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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – ST LOUIS BLUES – Team Preview – Player Profiles

REVIEW: A year after posting a dominant 49-22-11 record, St. Louis dipped to 37-38-7 in 2022-23, bringing its run of four straight playoff berths to an end. Although the Blues still had a solid offensive core with Jordan Kyrou, Pavel Buchnevich, Brayden Schenn and Robert Thomas each recording at least 65 points, St. Louis went from finishing third in goals per game in 2021-22 (3.77) to 17th last season (3.17) due to a lack of depth. Seattle had an amazing nine players with at least 20 goals in 2021-22 but just three last year (Thomas finished with 18) due primarily to a swath of forwards regressing. On top of that, they didn’t have Ville Husso anymore after he played a key role in pushing them to the playoffs in 2021-22 with his 25-7-6 record, 2.56 GAA and .919 save percentage in that campaign. With Husso gone, St. Louis deployed Jordan Binnington in 61 games, but he wasn’t up for the task, posting a 3.31 GAA and an .894 save percentage. Backup Thomas Greiss was just as bad, finishing with a 3.58 GAA and an .896 save percentage. With the season lost, St. Louis was a major seller at the deadline, moving Ivan Barbashev, Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko in a series of trades that arguably marked the end of an era.

What’s Changed? Greiss retired, opening the door for Joel Hofer to slide into the backup role. The Blues also leveraged some of their freed cap space to acquire Kevin Hayes from Philadelphia for just a sixth-round pick and even got the Flyers to retain half his $7,142,857 annual cap hit for the next three seasons. Hayes proved to be a poor signing for Philadelphia, but he might give the Blues back some of their lost offensive depth. Outside of that, St. Louis didn’t make significant additions as it instead starts to shift its focus towards the future.

What would success look like? Although the Blues have seen plenty of turnover since their 2019 Stanley Cup championship, this team isn’t without bounce back potential. The offensive core of Thomas, Brandon Saad, Buchnevich, Jordan Kyrou, Hayes, Schenn and Jakub Vrana is loaded with question marks, but when they’re all clicking at the same time, they make for a dangerous combination.

What could go wrong? Even that wouldn’t solve the goaltending issue though. Binnington was a huge part of the Blues’ 2019 championship, but since then his career has been on a consistent downward slope. At the age of 30, a rebound isn’t impossible, but after setting a new career low in save percentage for the fourth straight year (excluding his one-game stint in 2015-16), it seems improbable.

Top Breakout Candidate: Maybe Hofer will be the solution in St. Louis instead of Binnington? The 23-year-old goaltender did post an encouraging 2.50 GAA and .921 save percentage in 47 AHL contests last season. Granted, Hofer also had a 3.22 GAA and .905 save percentage in six starts with St. Louis in 2022-23, but that’s a small sample size and even then, it was an improvement over Binnington. Given the veteran goaltender’s struggles, Hofer has an opportunity here that he might take advantage of.


Jordan Kyrou

Even though he scored a career high in goals, the Blues coaching staff and front office had a lot of criticism for Kyrou’s play this year. In some ways it was more of the same, he is still one of the most lethal players in the league off the rush and he is very tough to stop when he reaches his second gear. He doesn’t need to get a lot of power on his shot to score and offense comes easy for him. The Blues were more concerned with his habits after plays were broken up or when he didn’t have the puck. Perhaps his -38 set off some red flags with the coaching staff. It’s something that isn’t entirely in his control, but his tendency to push for offense and carry the puck through traffic can lead to some headaches for the coaching staff. Firewagon hockey moments are going to happen with talented players, but a majority of Kyrou’s offense came in transition last year. Some players can get by with this, it just becomes tougher when your team loses a couple of Jenga pieces like the Blues did with Perron and eventually O’Reilly at the trade deadline. The Blues might have expected more out of Kyrou, but they can certainly do worse than him if he is just a scoring winger.

Pavel Buchnevich

A mid-round sleeper in fantasy hockey almost every year, Buchnevich picked up where he left off with the Blues last year. He was the one player on the team that is hard to critique because he excelled in just about every area last year. Buchnevich was their only top player who could score without living and dying off rush chances and provided a much needed forechecking element to their top lines. He doesn’t have a huge frame, but he reads exits well and he can get a lot of torque on his shot without much time or space. It’s surprising how accurate he is because he uses a sweeping motion to shoot the puck and creates a launching pad type of effect instead of settling it down or dusting it off. Catches goaltenders off-guard and he was even better as a passer, ranking second behind Thomas in scoring chance setups. He doesn’t need to be the primary puck carrier or distributor to be effective and masters the details of the game when it comes to scoring. The only thing you can criticize him for, is that he could have shot the puck more and injuries limited him to only 63 games. St. Louis’ best all-around player entering this season.

Robert Thomas

Thomas proved that his 2022 season wasn’t a fluke at the very least, remaining one of the league’s premier playmakers. He is someone who can excel in both phases of the game, having the speed to keep up with St. Louis’ powerful rush offense and capable of slowing the game down when the Blues start cycling. He is at his best when he can pull up in the offensive zone and wait for a lane to open up along the wall, almost like he is setting up a power play at five-on-five. That part of his game didn’t change much, it's just hard to make these plays at the same rate as he did the previous season, which is why he went from sixth in the league in 5-on-5 primary assists to 33rd. Still in the upper echelon of the league, there shouldn’t be any concerns about Thomas’ ability as a playmaker. He is also a very selective shooter, firing the puck at an incredibly low rate and makes up for it by being a strong finisher. Also made progress with helping out the defense on zone exits instead of cherry-picking for entries. Likely the Blues centerpiece going forward and has big shoes to fill with O’Reilly now in Nashville.

Brayden Schenn

You can usually count on Brayden Schenn to hit the 20-goal mark in a full season, and it doesn’t matter how good or bad the rest of his stats are. His deceptive release is always going to make him a viable option on the power play, as he can beat goaltenders on some awkward looking shots, and he is very good at not telegraphing where the puck is going. Even strength play is a different story. Schenn is a deliberate player with the puck, so it can be tougher for his skill to translate here. Most of his goals come off breakaways or a passing play that somebody else started. He was a tough stylistic fit at times because he is a slower player on a team with a lot of speed on the wings and had to play all over the lineup last year. Still showed some decent chemistry with Kyrou at times, creating some quick-strike offense with breaking up plays high in the zone and catching defenses off guard. Also coming off one of his strongest seasons as a playmaker and was third on the Blues in scoring chance setups at 5-on-5. The main concerns with Schenn are his defensive play and the five years left on his contract going forward.

Kevin Hayes

Even with Hayes having a rebound season where he was injury free, it was all but a certainty that he was getting traded. He was healthy scratched in December despite leading the team in points and moved from center to wing in favor of rookie Noah Cates. Despite any progress he was making, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be a long-term fit in Philadelphia, this is even before mentioning his contract which carries a cap hit over $7 million AAV for the next three years. Thus, he was sent to St. Louis with the Flyers retaining half of his cap hit. Few players had a tougher time both on and off the ice than Kevin Hayes over the past couple of years, so it was encouraging to see show signs of the player he was in his prime. The fit with St. Louis is intriguing, because they’re at their best off the rush and Hayes is the type of center who loves to regroup in the neutral zone and attack from there. The Blues have some good speed on the wings to complement him, so it’s really just a matter of whether he can hold his own defensively, which is where some of the friction with the Flyers coaching staff started. The Blues have him for three more years, but at under $4 million AAV he is a nice placeholder to have.

Jakub Vrana

The story around Jakub Vrana is that he could easily be the biggest steal in the league if he gets the playing time. The “if’ part just never happens. Since 2020, only Auston Matthews has scored more goals per 60 minutes, which sounds impressive except that Matthews has played almost 100 more games during that time. Playing only two games with Detroit last year before entering the Player’s Assistance Program, Vrana eventually passed through waivers and spent two stints in the AHL before St. Louis decided to take a chance on him with the only risk being his $5.25 million AAV cap hit. His short stint with the Blues was business as usual for him, he scored 10 goals while playing a third line role and showed flashes of being the game-breaker he was at times in Washington and Detroit. His speed and shot are something a lot of teams dream they could have, so this is a potential coup for St. Louis if they can get regular playing time out of him. Of course, this is exactly what the Red Wings were saying a year ago.

Kasperi Kapanen

Claimed off waivers by St. Louis after three frustrating years in Pittsburgh, the winger made a good first impression in first few games with the Blues, scoring twice in his first three games and tallying 14 points in only 23 games to end the year. Possessing blazing fast speed, a decent shot and puck skills, it’s easy to see why the Blues wanted to take a gamble on him even with one year left on his contract. The Blues seem to be putting a focus on team speed and Kapanen is a guy who can certainly help that. It didn’t work in Pittsburgh, as he ended up being a one-dimensional player who fought to get the puck out of his own zone more than he created off the rush. He could break the game open at times but was usually a drag on any line he was on, and he gave back most of the offense he created. This is something you live with if a player is finishing his chances, but with only seven goals in 43 games, Pittsburgh opted to move on. His shooting slump immediately turned around in St. Louis, so he at least enters next season on a positive note and a fresh start.

Brandon Saad

Now one of the oldest forwards on the team, Saad is in an interesting situation going forward. He is one of the only wingers in the top-nine who brings some level of defensive play, which balances out some of the one-way players the Blues brought in like Kapanen and Vrana. He’s also signed for three more years on a non-cheap contract and is coming off one of the lowest-scoring seasons of his career. Most of that is due to him having only four points on the power play despite getting consistent minutes on the second unit. Saad was a consistent driver of offense and scoring chances for years and this part of his game started to hit a decline last year. The saving grace is he can still finish at a decent rate and the Blues were a positive territorial team with him on the ice. Some of that is a by-product of being attached at the hip to Ryan O’Reilly for most of his minutes, but Saad is a smart player who still has decent wheels to help drive the play north. Saad’s skillset always paired best with a strong, play-driving center (ROR, Kadri, Toews), so he could be thrusted into a different role this year with the Blues having a void there.

Sammy Blais

Sammy Blais’ career with the Rangers might as well be a write-off. His first season was cut short with a knee injury and did not play much beyond the fourth line this past year. He did not score a goal with the Blueshirts over 54 total games. Returning to St. Louis as part of the Tarasenko deal rejuvenated his career. He was playing more and got back to being the skilled agitator that he was during the team’s Cup run. He actually set a career high in goals and points in his 31 games with the Blues, which probably tells you more about how happy he was to be back on a team where he’s comfortable. He might not get the same minutes or linemates he did in the second half of last year as the Blues brought in some reinforcements around the trade deadline, but he is the type of player who can move up and down the lineup if he needs to. The hot streak he had to end the year probably helps his case. That said, Blais has yet to play a full NHL season because he plays like a bowling ball and will miss a lot of games with prolonged wear and tear.

Jake Neighbours

There were reasons to be optimistic about Jake Neighbours’ going into his rookie year. The Blues liked him enough to keep him around for a full nine-game audition the previous season & he fits the mold to be a good complementary piece on almost any line. He has great hands and can play the intense, forechecking game most coaches want from their energy line players. Things didn’t go as well as they hoped. Neighbours scored only 10 points, seven of which came during the month of January and struggled to find his niche at the NHL level. Injuries and demotions soon derailed his season. The NHL game doesn’t come easy to everyone and Neighbours is a good example of that. He was never projected to have a high offensive ceiling, but he never got a chance to show what he could do either, as his offense was limited to breakaways and turnovers. He showed some ability to play the checking game, but never really established himself as an impact player. He and the Blues are hoping next year goes better.


Justin Faulk

The nice thing about a defenseman like Justin Faulk is he can play whatever role you put him in at an adequate level. He wore a lot of hats in his early days with Carolina and has done the same with the Blues. Focusing on offense and helping the Blues transition game the last, Faulk has set career highs in points. His great wrister helps with that, as it’s common to see him score double-digit goals like he did last year. He has also been playing big minutes in the NHL since he was 19 years old and has gotten better with not making careless plays out of his own zone. Probably gets lost in the shuffle as one of the NHL’s better puck-moving defensemen. Can play the shutdown role and kill penalties but doesn’t defend entries well. He carries a lot of weight around and has a short reach, so he tends to get burned when going for the big hit or when he needs to turn. It’s something the Blues have worked around before, but it’s tougher to hide when the majority of their games are played off the rush. The Blues score a lot of goals when Faulk is on the ice, but they give up a lot as well.

Torey Krug

Nobody is ever going to confuse Torey Krug with a shutdown defenseman, but you can at least bank on his teams to score more goals than they give up. Last year was only the second time in his career where that didn’t happen, as the Blues owned only 45% of the 5-on-5 goals when Krug was on the ice. Every defenseman has a year like this and it’s a little more concerning when it happens after they turn 30, as that is the time most hit a wall. With Krug, it’s a little complicated. He was still a great puck-mover and the Blues best defenseman at producing scoring chances. The main thing that changed for him was he struggled mightily to retrieve pucks and handle forecheck pressure. This could just be age and injuries piling up, but Krug is usually a reliable player here and could not get to loose pucks with the same level of efficiency last year. Some players can work around this, but it is tough to adapt when this part of the game has been so easy for Krug his entire career. He also missed almost 20 games with injuries and saw a reduction in ice-time to the 18–19-minute range, his lowest since his early days in Boston.

Colton Parayko

Now two years removed from back surgery, the Blues don’t have any concerns about the durability of their cornerstone defenseman. The version of Parayko they’ll get for the next seven years, however, is something they might be worried about. In some cases, you can deal with a low-event defenseman who plays the minutes Parayko does, especially on a team as chaotic as last year’s Blues. It becomes more of a problem when that guy makes $6.5 million AAV until the year 2030. Parayko’s size and puck-handling will always make him a useful player. He just isn’t the same guy who could rush the puck out of the zone and be a threat to break the game open anymore. It’s an interesting development because the tougher parts of his game are the one thing that has held up post-surgery, while his offense and the more dynamic aspects have suffered. That and the Blues lacked a real shutdown guy all of last year and Parayko is the one guy who can fill that role by default. Things could be worse. The defensive strengths are still there, and the offense is at times, but the Blues are lacking a dominant top defenseman if this is the new normal for Parayko.

Nick Leddy

Looking at his profile, it might surprise some folks that Leddy has never been a great play-driver or someone who creates a lot of offense in volume. An effortless skater, Leddy is usually one of the top defensemen in the league at leading zone entries, translating this to tangible results has been a problem for most of his career. Part of it is because he isn’t the best at starting exits and needs a partner who can dig the puck out so he can skate it out of the zone after the first forechecker. He was able to put this to use with the Blues last year, as St. Louis scored at a decent clip with him on the ice. His skills as a passer definitely help a little. You might not create many chances with him on the ice, but the ones you get will be good. His issues as a defender, however, can be tougher to work around. He will often give forwards the blue line when they enter the zone and plays more of a shot-blocking role and someone who absorbs damage rather than kills plays. Leddy’s always been an interesting player to watch for this reason. Some defensemen can be best described as “minute eaters” and it’s a fitting description for the long-time Islander.


Jordan Binnington

There might not be another goaltender in the NHL that has the same track record of inconsistency that Jordan Binnington does. While his St. Louis predecessor Jake Allen has struggled throughout his career with up-and-down weeks during each season, Binnington’s rises and falls seem to follow entire seasons as he goes; he’s either an unstoppable force or an easy-to-goad replacement-level netminder with a hot head and a trigger-esque temper that throws his game into a tailspin. That makes it hard to tell just what St. Louis is gambling on this year; he’ll either be the underdog capable of playing to prove his doubters wrong, or he’ll be the former Stanley Cup Champion who insisted he had an unflappable personality but was all too easy to coax into costly mistakes after just a bad goal or two.

From a technical standpoint, Binnington has the ability to play a game that preaches crisp edgework and an almost bored-looking depth management style designed to rattle his opponents and prevent him from overcommitting to bad shots. But over the last two seasons, he’s also shown a side to his game that exaggerates his technique and pushes him out of position, allowing baffling goals that seem to rattle him more than they should. His game doesn’t rely on a smooth rhythm nearly as much as Allen’s does, so it’s a different problem in St. Louis right now – but as yet another year approaches, it’s hard not to wonder just why the Central Division club’s starters seem to be so easy to throw off their games.

Projected starts: 60-65