Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 St. Louis Blues

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the St. Louis Blues.

2018-19 St. Louis Blues Preview

2017-18 Season

Last year, the St. Louis Blues disappointed a lot of fans. After a strong start that saw the Blues go 15-5-1 in their first 20 games, the team still managed to miss the playoffs. With the help of one of the most productive defensive cores in the modern era, the Blues were the comfortably one of the best in the league early on. Players like Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo were being recognized league-wide for their strong starts to the year.

In natural St. Louis fashion, though, the team threw away their strong start. In the following 20 games, they went 9-10-1. This included two three-game losing streaks. The losing streak reached an all-time high between February 11 and February 27. This streak hit in the peak of a dramatic cold-streak from starting goalie, Jake Allen. Allen only played in five games throughout this stretch. In that he posted a streak of 0-4-0, letting in 16 goals and posting a save percentage of 0.852.

The Blues came back and fought for the wild card spot at the end of the year. Once March started, the group came back to life and recorded nine wins, six losses, and two OT losses. A devastating loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the last game of the season cost them a playoff appearance. The Blues fell one point short and failed to advance to the postseason.

2018 Off-Season

St. Louis made up for the upsetting end to the season with arguably one of the best off-seasons in the NHL. They began their successful summer at the NHL draft where despite losing their first-round pick to The Philadelphia Flyers in the trade that brought Schenn to St. Louis, the team still picked Dominik Bokk from Germany. Bokk is a slender winger that’s very offensively-gifted. The Blues had the Winnipeg Jets first round pick thanks to the Paul Stastny deal.

After the draft, the Blues seemed to have one focus. To refine their team as much as needed, to assure success this next season. They did a great job of it. The transactions started on July 1, when the Blues made one of the biggest trades of the summer. They dealt away Patrik BerglundVladimir SobotkaTage Thompson, a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and a second-round pick in 2021. In return, they brought in Ryan O’Reilly. O’Reilly has scored at least 55 points in each of the last five seasons, including 61 last year, with the Buffalo Sabres. He could be on a line with Blues-star Vladimir Tarasenko.

While that was the only trade the Blues made outside of the draft, they were very productive with their signings. They signed Chad Johnson, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Joey LaLeggia and Patrick Maroon. The deals were relatively cheap for the Blues too, combining for a total of $13.125 million in annual cap hits.

The six new additions all add depth and scoring to the Blues roster. Last year, the biggest issue the team had was their consistency. Now, with such a productive group of forwards, that doesn’t seem like nearly as much of an issue.

Projected Lines

Offense

Robby FabbriRyan O’ReillyVladimir Tarasenko

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennDavid Perron

Alex SteenTyler BozakRobert Thomas

Patrick MaroonIvan BarbashevNikita Soshnikov

The St. Louis Blues have one of the deepest forward groups in the league. They have players to fill almost any role if a player gets hurt or can’t produce. That said, their lineup is exposed to a number of possible shakeups as the year goes on, something that head coach Mike Yeo loves to do.

Top Six

The top line could house Tarasenko and O’Reilly. The duo should easily be the team’s stars this year and putting the two on the same line is needed. The second winger is up for debate, though. Fabbri has done a great job of rebounding from his injury that kept him out since February 4, 2017. If he is able to live up to his old-self come gameday, he’ll be a great addition to O’Reilly and Tarasenko. He’d add a bit of smaller, grittier, speedier offense; the same way Schwartz did.

Schwartz is another great candidate for the top line left-wing role. He might not start the year on that line. Not because he can’t score, the exact opposite actually. Schwartz and Schenn were one of the best duos in the league last year. They combined for 129 points last year, 52 of them being goals. Adding Perron, who scored 66 points in 70 games last year, to this mix could be extremely powerful. The three players gel extremely well and would make for a strong scoring unit. In this formation, the Blues could role out two lines that would be considered a number 1 line by most teams in the league.

Bottom Six

The third line is home to Steen and Bozak. Both players could be second-liners, providing a very strong two-way game. With that said, they have both said they are excited to embrace the third-line role. The demotion in the lineup doesn’t remove any responsibilities, though. The two will be the role models for the Blues top prospect, Thomas, who will likely make the roster out of training camp. A natural center, the Blues could choose to start Thomas on the wing. Once he has acclimated to the faster game, he could shift back to the middle of the ice.

The fourth line is where the scraps fall, then. But those scraps are still very strong players. Maroon is the veteran of the line, replacing Chris Thorburn and Kyle Brodziak as the power-forward the Blues like to keep in their bottom-six. He’ll be the basis from which Barbashev and Soshnikov can both thrive. The two players, 23 and 25-years-old respectfully, have yet to have their breakout seasons. With a player like Maroon, this might finally be their time. If they can’t find consistent scoring, they’ll be quickly replaced by the team’s horde of offensive prospects.

The Extras

Oskar Sundqvist and Dmitrij Jaksin are two names that won’t make the cut this season. Both players came into the NHL with high expectations, but haven’t lived up to them. As a result, they’re very likely to be replaced by the onslaught of young prospects the team has coming in.

Jaskin will likely still be a healthy scratch in the NHL, but won’t see much ice time. This is the same role he held last year when he scored 17 points in 71 games. Since joining the Blues in 2013, he has only had one season where he scored more than 17 points. That was the 2014-15 year. He only scored 18 that year, though, in 58 games.

Sundqvist is the odd-man-out between the two. He’ll get demoted to a top-line role in the AHL, a role he should’ve had last year. Instead, he took up a roster spot in the NHL. He played 42 games and only netted five points.  In the AHL, however, he averaged a point-per-game in six games.

These two are being replaced by players like Nolan Stevens and Klim Kostin, who are both very likely to be the go-to players when it comes to covering injuries. Jaskin might find his way into the roster for a few games, though, if Soshnikov isn’t able to produce on the fourth line. He won’t get any higher up than that, though.

Defense

Vince DunnAlex Pietrangelo

Joel EdmundsonColton Parayko

Jay BouwmeesterRobert Bortuzzo

The defense is equally as deep and easy to replace. Prospects like Jake Walman, Nikko Mikkola, and David Noel. There shouldn’t be much need for replacement in the strong defensive core, pending injury.

First Pairing

The top line will easily be Dunn and Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo is the team’s star defenseman and one of the best in the league. He scored 54 points in 78 games last year but still looked like he could add more. His leadership is another valuable asset. This was best demonstrated when Dunn moved onto the top line in place of Edmundson. Dunn didn’t show his true self while he was paired with Parayko, who struggled last year. He actually didn’t even score his first NHL goal until he was paired with Pietrangelo in October. Now that Dunn has a year under his belt, the team will stop helping him get used to the NHL and throw him in head first, along with Pietrangelo. If all goes well, this duo will be extremely strong.

Second Pairing

The second pairing is a pair of players who haven’t lived up to their NHL expectations just yet. Parayko has scored 35 points in the past two seasons, but he’s only combined for 10 goals in that time. It shouldn’t be that way. Parayko has an absolute bomb of a slapshot and the team emphasized incorporating the defense in the offense last year. He should be scoring more. Edmundson falls in a very similar vein but is simply not producing entirely. Save a strong 2017 postseason, Edmundson could be quick to lose his job if he doesn’t put up more numbers. Especially with the depth, the Blues have at the position.

Third Pairing

The last two defensemen are also not certain. Bortuzzo has done a good job of being a strong morality piece and locker room presence, but Bouwmeester doesn’t even contribute that. The 34-year-old Bouwmeester frequently missed practices and missed a lot of games with multiple injuries. With prospects like Walman, Mitch Reinke, and Mikkola all looking great in the pre-season camps; both Bouwmeester and Bortuzzo will have to show some pretty solid evidence as to why they deserve roster spots.

The Extras

The biggest question mark for the Blues defense is Jordan Schmaltz. Schmaltz has played in 22 NHL games throughout his career and is currently rostered with the team. If they want to send him down to the AHL, he’ll have to go through waivers. With that said, they need to send him down. Schmaltz was a top prospect for the Blues in the same way that Petteri Lindbohm was. He’s been very quickly replaced by players like Walman and Reinke, on top of others. Schmaltz has been prolific in the AHL, but can’t translate that to the NHL. At 24-years-old, he’s one of the oldest defensive prospects in the Blues system and is losing a lot of faith as a result.

This theory was reflected in St. Louis extension of Schmaltz. The team announced on September 12 that they re-signed Schmaltz to a two-year deal, with a moderate cap hit of $700,000 a year. What’s interesting about the signing is the fact that for the 2018-19 season, the contract is a two-way deal. For the 2019-20 season, it becomes a one-way deal. This is the Blues way of solidifying Schmaltz role in the AHL this season. It also tells him that if he performs well enough in the AHL this year, he has every opportunity to be an NHL regular next year. Of course, if he can’t perform, he’s a cheap seventh-defenceman that will likely generate a lot of interests from teams next season.

Goalies

Jake Allen

Chad Johnson

The Blues silenced any arguments of who the backup goalie would be. They signed Johnson to a short and cheap deal. Doing this was their way of telling fans that, no, the star goalie prospect Ville Husso is not NHL ready yet. With that being said, the 23-year-old Finland native is very close. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Mike Yeo and Doug Armstrong both had Husso’s number on speed-dial, waiting to call him up to the NHL in the case of an injury. For now, the team has Allen and Johnson to rely on. The two have had their fair share of issues but are reliable guys coming into this year.

Players to Watch

Robert Thomas

Thomas is, by far, the most exciting player the Blues have this season. He’s their top prospect, providing electric and smart offense. The team will likely give him a shot to prove his worth in the NHL to start the year. He’ll have 9 games to show he deserves a spot in the NHL or the Blues are likely going to replace him and return him to the OHL. Still, this first glimpse could show a lot of what to expect from the team’s young forwards. For a deeper look a Thomas, check out Last Word on Hockey’s in-depth analysis of the team’s top prospects.

Vince Dunn

Dunn is another top prospect who finally had his rookie season last year. He’s a small but very fast defenseman. His ability to create a rush, then join the rush and create goals is uncanny. He sees the ice very well and seems to lack the inconsistency that plagues young defensemen. When he joined last year, the biggest worry was if he could match his strong offense with stronger defense. He did. When Dunn was on the ice, the Blues had possession more often than naught. His defensive statistics also fell fairly in line with the rest of the team’s defense, excluding Pietrangelo. Now that he has a bit of experience under his belt, Dunn could start transforming into an elite defenseman. Playing with Pietrangelo will work wonders for the 22-year-old. He’s going to break out and become a consistent 40-point scorer soon, let’s see if that happens this year.

Prediction

The St. Louis Blues 2018-19 season has all the makings of a Stanley Cup-winning year. A very strong, deep offense, a reliable defense, and a star starting goalie. While they’ve had this combination before and still disappointed, it’s looking like this might finally be the year that Blues fans have been waiting for. If O’Reilly makes as big of an impact as expected, there is nothing holding the Blues back from being the highest scoring team in the NHL. A mark they haven’t even come near since the 2014-15 season when they ranked fifth.

All-in-all, the Blues are Stanley Cup contenders. There’s no doubting it. In a recent poll asking players around the league which team had the best odds of winning the Stanley Cup, the Blues were a very popular name. Even stars like Connor McDavid and Marc-Andre Fleury voted for St. Louis. It’s said every year by Blues fans, but this is finally their year.

Main Photo:

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