Blues’ season-opening win bodes well for return to Cup contender status

Jordan Binnington, who impressed in his season debut Wednesday, was an All-Star last season but must play more consistently this year.
AP/Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The St. Louis Blues got off to a great start Wednesday night — the kind of start that hints at a return to Stanley Cup contender status after their letdown in the playoff bubble last summer.

The Blues inflicted a 4-1 loss on the Colorado Avalanche, the popular pick to win the one-year-only West Division, in both teams’ season opener Wednesday. They looked far better than they did in Edmonton last August, when they went 0-3 in round-robin play and were bounced from the first round of the playoffs by the Canucks in six games.

That letdown was followed by an offseason in which the Blues lost their captain, half of a dynamic goaltending duo and a pair of longstanding veteran leaders, putting that much more distance between the club and its 2019 Stanley Cup championship squad.

But that wasn’t the sum total of St. Louis’ offseason. The Blues have new life this year with Colton Parayko and Robert Thomas earning more prominent roles, highly regarded prospects Ville Husso and Jordan Kyrou receiving full-time opportunities and free agent additions Mike Hoffman and Torey Krug entering the fold. With a remodeled cast, the Blues could be poised to return to the level of dominance they displayed from January 2019 to March 2020 and establish themselves as serious Cup contenders for years to come.

So, the Blues are at a crossroads, albeit an encouraging one, in the early days of the truncated 2020-21 season. These six story lines will be crucial in determining whether the Blues can return to Cup contention over the next 55 regular-season games.

THE BLUE LINE

While the Blues return six defensemen from last season, the blue-line mix is decidedly different following the losses of Jay Bouwmeester (retired) and captain Alex Pietrangelo (moved to Vegas as a free agent) and the addition of Torey Krug (free agent addition from Boston).

Parayko will fill Pietrangelo’s role as the team’s top defenseman. Krug — a much more offensively focused D-man than the Blues have employed in recent years — will be asked to play top-pairing minutes after averaging 20:29 last season in Boston.

The club also is counting on a bounce-back season from three-time All-Star Justin Faulk, who posted just 16 points in his first season as a Blue. A resurgence from the 28-year-old defenseman, who tallied at least 30 points in each of his last six seasons with the Hurricanes, would go a long way toward filling the void left by Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester.

A BINNINGTON BOUNCE-BACK

Jordan Binnington’s dominance in net was crucial to the Blues’ Stanley Cup win in 2019, and while he doesn’t necessarily need to replicate that out-of-his-mind rookie performance, he’ll need to eliminate the inconsistency he displayed in 2019-20 if the Blues are to contend for another Stanley Cup this year.

Binnington impressed enough to earn his first All-Star berth last February, but he allowed four or more goals 10 times prior to the NHL’s shutdown. He did so again in four of the five games he started in the bubble.

Binnington impressed in the win over the Avs, allowing just one goal while facing 27 shots. He’ll need to put together those types of performances more consistently in 2021, especially with the Blues no longer able to turn to Jake Allen (traded to Montreal) if Binnington underperforms.

Replacing Allen as the backup is the 25-year-old Husso, who has yet to play in a regular-season NHL game. The Finnish goaltender is bound to receive a decent opportunity; Binnington will need rest with the Blues playing 10 back-to-backs this season. A breakout performance from Husso, long regarded as a top prospect, would be a huge plus for the Blues.

HOFFMAN’S IMPACT

It may not feel like it considering Hoffman was brought in on a professional tryout deal just days before training camp began, but he’s arguably the Blues’ biggest free agent addition since they signed Paul Stastny in 2014. He scored 20-plus goals and 50-plus points in each of the past five seasons, and his 29 goals in 2019-20 were the most of any free agent this offseason.

His addition is particularly crucial with Vladimir Tarasenko expected to miss at least the first month of the season while recovering from his third shoulder surgery in three years. Hoffman gives St. Louis an elite scorer at the top of the lineup and creates the domino effect of moving capable scorer Zach Sanford down to the bottom six, giving the Blues the punch at the bottom of the lineup that they lacked in the bubble last year. While the Blues showed Wednesday they can win without Hoffman, who missed the opener while sorting out visa issues, he figures to make them much better.

If Tarasenko returns later this season and looks like his old self, the Blues will have two upper echelon scorers.

THE REPLACEMENTS

If there’s been one common theme as MLB, the NFL and the NBA have played in home markets amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that roster depth is more important than ever. The same will be true in the NHL as players no longer have the playoff bubble to help protect them from the threat of positive COVID tests and the resultant contact tracing.

With the risk of injuries and fatigue also heightened as teams play 56 games in 116 days, the Blues at some point will have to rely on players who are currently on their taxi squad or in the AHL.

While the Blues’ lack of forward depth was perhaps their biggest downfall in the bubble last summer, they showed an impressive ability to react to change in Wednesday night’s opener. After Hoffman was deemed ineligible shortly before puck drop, Oskar Sundqvist moved up from the fourth to the second line and scored two goals, while Sammy Blais moved into the lineup and played a strong game on the fourth line.

However, the situation is more uncertain if the Blues need to summon a forward from beyond their current 23-man roster. Jacob de la Rose, a veteran of 229 NHL games, returns after clearing waivers and being assigned to the taxi squad, and offseason free agent addition Curtis McKenzie has played in 99 games with the Dallas Stars.

The rest of the club’s depth forwards are rather green, though. Nathan Walker (17 games) and Austin Poganski (one) are the only other forwards who attended training camp and have NHL experience. Last season, the Blues had Kyrou waiting in the wings when their forward corps was stretched thin, but they don’t have a forward with similar upside knocking on the door this year.

The Blues are much deeper on the blue line. Former Stanley Cup hero Carl Gunnarsson enters the season as the seventh defenseman, and 24-year-old Niko Mikkola made a strong push for an NHL roster spot and will continue to battle for one as a member of the taxi squad. Steven Santini, a veteran of 116 NHL games, will begin the season at AHL Utica, as will reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich and highly regarded prospect Jake Walman.

Joel Hofer, a 2018 fourth-rounder who has impressed at the junior level but played in just one AHL game, begins the season as the team’s taxi squad goalie. But while offseason free agent addition Jon Gillies, who has posted a 2.71 goals-against average and .903 save percentage over 12 NHL games with the Flames, was assigned to the AHL to begin the season, he may be the first goalie the Blues turn to in the event of injury, illness or poor performance.

THE RISING STAR

Thomas has progressed steadily during his first two NHL seasons, tallying 33 points for the Stanley Cup champs in 2018-19, then posting 42 points last season (in four fewer games). This season, however, looks like the one in which Thomas could blossom into the star the Blues have long envisioned. Coach Craig Berube made two major changes that showed his trust in Thomas as training camp began, moving him up to the second line and plugging him in at his natural position of center after playing him on the wing for most of his first two seasons.

Thomas rewarded Berube for that faith in the season opener, making a pair of beautiful passes to set up Sundqvist for two goals. If he can do that with a usual fourth-liner such as Sundqvist, the possibilities seem limitless as he plays alongside Hoffman and Jaden Schwartz. A major step forward from the 21-year-old Thomas would improve the Blues’ Cup chances not only in 2021, but beyond.

THE WINNING CULTURE

While Joel Edmundson and Patrick Maroon were the only major members of the Blues’ Stanley Cup team who didn’t return for the 2019-20 season, there was a much more significant exodus from that group this offseason with the departures of Allen, Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester and Alexander Steen (retired).

That’s a lot of veteran leadership lost, and different players now must step up and lead the team, starting with new captain Ryan O’Reilly. While the 29-year-old forward has a chance to make his own imprint on the team, he seems inclined to stick with what worked during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run.

“We see how effective that was,” O’Reilly said of the winning culture fostered by the team’s previous leadership group. “Now, it’s obviously shifted to a few other guys. Now it’s our turn to carry that on.”