Going into the 2021-22 season, we knew the St. Louis Blues were going to be wonderfully deep. However, there were still some holdovers with veteran status that fans figured would be gifted spots.
The the credit of both Doug Armstrong and Craig Berube, they have done a great job of actually awarding guys jobs when they deserved it. They were impressed by Jake Neighbours during camp and said he would get at least nine games to earn a regular spot on the team.
Additionally, the team utilized the cap space given by Oskar Sundqvist‘s stay on Long Term Injured Reserve to give Klim Kostin a look. Kostin did not play the first game of the season, but got into the second.
While these are still early days, the Blues may be forced to cut ties with a veteran. Kostin and Neighbours may be here to stay.
We could go into all the old cliches. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Don’t count your chickens before their hatched.
Don’t go chasing rainbows when there may be no pot of gold at the end. I think I made up that last one, but you get the point.
The main idea is not to put too much on these guys when we have seen so little from them. As of writing this article, we are two games into a long season. Neighbours has played two NHL games. Kostin has one game in 2021-22 and just seven NHL games overall.
You don’t want to base reactions on small sample sizes. You also don’t want to think a guy has it all figured out prior to the rest of the league figuring out how to defend them.
Jordan Kyrou looked like a world beater when he got a permanent role. Then, due to fluctuating linemates and opponents that had an opportunity to scout him, he took a big dip in production. You could see the difference in style, regardless of goals.
So, you don’t want to do the same thing to two guys who have a combined three points in two games. However, there is something different about this situation.
The player they are holding out of the lineup is Kyle Clifford. While Clifford has more than proven his worth at the NHL level, he hit his peak prowess a long time ago. That peak is a sporadic fourth line player who can ascend to a third line player for a game or two if you are really hurt by injury.
The problem Clifford is going to run into from here on out is that the players we are talking about have third line talent already and have plenty of room to improve. If there is a decent sized arc of improvement, Neighbours could easily be a top six player. Kostin has plenty to prove, but the dynamic he brings is more than what Clifford can offer.
Clifford is a more old-school player. He’s there to hit, chirp, grind and score the occasional goal once in a blue moon. Kostin and Neighbours don’t have the chirp part down just yet, but they can do the other things and are much more likely to aid in your offense. Kostin has fought plenty in different leagues and Neighbours, even though just 19, has not shied away from trying to hit anyone.
The Blues game against Arizona was proof of the higher ceiling. You got two goals out of Kostin and an assist from Neighbours. Clifford has had seasons where he had six or fewer goals and these young men are capable of putting up numbers within one game.
Unfortunately, this all points to Clifford needing to explore options outside of St. Louis. If he is ok trying to clear waivers and report to the AHL, he would get to play a lot more often and could give valuable advice to the guys with the Springfield Falcons. If he feels he has NHL days ahead, he could ask for a trade or see if the Blues can void his contract.
One way or the other, unless St. Louis is bound and determined to send Neighbours back to juniors, it feels like Clifford is the odd man out. In theory, you could put Kostin in the minors, but the team needs to figure out what he can be. The St. Louis Cardinals went through this situation with their outfielders. The Blues have to know if they can live up to potential or if it’s time to part ways when the contract is done. You need more than just a month to figure that out.
What will put this decision under more of a timer is the eventual return of Sundqvist. The Blues have to clear cap room, so either Kostin, Neighbours or Clifford are going.
To the novice eye, it feels like there is little more Neighbours can prove. Similarly, if this guy can hang in the NHL the way he has, will it be damaging to his psyche if you send him back to a league where the oldest guys are 21 or 22?
Kostin could be the odd man out simply because he does not have to clear waivers. How much more can he show in the AHL?
The downside of parting with Clifford is that I don’t see him wanting to be an AHL vet just yet. He’s only 30.
Nobody wants to see him out of a job. He’s a character guy that you like in the locker room and he does exactly what the team asks of him. It’s just that when you have guys that do all those same things, plus have a much higher ceiling, there are only so many spots you can have on a roster.
Again, these are early days and the team is surely not going to Clifford to say he’s out. However, unless there’s a big dropoff over the next few weeks, Clifford’s days with the Blues are likely numbered.