Our St. Louis Blues 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The St. Louis Blues are coming off of a well-documented season for the ages. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions were in the midst of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent years at the turn of the calendar last January. The team that was a perennial lock for a playoff spot with some of the league’s best defensemen on their roster was sitting dead last in the NHL. Everyone was confused as to what was going on in St. Louis. It was even to the point that every player on the team was an option to be traded.
But, on January 3rd, the seeds of a miracle turnaround, planted over the month prior, began to sprout. The firing of former head coach Mike Yeo and naming of interim head coach Craig Berube gave a spark to the roster and the debut of Jordan Binnington as a starting goalie gave the skaters confidence and a reliable presence in the crease.
Over the final 45 games of the season, the Blues posted a 30-10-5 record, highlighted by an eleven game winning streak that also featured a three game shutout streak. This blistering pace propelled them into third place in the Central Division and the distinction of being the seventh team in NHL history (and first since the 96-97 Senators) to make the playoffs after being in last place at any point after their 20th game of the season.
The Blues’ roster is one of the most defensively sound in the entire league. From the elite defensemen they’ve developed to the plethora of two-way forwards making an impact, the entire team is packed full of defensive talent. Looking ahead to the 19-20 season is promising for them as well, since their entire defensive group and most of the forwards are returning.
The absolute dominance shown by rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington is perhaps the most crucial part of the reason the Blues were able to rally and win the Stanley Cup. In 32 appearances, Binnington posted a 24-5-1 record with a 1.89 GAA, a .927 SV%, and 5 shutouts. This came out of nowhere for him, as he had somewhat fallen out of the organization’s future plans and down their depth chart to the point that they tried to send him to the ECHL but he declined and got loaned to another AHL team instead (coincidentally, the Bruins AHL affiliate).
Although it seems highly unlikely that Binnington will be able to replicate the numbers he recorded last season, we now know what he is capable of. He does still have some flaws in his game (including his positioning and lateral movement) that the Bruins were able to expose very briefly in the Cup Final, but because of the defensive prowess of the team in front of him, most of the flaws are effectively covered up.
The Blues have a fine mix of veteran players and youthful exuberance on the roster, and are not in immediate need of prospects to fill NHL roster spots. Robert Thomas, the best of the bunch of prospects in the organization, graduated to the NHL last season. He had an insanely impressive performance, especially in the playoffs, as he showed the poise and intuition expected out of a long-time pro. Capped off by the effort in creating Patrick Maroon’s double overtime winner in game 7 against the Dallas Stars, Thomas (#18) demonstrated the skills and drive of an exceptional player in today’s NHL. His puck retrieval, stickhandling, and sneaky-good wrist shot were all on display there.
In the prospect pipeline, that leaves a less-than-impressive crop of up-and-coming players. Jordan Kyrou should be an impact player with the Blues very soon, and he will bring an excellent burst of speed and offensive talent to the roster. If he can stay healthy, that is. But, many of the Blues’ best prospects had poor seasons and the overall prospect pool took a nosedive compared to last season. Klim Kostin had questions around his ability to play a team game and Husso put up abysmal numbers in the AHL last season. One other prospect of note is right-handed offensive defenseman Mitch Reinke, who had 45 points in 76 games in the AHL last season. Although he will be in tough to get a shot in the NHL with the Blues’ defensive depth on the right side, an offensive talent of his calibre from the back-end is very valuable.
Michael Del Zotto
Luckily for the Blues, their roster remains mostly unchanged from last season. The line combinations, however, changed frequently throughout the season. Especially in the top-six, where O’Reilly split time with first and second line duties with a variety of linemates.
Last season’s leading scorer, Conn Smythe winner, and Selke winner Ryan O’Reilly has cemented his place as the cornerstone forward on the roster. Although O’Reilly spent a large portion of the season and playoffs on the second line, and projects to start there again in the 19-20 season, he is the most important part of the Blues’ forward group at this moment. His offensive talents (28 goals and 77 points), defensive prowess (Selke Trophy), and veteran leadership, intangibles, and clutch performances (5 goals and 9 points in the Stanley Cup Final, including goals in games 4 through 7) prove his importance to the team. He is and will continue to be heavily relied on.
Brayden Schenn is then the assumed number one centre. He struggled mightily at times last season, and did lose status as the team’s go-to centre to O’Reilly. Schenn will be given a fresh start to rebound this season on the Blues’ most offensive line. The team hopes the 70 points he recorded in his first season with the organization was not just an anomaly, though given his general offensive production levels in the past 6 seasons, that may be the case. Schenn is also an option to slide over to the wing for O’Reilly to jump up and play on the first line.
Tyler Bozak will take the team’s third-line centre role. The longtime Maple Leaf joined the Blues in free agency after the 17-18 season. Though his offensive production was on the lower end of the range for his career with 38 points last season, as a third line centre that is still highly respectable production. He was more important in the face-off department and his spot on the team as a role player and penalty killer anyways.
Ivan Barbashev should be holding or sharing fourth line centre duties with Oskar Sundqvist. Both players provide an excellent scoring instinct and physical presence from the lower half of the lineup and could be options to move up when needed.
Joining Brayden Schenn on the team’s first line will be Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Schwartz and Schenn very quickly developed strong chemistry as linemates and both offer a speedy, physical game. This whole line will be wanting to improve on last season, as the difficult start to the year has left Schenn and Schwartz coming off of one of their worst performances in recent years. They are both reliable playmakers and pair nicely with the natural sniper that is Tarasenko.
David Perron projects to play alongside Ryan O’Reilly. Last year, Perron jumped up and down the lineup constantly and never really settled down with consistent linemates, which is not something that is likely to change. The two have complimentary styles, with both being physically engaged and able to contribute to the overall offense of the team with puck control and playmaking. Perron adds in a scoring threat to the line. He can be inconsistent, however, and struggles to contribute elsewhere when he is not scoring.
The wing opposite Perron is still up in the air. Zach Sanford occupied the spot most often last season, but the Blues may want a bit more production from someone playing that high in the lineup, as Sanford had 20 points in his 60 games in 18-19. Sammy Blais is also an option if the team needs a heavier, physical presence in the role. A strong training camp from Blais has made him the frontrunner for this spot.
Robby Fabbri, if he can stay healthy, should slot in somewhere in the middle six, given his skillset as a smaller, speedy, scoring forward, but may end up as the odd man out due to durability concerns and being pushed down the depth chart.
Robert Thomas’ place in the lineup depends on how many centres play on the wing. Being a young forward, it would not be out of the question for him to play as a winger in a more offensive role in the top-six. But, if Berube decides it is best to have O’Reilly and Schenn playing on the same line, Thomas may find himself as the third-line centre behind Bozak. Early on, however, he is a definite option to play wing on the second line.
This leaves Alexander Steen to play down on the fourth line with Sundqvist/Barbashev. Steen is fully capable of playing higher up in the lineup. In cases where the team needs a more experienced forward to help in tough situations, Steen will be the first option to slide up alongside Bozak or O’Reilly.
As an extra forward, Mackenzie MacEachern will be close to if not in the lineup to start the year, depending on injury situations. He found his way in last season and performed quite well in his role.
With almost all of the exact same defensemen on the roster as last season, the Blues will have the benefit of trial and error chemistry building at their disposal. As of the acquisition of Justin Faulk, the Blues have an overabundance of RD on the roster, with Pietrangelo, Parayko, Faulk, and Bortuzzo. One of these guys will have to swap sides because the team’s LD is not as strong and it would be a waste of assets to have any one of those four scratched regularly. Unless this now makes Pietrangelo (because it is a contract year and he is due for a significant raise which the team may not be able to afford) or Bortuzzo (underutilized as a 7D) expendable.
Much like the forwards, the defense never really had completely consistent pairings throughout the year. The one thing that is certain, however, is that captain Alex Pietrangelo will be the team’s number one guy in all situations. Defensively sound, excellent positionally, and is almost a guaranteed 40-50 points, there are no questions around why Alex is one of the best in the league.
Last season, Pietrangelo spent the bulk of his time paired with Vince Dunn and Joel Edmundson. As Edmundson has been traded on the day this preview was posted, that leaves Vince Dunn as a familiar partner. Vince Dunn’s skillset may be better utilized elsewhere in the lineup. But, with the lack of LD now, Dunn could find himself moved up the lineup, unless a RD swaps sides and plays with Alex on the top pairing.
Justin Faulk will have to slot in somewhere in the middle of the lineup, possibly pushing Bortuzzo out of regular playing time while quarterbacking a powerplay unit. The sides everyone is playing on are yet to be determined. As Bouwmeester ages, he will begin to find reduced playing time, and Gunnarsson is more of an ideal 7D for the team than any one of the right-shot defenders the team possesses.
Of note, last season’s playoffs were a breakthrough for Vince Dunn. Although he suffered a broken jaw in the Western Conference Final, he made a major impact on the ice. He showed massive potential as an offensive catalyst and play creator, something that may pair well with a shutdown defender such as Colton Parayko. Vince Dunn will need to improve on the defensive parts of his game, which is more or less assumed as a young defenseman, but his offensive instincts cannot be overlooked for the weapon that they are.
Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko were the Blues’ most consistent pairing last season, and they do project to start the year together again. They play well together and are often tasked with shutting down the opponent’s best players. Berube may find more value in keeping these two together rather than splitting them up to put Vince Dunn alongside Parayko instead. The advanced stats on these two pairings may suggest Dunn should play with Parayko, however. Additionally, Justin Faulk, if he can play on his off-side, may be a good complimentary piece to Colton Parayko’s game in a similar way to Vince Dunn.
That leaves the overlooked Robert Bortuzzo on the third pair with Bouwmeester/Dunn/Carl Gunnarsson depending on context, or as the healthy scratch on defense. He was largely valued as a depth piece on a team that is absolutely stacked on right-side defensemen, but his defensive play and physicality mesh perfectly with the style of play the Blues use. If he is playing on the third pairing, his lack of offensive contributions can be easily overlooked. It would be wise for Craig Berube to fully utilize the potential that Bortuzzo possesses to be a reliable defender when Pietrangelo and Parayko are not on the ice.
Jordan Binnington is without a doubt the Blues number one goalie heading into the season. Even if his play regresses, which we can reasonably expect it to, he should still be putting up respectable numbers for a starting goalie. Couple that with how strong the Blues are defensively and unless Binnington experiences a major nosedive in performance, they should be just fine with him in the net.
Over the years, Jake Allen has been a more than serviceable starter and backup for the team. He remains the go-to option in times of need. Although last season was statistically the worst of his NHL career, most of that time was spent in net for the Blues that fell to last place in the league. Provided the team performs to expectations, he should be set for a bounceback season.
St. Louis Blues 2019-20 Prediction
2nd – 4th Central Division
The Central Division has been the league’s toughest and most competitive in the last few seasons, and it is only getting better. Colorado is on the upswing and pressuring the dominant Nashville Predators, Winnipeg is in for a challenging season, Dallas is always a playoff threat, and the same can even be said for Chicago after how they closed out the year. The Blues will be in tough, especially since we have seen this team be really bad then really good. We are still trying to figure out their ‘normal’.
With the defensive strength of the roster, there is no doubt that this is a playoff team on paper, but the impact of an overperforming goalie last season and question marks on the team’s offensive capabilities (will the top line have a rebound season?) make it harder to suggest they will be challenging for the division title.