As the St. Louis Blues’ 50th NHL season approaches in less than two weeks, the team could see plenty of new faces take the ice come Opening Night.
Mike Yeo’s first season as head coach already presents him with some turnover to work around as the Blues lost four players from their playoff roster in the offseason. Even more recently, the injury bug hit several skaters, giving prospects an extended look in training camp to fill the voids.
In the imminent future, two starting opportunities open up with veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Steen dealing with ankle and hand injuries respectively. Another forward could make the roster as an interchangeable scratch with Zachary Sanford expected to miss 5-6 months with a dislocated left shoulder. Patrik Berglund‘s spot also may also open up after he missed the start of training camp due to offseason shoulder surgy.
The Blues have been one of the NHL’s friendlier teams when it comes to rewarding prospects for training camp performances in recent years. Throughout the team’s stretch of six consecutive playoff runs, St. Louis has developed 11 homegrown prospects who eventually played in at least one playoff series.
This year’s set of prospects are already proving capable of new opportunities. Nearly half of the 51 training camp skaters who the Blues started with in training camp have not exceeded rookie limits. Samuel Blais has particularly impressed in training camp action on both wings already, making him one of the more likely candidates to crack the roster out of preseason.
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Blais has worked on lines with several Top 6 forwards from Vladimir Tarasenko and Paul Stastny in practice to Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn in gameplay. The experience with some of the team’s top scorers is crucial considering he finished with 26 goals, the second-most tallies with AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves last season.
Although Blais did not make The Hockey Writers’ Top 100 Prospect list for the season, his value may be measured more by what he offers to the Blues as opposed to a general hockey standpoint. Blais provides the Blues with agility and sniper qualities. That makes him a suitable substitute for Steen and the shifting line combinations represent a level of flexibility that takes time for younger players to develop.
Klim Kostin, who scored on a pass from Blais in the preseason opener, also makes for an intriguing roster option. The Blues traded Ryan Reaves to acquire this year’s final first-round draft pick selection from Pittsburgh. St. Louis gambled on Kostin despite coming off an injury-heavy year.
Kostin scored three goals in the Traverse City 2017 NHL Prospects Tournament earlier in September. His season will likely to start in the AHL given that he last played in December of 2016. However, the fact that he is only one of few pure right wings behind Tarasenko helps his case for a promotion later into the season.
It may be tougher for pure centers to crack a roster spot given that the team bolstered depth by acquiring Brayden Schenn in the offseason. However, Tage Thompson and Robert Thomas have both demonstrated puck possession and physical strength since the Traverse City tournament. Both could find more opportunities with a few centers set to hit free agency after this season.
The defensive front faces the opposite issue when it comes to depth. Other than captain Alex Pietrangelo, none of the active blue liners have been with the team more than three seasons. The temporary replacement for Bouwmeester will likely boil down to which young defenseman offers the best skating abilities and can adjust to NHL rush offenses fairly quickly.
One name that comes to mind is Jordan Schmaltz. He already saw some opportunity near the end of last season with injuries to Robert Bortuzzo. Schmaltz may have the upper edge to make the opening night roster because of his familiarity, where he potted a pair of assists in nine regular season games.
Dunn led all Wolves defenders with 45 points last season and he was the only defenseman to dress for both of St. Louis’s first two preseason games. Walman has improved in situational aspects and puck movement since last year, logging 24 minutes of action in the preseason opener.
While the Blues may only promote a few farmhands in advance of the season, several rising prospects instill confidence in the team’s system depth moving forward. St. Louis will trim its roster down to 23 players by the start of October.
Prospects have an opportunity to make an impression in six more preseason games that run through October 1. The Blues open the 2017-18 season against the Stanley Cup defending Pittsburgh Penguins on October 4.