defenseman and has averaged just over 52 games per season in his four full campaigns in St. Louis.
Bortuzzo hasn’t been an everyday defender for a while now. It’s certainly possible the Blues will choose to play one of their excess left-handed defensemen, potentially Joel Edmundson or Carl Gunnarsson, on the right side when Bortuzzo sits. But one wonders if Reinke’s strong performance in the AHL last season has them hoping he’ll push for a roster spot.
He would fit well on the third pairing with time on the second power play unit. That would allow him to get his feet wet at the highest level, while also adding a valuable tool to the power play that is desperate for improvement. Look for Reinke to have a strong camp, and, if he does, look for him to potentially make the opening night roster.
Speaking of defensemen who could push to make the team out of camp, 23-year-old Finnish defenseman Niko Mikkola might fit the bill. In fact, he made the roster out of camp last season, after a rash of injuries left the Blues short-handed on the blue line in the opening week of the season.
Mikkola is Reinke’s opposite in many ways. He’s a giant on the ice, at six-foot-four, 185 pounds, and he skates at a very high level for his size, but offense has never been a part of his game. Even so, he has proved to be a massive part of his national team, helping Team Finland to a World Junior Championship gold medal in 2015-16 and, with number two pick Kaapo Kakko, winning another gold medal at the World Championships in May.
Mikkola has a bright future as a second or third pairing, penalty killing, shutdown defenseman. And if he ever develops more offense, he could be a top defender in the NHL. Still, with four left-handed defensemen already in-house, there isn’t an obvious spot for him in the top league. But with a strong camp, might they consider trading a more expensive asset like Joel Edmundson if Mikkola proves he’s ready to go?
It’s a little obvious to suggest that a team’s top prospect is a player to watch; however, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding forward Jordan Kyrou right now. The prospect had knee surgery near the end of last season and hasn’t appeared in the first two days of camp, but the team expects him to return quickly thereafter.
Kyrou is the most dynamic forward in the Blues’ system in many ways. His speed is elite, and when he makes the NHL, he will be among the fastest players in the league. But he is more than a pair of skates. Kyrou has high hockey-IQ and dynamic playmaking abilities that could make him a top playmaking winger in the mold of Mitch Marner or Jonathan Huberdeau.
Kyrou did make the team out of camp last season and ended up playing 16 games at different stops throughout the season, but he was never given a very consistent opportunity. Will 2019-20 be different? After finishing with almost a point per game in the AHL, he has little left to prove in that league. Could he be the Blues’ preferred choice to replace Maroon’s minutes?
Solid Foundation, Bright Future
The Blues are set to be a strong contender for a long time. With the exception of Maroon, the departing Michael Del Zotto, and retirees Chris Butler and Chris Thorburn, the entire Stanley Cup roster is returning for another season. There won’t be many opportunities for young players to make an impact.
Fortunately, the young players the Blues do have are difference-makers. Reinke, Mikkola, and Kyrou are all ready to make an NHL impact, and in a less-solid organization, they’d be virtual locks to make the team. But having too many good players is more blessing than a curse, and the Blues have plenty of time to weigh their options and decide who deserves to make the cut.
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.