Saturday, June 18, 2022

Grading the 2021-22 St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS -- Two seasons removed from their first Stanley Cup, the Blues were not content. In fact, they were hopeful of keeping pace and being a force in the Western Conference while their core players from that championship are still in their prime.

But two straight first-round exits from the playoffs wasn't acceptable, so the Blues set their sights in improving the product while not just being content on simply getting into the field. Advancement was a must.

Although the advancement was there in the 2021-22 season, and yes, winning one round doesn't sound like a tremendous amount of advancement, the Blues' path to the Cup this season was going to be a gauntlet, especially given the fact they were faced with the task of having to beat arguably the two best teams in the Western Conference, first the Minnesota Wild and then the Colorado Avalanche.

The Blues were very impressive in beating the 113-point Wild in six games in Round 1, but injuries to key players, including goalie Jordan Binnington, who was on top of his game in the playoffs when inserted into the lineup, prevented them from topping the 119-point Avalanche, another six-game series.

Opposing teams viewed the Blues' goaltending situation of one with admiration, considering they had not one, not two, but at times, three options to go to due to injury or inconsistent play with Binnington, the rise of Ville Husso and to an extent, Charlie Lindgren and Joel Hofer in a pinch from the minors.

The Blues were the most balanced scoring team in the league, producing a league-high nine players with 20 or more goals on the season and it showed with an average of 3.79 goals per game; only Florida (340), Toronto (315) and Colorado (312) scored more this season.

So with that in mind, general manager Doug Armstrong and the management have to feel good about knowing that they are right up there among the conference top teams and that their Cup window remains open. Changes will be made, that's inevitable, whether it be with their own pending free agents, bringing in others or through possible trade, but the task now is to see where management can take this team and go from here trying to keep this group within a Stanley Cup window. Time will tell, but with the 2021-22 season now completed, let's grade this season's Blues, the coaching staff and management (keep in mind these grades mostly reflect on the performances of the regular season with some influence on the playoffs):


Ivan Barbashev -- To call Barbashev's offensive output this past season a career year would be understating things just a bit. Talk about a coming out party. This wasn't even close. Barbashev shattered his career best in goals (26), assists) and points (60) in 81 regular-season games. His previous best in each category was 14 goals in 2018-19, 15 assists the following season and 26 points in each of those two seasons. Let's just say he eclipsed each number by a wide margin. Blues coach Craig Berube, who coached Barbashev in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves, said he wasn't surprised by Barbashev's offensive output. After all, he was touted as a scorer when he was drafted in the second round in 2014. And Barbashev was counted on, particularly earlier in the season, to provide offense playing up in the lineup. He was given chances to provide offense instead of being relied on in his recent customary fourth-line checking role. He had already scored 15 goals by his 38th game on Jan. 17. Barbashev was given a more prominent role on the power play, and nine of his 10 career power play points came this past season, along with four of his five career power play goals. With that, he shot the puck much more, a career best 111 times to be exact, and his 23.4 shooting percentage bested his previous career best in 2018-19 when he was 23.33 percent. Barbashev's face-off percentage did slip to 39.94 percent, which is the lowest since the 2017-18 season. However, it wasn't Barbashev's best showing in the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing with just two assists in 12 games. But what stands out about Barbashev's regular season was his ability to continue to be a physical presence while adding an offensive game to his repertoire; he led the Blues with 160 hits this season. Did he fizzle out in the playoffs inexplicably? Yes. But heck, he did lay a heavy lick on Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard, reminding everyone his physical nature that was a known commodity in winning the Stanley Cup in 2019. Barbashev's offense did wane a bit down the stretch, but it's hard to overlook what he hopes was his coming out party, and if he can duplicate anything that resembles it, it should boost his value for unrestricted free agency status in 2023.
My grade: B+

Tyler Bozak -- The veteran found himself in unfamiliar territory as the 2021-22 season was unveiling itself, without a contract, until Bozak and the Blues came to terms on a one-year, $750,000 deal that had attached to it performance bonuses that brought the average annual value to $2 million. It's no secret that Bozak is nearing the end of his career that brought changes to how the Blues were going to use the 36-year-old, primarily as a fourth-line center, penalty killer and occasional power-play specialist when injuries forced them to do so. Injury and COVID-19 played a part in Bozak being limited to 50 games in the regular season, and he finished with a career-low in goals (three), assists (nine) and points (12). Bozak scored twice in 12 playoff games this season, including the game-winner in Game 5 of the second round against Colorado that brought the series back to St. Louis for a Game 6. The point production dip was inevitable with the decreased minutes played going from an average of 17:27 time on ice to 12:10 this past season. One stat area where Bozak slipped was his face-off percentage, which fell to 45.22 percent, down from his 53.6 percent average over his 13-year career. What I will say about Bozak is he will give you what you need from him, and it was hard to pinpoint really any glaring deficiencies in his game. He continued to be a leader by example on and off the ice, not wowing anyone but not being a detriment with his play. He's a UFA again this summer, and I have to believe that if Bozak is to continue to his career, it will be somewhere else. But what a four-year run it was in St. Louis, helping the Blues win it all in 2019. In 2021-22, the bang for the buck was evident throughout, and if this is it in a Blues uniform for Bozak, he goes out a fine soldier.
My grade: B

Logan Brown -- When the Blues acquired another hometown kid to fulfill his dream of playing for not only the team he grew up rooting for, but helping solidify the Brown name after his father, defenseman Jeff Brown, donned the Bluenote for five seasons (1989-94). Brown was the 11th overall pick in a very St. Louis-flavored draft and has had a very large reputation to live up to, not only from his dad, but also from fellow area skaters taken in that draft, including Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, Trent Frederic and Joseph Woll. The Blues acquired Brown from the Ottawa Senators prior to the season for Zach Sanford. It was obvious things weren't working out with the Senators, so Brown needed a fresh start, and coming home seemed to revive him a bit. Although he didn't make the opening night roster, Brown would come up and play in 39 games for the Blues this season, a career-high and set career highs in goals (four) and points (11). When Brown played, whether it was up in the top nine or on a fourth-line role, there wasn't a ton of flash-and-dash, but there was some promise of what he can deliver with his 6-foot-6, 218-pound body. Can he me more effective in using that body along walls, winning more puck battles, protecting pucks more effectively in the offensive zone and be a bigger threat with the puck? Sure, but he is 24 and just got his real big taste of life in the NHL. It wasn't an off-the-charts first season with the Blues, who rewarded Brown with a one-year, $750,000 one-way contract on Feb. 8, but it was a start and perhaps with more NHL games under his belt, Brown's game can grow even more.
My grade: C+

Pavel Buchnevich -- This has to go down as one of the better trades by not only Doug Armstrong last off-season, but by any general manager. It was no secret that Buchnevich's stock was on the rise. He was coming off a 20-goal, 48-point season with the New York Rangers, his fifth, but in a cap-cost move, New York traded the rising Russian forward, and Armstrong was ready to pounce, only costing Sammy Blais and a second-round pick. Other than really one poor choice of a head butt early in the season at Arizona on Lawson Crouse that cost Buchnevich a two-game suspension, he had arguably the most complete season of any Blues player, not just forwards. Buchnevich set career highs in goals (30), assists (46) and points (76), but it wasn't just his ability to provide a viable top-six forward; he was able to get the job done 5-on-5, on the power play and kill penalties. He also set career highs in plus-minus (plus 29), power play goals (eight), power play points (19),  and shots on goal (199); he also scored two shorthanded goals, matched a career-high with four shorthanded points, scored three game-winning goals, including his first in OT. Coach Craig Berube used Buchnevich in virtually every situation. He thrived playing along side of plethora of forwards, including Vladimir Tarasenko, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Brayden Schenn, it didn't matter. Buchnevich gave the Blues everything they were looking for, and then some, when he arrived. His Corsi-for and against was a plus-60, his forced Fenwick was a plus-57. He had 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 12 playoff games, including seven (one goal, six assists) in the six games against the Avalanche. Perhaps the goals dried up in the postseason, but Buchnevich made his mark in many areas and was skating with David Perron and Ryan O'Reilly. The 27-year-old Buchnevich is signed for three more years at an AAV of $5.8 million, and if he matches or continues to ascend with his numbers like his first season in St. Louis, this guy can do some really special things. It's rare for me to find players so scintillating but I couldn't imagine a better first season with a new team and in a new conference. Some guys need adjusting to a change of not only scenery but in conferences, but Buchnevich never missed a beat. He had one four-game streak without a point and a season-high five-game streak without a point, but other than that, he was on the scoresheet regularly. A very impressive season.
My grade: A+

Jordan Kyrou -- Simply put, it was a breakout offensive season for the gifted forward. The 24-year-old gave Blues fans a sampling of what he is capable of offensively in 2020-21, then came this past season, and Kyrou broke out. He averaged over a point per game (75 points in 74 games) and established career highs in points, goals (27), assists (48), power play goals (five), power play points (19), game-winning goals (four) and shots (188). Oh, and Kyrou also became a first-time All-Star, the Blues' lone representative this season in Las Vegas, where he bested the lightning-fast Connor McDavid in the fastest skater competition. There's no denying when Kyrou is on, he's greasy fast and beat anyone 1-on-1 and can display a pretty wicked shot. His passing abilities can be described as underrated as well, a trait that adds to his offensive prowess, and makes Kyrou a multi-dimensional offensive weapon, as he displayed numerous times throughout the season. Kyrou started the season exceptionally strong, scoring 23 points in the first 22 games. Sure, there was a dip in production after the All-Star break, but he was gaining more notoriety, and opposing players were paying that much more attention to Kyrou. He came in strong in the playoffs, scoring seven goals and nine points in 12 games. As for his play without the puck and making right puck decisions at times, that's where his game needs to improve. Where Kyrou was vulnerable on a number of occasions was trying to make some of those high-risk plays with the puck and he'd either turn it over or get knocked off the puck leading to odd-man scoring chances the other way. He had a number of instances where his back-checking needed to be much better within the structure of the system the Blues play. Sure, he was a plus-10 on the season, but that number could be been much higher had there been more consistency playing a two-way game. There's no doubt Kyrou's game is trending in the right direction, and if he can simply clean up his two-way game, think of how much better he will be? But there's still some work left to be done there, and it was evidenced by Berube's willingness to play Kyrou down the lineup and fewer minutes when he wasn't up to standard. He's only 24 and will learn playing for this coaching staff.
My grade: B+

Ryan O'Reilly -- I can remember early in the season when fans were beginning to think O'Reilly's descend had started. After all, the captain had only five goals in his first 31 games, an uncommon marker for someone who had averaged over 18 goals a season in his first 12 seasons in the league. O'Reilly's just 31 years old, but he does have a lot of mileage in his skates from playing so many minutes and a two-way game. He led all Blues forwards in regular season ice time (19:05) and in the playoffs (21:24). But as slowly as O'Reilly's goal scoring started, a lot of that can be attributed to his slow overcoming of a bout with COVID-19, O'Reilly finished the season strong with 39 points and 16 goals from Jan. 7 on. He finished with 21 goals and 37 assists in 78 games and scored nine power-play goals, tying him for the second-best of his career, and his 56.8 percent on the face-off dot was among the league's best even though it was two percent off his percentage from 2020-21 but better than O'Reilly's 55.8 percent. I've watched O'Reilly now for four seasons here and quite honestly, they each reflect the other in pretty much the same light, aside from different numbers. The effort is always there, the passion is always there, the desire is always there, the energy, the ambition, it never changes. Such was the case again this season, and O'Reilly, playing with partner in crime David Perron, he was a point-per-game producer in 12 games (seven goals, five assists). O'Reilly's line, with Perron and Buchnevich, was tasked with defending Colorado's talented unit with Nathan MacKinnon and admirably for the most part, did a solid job. O'Reilly is, again, a guy that leads by example on the ice, not someone that's a yeller or screamer as far as captain duties are concerned. He has one year remaining on his contract and I don't see a reason why the Blues wouldn't entertain an extension at some point to keep him in St. Louis for the remainder of his career. He's really not showing any signs of slowing down from a leadership or effort standpoint, and sure, you'd like him in at least the 60-plus point range when all is said and done, but getting to where he was after a slower start isn't too shabby. 
My grade: A

David Perron -- The French Canadian that calls St. Louis his second home can be described in cliche form ... like a fine wine, just gets better with age. Perron's season started off really well, with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in his first 19 games before sustaining a concussion Nov. 26 in Chicago that kept him out of the lineup until Dec. 29. He then had a bout with COVID-19 in mid-January; he went a stretch of games of just one assist in 10 games and it was clear he was trying to get his bearings back from not only the concussion but from being drained from COVID. Once Perron got going again with a two-assist game against Toronto on Feb. 19, it was a torrid stretch to the finish with 35 points in 32 games to finish with 57 points, including 27 goals, which is second in his career to only his 28 in 2013-14 with Edmonton, in 67 games. Perron's 11 power-play goals were a career-high and his 26 power-play points is second only to his 27 in 2019-20 with the Blues. I think what impressed me about Perron's game this season more than anything was his ability to hold onto pucks and help the team sustain o-zone time. Not only is he the best at doing that on this team, he may be arguably one of the best at holding off opposing defenders in the league. His game has grown by leaps and bounds in that area, as has his ability to defend. He still took a few too many penalties for my liking, 48 minutes worth to be exact and at inopportune times, but for all the good things Perron was able to do, including be a good leader in the locker room, some things can be overlooked. Perron just finished a four-year, $16 million contract and can become an unrestricted free agent July 13. The Blues have maintained they'd like him back, he has a willingness to finish his career where it started. There may be some bumps in the road to get there, but for how well-rounded his game was and continues to be considering he has 15 years under his belt, there are no signs of wear and tear in his body. Only concern I would have, unfortunately, is the multiple concussions. Perron takes those seriously, as he should, and you just hope for his sake that doesn't derail his career. But this was a fun player to watch all year, and to see him persevere after the early challenges, it was a very deserving and successful season. It should culminate and parlay into another, and perhaps, last contract in St. Louis.
My grade: A+ 

Brandon Saad -- The second of Armstrong's off-season acquisitions, signing the 29-year-old to a five-year, $22.5 million contract ($4.5 million AAV), brought more reinforcements to a well-balanced forward group who had a very solid season in his first year in St. Louis. Saad, who Blues fans knew well from his days with the Chicago Blackhawks before he moved on through trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets, then with the Avalanche last season, finished with 49 points (24 goals, 25 assists) in 78 games, each stat his highest since 2016-17 with the Blue Jackets. His plus-11 rating was also his highest since the 2016-17 season, his power-play goals (eight) and power-play points (13) each is a career-high. Saad was one of those guys Berube would move up and down the lineup and the line didn't seem to miss a beat. He's not a guy that jumped off the charts in any particular category, but whatever role the Blues needed him to perform in, he did it well, whether it be a netfront presence, filling a role on special teams, moving up and down the lineup. Didn't matter. Moving forward, what I would like to see from Saad is more balanced scoring, meaning when he was on or when he was hot, he produced, but scoring in just 21 of the 87 games he played in, I'd like to see that number closer to 30. He shows all the positive traits that a goal scorer can produce, being around the net, making plays around the net and whatnot. The fact the Blues were able to get Saad on a $4.5 million AAV is good value, and so far, the bang for the buck is on par. As good as Saad's first season in St. Louis was, I can see a bigger role, and better results, moving forward.
My grade: B+

Brayden Schenn -- Watching Schenn from the press box for the past five seasons, with each passing year since he arrived in St. Louis five years ago, you get a bigger and more of an appreciation for just how well-rounded of a player he truly is. When Schenn first arrived in St. Louis in 2017, I was thinking how the Blues just acquired this offensive talent that simply needed a change of scenery and who would fit into the fabric of who the Blues were. Well, if one didn't get an appreciation for who Schenn is as a player this season, you may never do so. Not only did the 30-year-old perform at near a point per game player (58 points on 24 goals, 34 assists in 62 games) but he did so playing with and through injuries that would make anyone cringe doing so in such a sport. Even though Schenn had to miss a total of 20 regular-season games, he at times played through broken ribs, which he had on three separate occasions and a torn oblique -- and still was able to produce. Schenn centered a top two line, but when needed, he's versatile enough to move to the wing, mostly with Ryan O'Reilly, in order to jumpstart a particular line. The guy plays with such an edge, it's one of those situations where if you're his teammate, you'd want to run through a brick wall for him because he'd do the same for you. He was second on the team in hits (110) and was a wrecking ball in the playoffs, with a team-leading 44 hits while averaging over 18 minutes per game but his scoring suffered in the process with just eight assists in 12 games but no goals, which Schenn admitted he needed to produce more. But I think to a fault, not of his, the Blues have him doing more of the physical play than needed instead of allowing Schenn to do what he does best offensively, but that's a conversation for another day. I thought Schenn bounced back well after what would be considered a subpar offensive year the previous season (16 goals, 20 assists in 56 games); he produced 22 more points in just six more games played. The face-off percentage slipped to 49.1 percent after a career year the previous season at 52.3 percent but still higher than his career average of 47.4 percent. I liked Schenn's season and it fit well into what the Blues needed from him. The Blues are going to have to get someone in here that can allow him to scale back on the physical nature of his game so he can be more of a force offensively.
My grade: A

Vladimir Tarasenko -- It's pretty easy where to start with this one: last off-season, and the trade demand out of St. Louis. It was hard to predict that Tarasenko would play for the Blues ever again after finishing out last season's playoffs and ensuing trade demand, or the fact he was exposed to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft but was never chosen, and when Armstrong decided that he was not going to trade Tarasenko at that time, nobody knew what the Blues were going to get after the plethora of shoulder surgeries he had since 2017. What in the heck were the Blues going to get for their $7.5 million AAV disgruntled star? Well, how does 34 goals and a career-high 82 points in 75 games sound? The capabilities were there, based on Tarasenko's previous seasons in which he reached 30-plus goals in a season five straight times, including 40 in 2015-16, but he was completely healthy then. He only scored five power-play goals, which tells you Tarasenko scored when games mattered, at the 5-on-5 level or even when the Blues were faced with a sixth attacker and they were ahead. His 22 power-play points was the most since he also had 22 in 2018-19, and he scored a career-high nine game-winning goals. He finished with six goals and three assists in 12 playoff games. Having Buchnevich, Robert Thomas and Barbashev primarily as linemates really seemed to invigorate the 30-year-old. But the offense aside, what really struck me was Tarasenko's growing willingness to play both sides of the puck, a part of his game that was really inconsistent. He applied himself defensively and physically more so than he had in the past. Was it there every game? No, but it was quite evident more times than not, and he really stood out in those games, because it seemed like when he applied himself in those areas, he made a number of key plays that contributed to wins just as much as being involved in the scoring. I give Tarasenko a lot of credit for coming in and not being a distraction all things considered what happened last off-season; he came in and found himself at the heart of Blues fans and in a sense, re-won the affections of those that didn't take too kindly for the way he wanted out of the city. Tarasenko has one year remaining on his contract. Will he want out again? I doubt he'll be as eager to do so after things went as well as they did this season and St. Louis has been his entire NHL home, but you never know; he could be part of a trade the Blues can't refuse. Do the Blues entertain extending him beyond next season, given his shoulder history? Those will be questions that must be addressed, but Tarasenko more than proved he could overcome some serious injuries and he himself again.
My grade: A

Robert Thomas -- We all knew what Thomas was going to be when he burst onto the scene four years ago and was part of the Blues' Stanley Cup-winning squad in 2019. That was then, and fans were wondering just when the now 22-year-old would have his breakout season. Well, how does 20 goals and a team-high 57 assists in 72 regular-season games strike you? Pretty darn good, if you ask me. Thomas set career highs in goals, assists, points (77), plus-minus (plus-17), power-play goals (three), power-play points (14), shorthanded goals (two), shorthanded points (three), game-winning goals (six), shots on goal (115) and face-off percentage (49.9 percent). O'Reilly is still considered the Blues' top center, but Thomas is right there with him, if there already hasn't been a bit of the passing of the torch already. Thomas had more responsibilities this season than he had in his previous three. How many times did Berube have Thomas on the ice taking important d-zone draws when games were hanging in the balance? That's usually been reserved for O'Reilly, but getting a consistent top line role was something Thomas wanted and got, and he thrived in it well. He finished with six points (two goals, four assists) in 12 playoff games and had some tough lessons laid on him when those games were on the line and he was a focal point of the opposition. Thomas is one of the most skilled playmakers the Blues have had since Adam Oates wore the Bluenote, and that says a lot. Thomas arguably may even be better at finding that near impossible pass that he often made to teammates, whether it be Tarasenko, Buchnevich, Kyrou, whoever. The guy is gifted at it and it was on display plenty and often during the season. I mentioned the 115 shots on goal are a career-high, so that's a positive step, but could he shoot it more. For sure. There were still many times where Thomas would still defer and look to make the extra pass when shooting opportunities presented themselves, but it's obvious that he got better at it with the 20 goals. I thought Thomas did a much better job of making the right decisions with pucks on the offensive zone and kept it instead of giving it away or getting knocked off pucks more consistently this season. His two-way game was much better, but like any younger player, had some inconsistent moments there. But overall, it was a really solid season, and the direction Thomas is going in makes him a cornerstone piece of this organization for many years to come.
My grade: A 

Alexei Toropchenko -- At his media briefing during last year's Blues prospect camp, director of player development Tim Taylor made mention that he felt like Toropchenko had the tools to be an NHL player and he wouldn't be surprised to see him with the Blues this past season. From my perspective at the time, I thought it was just the proper thing to say about one of the team's prospects. I had seen Toropchenko during training camp and kept thinking this will be a project but down the road somewhere. Then he made his NHL debut in Dallas on Dec. 13 and came away impressed. At 6-6, 222, not only did he have the physical nature that one needs, but the 22-year-old Russian brought a speed element to his game that was impressive. And he just kept getting better and better ... so good that Berube didn't waste any time inserting Toropchenko into the lineup at the start and throughout the Blues' playoff run. Forget the numbers for a second, even though they matter (two goals in 28 regular-season games) and a minus-9 on the season, along with two assists in 12 playoff games, this kid had a high-octane motor that would never quit. Even when the Blues weren't playing well and it was evident they would lose on a particular night, Toropchenko's game never wavered. He played like he had something to prove on each and every shift, and in a sense, he did. He wanted to prove that he belonged in the NHL. I'd say he did that and then some. Barring something drastically changing, this kid's AHL days are done. Once he adds a little bit of offensive pop to his game, and that will come with continued experience, he is going to make a very nice bottom six forward that the coaching staff will not hesitate moving up should someone need a wake-up call if they're not performing up to par. Will there be growing pains as Toropchenko goes along? Sure, but the pros I've seen throughout his short stint this past season lead me to believe he's ready for this.
My grade: A+ 

Nathan Walker -- OK, one more time: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi oi oi! You could probably hear it from Enterprise Center all the way Down Under when Walker made his season debut Dec. 9 against the Detroit Red Wings ... and promptly scored his first NHL hat trick. The 28-year-old has been down this road before and often, four previous seasons with three organizations (Washington, Edmonton and St. Louis) trying to become a regular in the NHL. His persistence finally paid off this season playing in 30 of his 55 regular-season games and ending with 12 points (eight goals, four assists) to go with four games in the postseason, and two of those goals were his first two game-winners in the league. Walker is undersized by today's NHL standards, but he can pack quite a wallop for being 5-9, 187. Not only did he add a scoring touch playing mostly a fourth-line role occasionally moved up when needed but his willingness to forecheck and play hard at both ends of the ice. It was going to be tough to keep Walker off the Blues' radar this season after he put up 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) in Springfield. Like any other player, there were games that weren't impactful and minutes became limited, but those were usually ones in which the Blues were chasing games and their top-end guys were on the ice more. I think Walker did enough this season to at least get a good look at making the roster out of camp in September. Was it a knock-your-socks-off kind of season for him? No. Was it solid? Yes.
My grade: B 

Dakota Joshua -- Another in line of Blues young forwards trying to make an imprint on his NHL career after being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs. After making his NHL debut last season and playing in 12 games, Joshua upped the ante and made it into 30 games this past season and supplied three goals and five assists with two game-winning goals, his first ones in the NHL, and a plus-6 rating to go with a solid 53.3 percent mark on face-offs. At 6-3, 206, Joshua is a grit and energy type of player that brought that physical element to his game, and even dropped the gloves on two occasions when needed. That's the kind of player he has to be with the occasional ability to supply some offense when needed in order to make it at this level. He was one of those persistent guys that the Blues brought back up when injury or COVID-19 warranted recalling a forward in the limited minutes he would get on a nightly basis. Did he improve himself over his first season getting only 12 games? Sure. The Blues trusted putting him in the lineup even more, and now he's a big part of Springfield's run to the Calder Cup Final hoping to give the Blues' AHL affiliate their first title there since moving to Massachusetts.
My grade: B

Klim Kostin -- I remember when Kostin -- finally -- was going to start the season in St. Louis, that this was one player who had a lot to prove and would be the one, if anyone did, that would finally be able to solidify his stance after putting in the time and work not only in the minors but overseas trying to build his game up to be an every day NHL player. Kostin was given every opportunity to thrive; he played in 40 games this season, which is a big step considering he played in just six games previously over two seasons. And when he scored twice in his season debut Oct. 18 at Arizona, I thought he was going to ascend from there. There continued to be moments where you'd think he's finally getting it, he's finally getting what he needs to do to make it at this level, and that's playing a power forward type of game that plays in straight lines, a north-south kind of game and use that big, powerful 6-3, 215-pound body of his. But it was just too inconsistent for me and the coaching staff, and when he played in what would be his final game this season here March 6 at New Jersey and was a minus-2 in just 4:03 ice time, the Blues sent him to Springfield and that was it. Kostin finished with nine points (four goals, five assists) this season in St. Louis, and he's a part of Springfield's run now, the second straight season in which he will be playing for a championship after helping Avangard Omsk win the Gagarin Cup in the KHL last season. I really think the Blues are at a crossroads with Kostin, even though he is just 23 years old but has played at the pro level in North America now for five years. I still believe that he if he understands what his strengths are and applies those to his game, he can be, at his best, a top-nine forward best suited for perhaps a third-line role. The guy's a bowling ball when he plays with a physical edge. That's what makes his game so good to me. The Blues tried to use Kostin up the lineup but he played more of a east-west game and it didn't work, a big reason why they optioned him to the AHL again. I really don't think Kostin helped himself this season much, and he's going to have to prove himself even more going into camp next season if he gets consideration.
My grade: D

James Neal -- For the first time in his 14-year career, the 34-year-old veteran Neal was without an NHL contract. It's not the first time a veteran who feels he still has game left has to go into a camp on a tryout basis, which is what Neal did with fellow veteran Michael Frolik in St. Louis. And Neal, who was coming off a tough COVID-related season in Edmonton with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 19 games, performed well enough in camp and preseason to earn himself a one-year contract with the Blues. Neal was given some early chances to play up in the lineup, and he even scored in his third game and scored his second of the season in the eighth game at San Jose. Nobody was expecting him to be the 20-30 plus goal scorer he was in Nashville or the 40-goal scorer he was in 2011-12 in Pittsburgh. He was given some power play time as the netfront presence and was able to get a power-play goal and two points. But it eventually became a numbers game, and the Blues put Neal on waivers, eventually sent him to Springfield and he at first reluctantly went down and didn't play another NHL game after Jan. 15 and has since been a part of the Thunderbirds' inspirational run to the Calder Cup Final. I don't think Neal was really any detriment to the team, but with guys like Toropchenko, Walker and Joshua particularly ones that the team wanted to give looks to coming up from the AHL and those players doing enough to stick around, Neal wasn't an option. Am I surprised he was never called back up again? Yes, to a certain extent, but it wasn't like he was lighting it up here. Neal wasn't great, he wasn't below average. He was right smack in the middle with his play. He'll be a free agent again July 13 and I wouldn't expect him back in the organization, and he will probably have to go through the tryout process again if he wishes to stay in the league. He does get some credit for earning his way on this past season.
My grade: C

Mackenzie MacEachern -- In his previous three seasons, MacEachern had been somewhat of a mainstay with the Blues, used exclusively as a fourth-line winger. One would have thought he'd be one of the extra forwards coming out of training camp this past season, not with certainty but pretty close. But instead, he was put on waivers for the purpose of being send to Springfield with the rise of some younger forwards, and Neal being one of those to grab one of the final roster spots, the 28-year-old was on the outside looking in despite playing on a $900,000 one-way contract. And MacEachern went to Springfield and performed well, totaling 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 47 games but could never seen to get the recall early enough. He finally was called up in early March and made his season debut March 8 against Ottawa and played 14 games (two assists) before sustaining an upper-body injury April 8 against Minnesota. MacEachern didn't do anything to get himself pulled from the lineup, but the injury kept him out and he was never able to get back in and didn't see any time in the playoffs. When he did play up here, he did what he had to do to stick in the lineup, play physical, check and defend. Nothing flashy, nothing special. Simple but effective. Not he'll be an unrestricted free agent and no telling what happens. 
My grade: C

Jake Neighbours -- I'm not going to give the Blues' first-round pick in 2020 a grade because he only played in nine games, but what I will say about those nine games in which Neighbours scored his first NHL goal and added an assist was that this kid will be here in the not-too-distant future. If not next season, then in 2023-24 for sure. I like the fact this kid has skill but isn't afraid to play with sandpaper in his game, which will be essential as he moves forward. It speaks volumes that he was named captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League when the Blues sent him back to juniors for the season. He was well-liked here in St. Louis and will continue to grow on his journey to the NHL, which won't be too far off.
My grade: incomplete

Robert Bortuzzo -- For a guy that plays third d-pairing on a regular basis and averages 13-14 minutes a night (13:44 to be exact) like Bortuzzo did this past season, can you name anyone else in that role that puts his body on the line like the man his teammates call 'Bobbo' does? No, the 33-year-old 6-3, 216-pound Bortuzzo won't be up there with the league leaders in shots blocked; that's because he doesn't play 20-25 minutes a night like some of those guys do, but for the time he averaged per game this past season, Bortuzzo's 98 blocked shots were the most. As a matter of fact, the next closest person in average ice time (Nashville's Mark Borowiecki) played 13:07 and finished with 79 blocks. The guy is a shot-blocking machine, whether it's Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews or Leon Draisaitl. It doesn't matter. Bortuzzo is laying his body on the line, and don't think for a second a Blues goalie doesn't love this man for it. I don't even know why I bring up Bortuzzo's offensive numbers but he did have a goal and five assists in 73 games. That's not his game. But shutting down the opposition and being an effective penalty killer is what he is asked to do, and being a part of the second-best regular season penalty killing unit (88.2 percent) was a big reason why the Blues finished with 109 points. Bortuzzo's not the fastest skater on the blue line, not by a long shot, so he makes up for it by being a PK specialist and playing a physical, hard-nosed, sandpapery brand of hockey. He'll take the occasional ill-timed penalty just because he doesn't have the speed that some skaters do, but you'll take that risk for the good things he does. Bortuzzo resigned for two seasons at $950,000 per season and will being tremendous value at that contract. He knows he's not long for this league anymore, and took a reduced pay cut to stay somewhere where he is comfortable with and can contribute in what the Blues need it. 
My grade: B+

Justin Faulk -- I'd love to see the faces of the Faulk critics now. I can remember the hate spewed towards him, especially in his first season here in 2019-20, and I can remember telling many of them to be patient; Faulk will be worth the value once he gets completely acclimated to a new team, a new conference and an entirely new system. Faulk has his best all-around season here in St. Louis this past year, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, he finished with 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 76 games, his highest point total since a career-high 49 with Carolina in 2015-16; his goal total was his highest since a career-hgih 17 with the Hurricanes in 2016-17 and his assists were his most since 34 also in 15-16. His plus-41 was a career-high by 30 (11 last season) and was tied for sixth in the NHL in that category, and a lot of his production came at even strength, and his six game-winning goals was a career-high. He would finish with one goal and seven assists in 12 playoff games. Faulk was second on the team in ice time (23:12) and was usually on the ice when it came down to playing a shutdown role, which he did well against the oppositions top players. He was second on the team in blocked shots (101) and was also an important piece to the second-best PK. Playing with either Torey Krug or Nick Leddy primarily didn't affect Faulk much. He was a 'Steady Eddie' on the blue line no matter who his partner was. He was shooting more pucks (167 shots on goal this season) and he was playing a hard-nosed brand of hockey in his own end. Faulk came to St. Louis as an offensive-minded d-man to one that has adapted well to giving up the power play time he had with the Hurricanes, although he was used in that role more this year out of necessity, and didn't mind it at all. Faulk set a precedent for how well he can play and finally has adapted to the Western Conference and Blues style of play after spending eight years in Carolina and the Eastern Conference. It's going to be hard to top how well-rounded he played this season here. It's no coincidence he was the Blues' best defenseman this season.
My grade: A+

Torey Krug -- Injury and COVID limited Krug to 64 games in his second season in St. Louis, but it was an improvement nonetheless. He finished with 43 points (nine goals, 34 assists) and had another three assists in three playoff games before he was forced out due to a lower-body injury in Game 3 of the first round against Minnesota, and the Blues sorely missed the 31-year-old. Krug is viewed as a power-play specialist who quarterbacked the Blues' top unit and helped it become the second-best PP in the league at 24.9 percent. His guidance and vision of setting up teammates, whether it be Perron or Tarasenko in either circle made the Blues a tough out on special teams. He finished with an NHL career-best plus 23 and had 19 power play points, six better than the previous season and was fourth among Blues skaters in average ice time (20:34) and blocked 70 shots this season. Penalty minutes were up (48), which were the most in any season, and you'd like that reduce some of those defensive zone penalties he took, but his defensive game was better overall that his previous season. He and Faulk played with good chemistry until the injuries unfortunately played a role. Krug is not going to be a guy that constantly boxes out opponents in front of the net; at 5-9, 194, it's tougher to accomplish. I'm thinking with a full 82 games, Krug could have pushed for his career-high in points with 59. It would have been tough, but you still think he has a chance in this offense. He was close, according to Berube, to returning to the playoffs against Colorado, but heading into his third season here, like Faulk, he's in line to put up even better numbers moving forward. Some room for improvement but solid season overall.
My grade: B+

Nick Leddy -- He may not have been the splashiest acquisition at the trade deadline this year, but the Blues got the guy they wanted, filling in a need to be sure and Leddy fit in well when the Blues picked him up from Detroit for Oskar Sundqvist and Jake Walman. Leddy played 20 games and finished with two goals and six assists, not exactly eye-popping offensive numbers, but that's not why he was brought in. He was brought in to help stabilize a blue line that needed someone from the left side to help anchor some of those top minutes, and he did it well playing with Faulk and Colton Parayko. I remember Leddy from his days with the Chicago Blackhawks and always thought of how composed his game always was. Well, it was no different in his time here. Puck retrievals were so calm and composed, puck distribution was nearly flawless, and puck transition from defense to offense made this blue line much, much better. Leddy, 31, had a goal and four assists in nine playoff games, including the opening goal in the series-clinching win over Minnesota in the first round; he missed Games 2-4 of the series with a concussion sustained in the series-opener. I've mentioned 'Steady Eddie' before, but let's just call him 'Steady Leddy.' It's not easy to go from a team out of the playoffs and jump into a room with players that have high expectations on a whim, although it may have seemed easier for Leddy because he's been down this road before, with the Blackhawks and New York Islanders, and playoff experience is nothing new for him. Leddy is set to become a UFA on July 13, and true, it will be hard for the Blues to try and keep him coming off a $5.5 million AAV contract, but if they can somehow finagle this, he'd be worth keeping to have left side depth with Krug, Niko Mikkola, Marco Scandella and Scott Perunovich. but if they're able to keep Leddy, it is my understanding the Blues will try and move someone (Scandella?). I really liked what Leddy brought to the Blues.
My grade: A

Niko Mikkola -- If there's one player that I thought should, and needed to, make strides this season, this was the one. The 26-year-old, at 6-4, 209 pounds, really took some big strides in his overall development within the organization. I thought he brought a physical edge to his game and closed out plays much better than in the past. He followed up a 30-game season by playing in 55 for the Blues this past season and scored three goals and added 10 assists; he had a penchant for jumping up in the plays offensively on occasion that showed some flashes of offense, which was an added bonus. Mikkola played up and down the pairings, but really thrived when he was with Parayko. Those are tough minutes to play, and Mikkola was growing into his role playing against top forwards, and he had his moments too, which is natural. He averaged 16:59 per game this season, and those are good minutes for a d-man, especially a second-year man and blocked 81 shots. He was also an effective penalty killer part of that No. 2 unit in the league. Mikkola did take some bad penalties this season at times and had 55 minutes worth of them, which is too many for playing in 54 games. He's going to need to cut some of those down moving forward, because when Berube healthy-scratched Mikkola this season, penalties were usually one of the primary reasons why. Mikkola did play in all 12 playoff games and was up and down the lineup depending on who was out. I still think there's room to grow his game, but from a draft pick position and a player the Blues have chosen to grow, Mikkola has himself on the right path and had all in all, a pretty solid season. He's a restricted free agent and arbitration-eligible, so one would have to think a pay raise is in order. How much will be the question.
My grade: B

Colton Parayko -- Probably the most gratifying thing for the Blues heading into this season was the health of Parayko, who was limited to 32 regular-season games last season with back issues. But Parayko was back and playing healthy, dressing in 80 games this season and led the Blues in average ice time (23:34) and tied for fifth in the NHL with 169 blocked shots, or 2.1 blocks per game. Look, I know people want to dump on the 29-year-old. He didn't have a great game in the series-ending loss to the Avalanche, that's a given. So let's just get it out of the way, and he had games this season that were very un-Parayko-like. When he wasn't on, turnovers in the d-zone and netfront coverage seemed to be the issue; he had a career-high 53 giveaways. But when he was on, Parayko was his usual puck-moving self who got in on the rush, helping create offense, moved pucks up the ice with ease and fluidity and was the best on the team at killing opposition plays. There was much more of that than anything else. He finished the season a career-high tying 35 points (six goals, 29 assists) and was a plus-16 with two game-winning goals. There was a time where Parayko was a minus-10 on the season, so he really came on from just before the midpoint on and really improved on that number. He had five points (two goals, three assists) in 12 playoff games and was a plus-5. Parayko has had the magnifying glass on him since Alex Pietrangelo departed via free agency to receive the torch as the No. 1 defenseman on this team. Maybe he's more of a 1A-1B type of a guy, or a No. 2? Remember the partnership and shutdown capabilities he and Jay Bouwmeester had together? In all fairness, Parayko never got settled in with any one or two particular partners. Do I still think Parayko needs to shoot the puck more? Yes. It could help perhaps if he was used on the point on the power play. He got some time there down the stretch and into the playoffs. Would you like to see him with more of a mean streak? Of course. At 6-6, 228, think of how he could bully guys around, but we've come to grips that's not his game. And at 29, it probably won't be in the long run, but as an entire body of work, I thought Parayko had a better season than many fans are giving him credit for. 
My grade: B+

Marco Scandella -- If you picture a yo-yo, or a roller coaster that never ends, picture the veteran 32-year-old's play. It can be up one moment, down the next. I thought Scandella had a really good start to the season, playing big minutes and even had four assists through the first six games. Scandella played more than 20 minutes in each of his first seven games and 11 of 12. But then some of the inconsistencies started, and Scandella was exposed by d-zone turnovers and blown coverage. His minutes diminished and his play suffered for stretches. It's pretty simple for Scandella: make good, smart puck decisions, and he usually played well. He would play physical and be able to kill off plays well. But I remember many of his turnovers were in the back of the net real quick, and that got fans -- rightfully so -- pretty upset. The 34 giveaways were his most since 44 in 2019-20 with three teams (Buffalo -- 11, Montreal -- 25, and St. Louis -- 8) Scandella had three goals and 11 assists, his highest point total in a season since 22 with the Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17 but played in just four playoff games due to a lower-body injury suffered in the second-to-last regular season game. He actually was playing well down the stretch, perhaps because not as much was thrusted on his plate playing third d-pairing. The Blues could be at a crossroads with his contract moving forward, which has two years remaining at $3.275 million moving forward. Armstrong is not one to buy out contracts -- he never has to this date -- and is unlikely to do so here. He could be offered up for trade or the Blues keep him moving forward. It can go either way. It's hard to predict what kind of player Scandella can be moving forward, just like it was hard to predict his play this past season. When he was good, he was good. When he was bad, he was bad. Nothing really in the middle, so it all balances itself out.
My grade: C-

Scott Perunovich -- When the 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner started this season down in Springfield and was setting a blaze of fire on the ice for the Thunderbirds, the question wasn't would the the 5-10, 175-pound 23-year-old make it in the NHL this season but when. Perunovich put up 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) through Springfield's first 12 games and carved a blazing trail as fast as he could to St. Louis. He got his first NHL point in his second game against San Jose on Nov. 18 and finished with six assists in 19 regular-season games. But once again, Perunovich was struck by the injury bug, this time a wrist injury Jan. 15 against Toronto that shut him down the remainder of the regular season before he appeared in seven playoff games, the first in Game 4 against the Wild in the opening round, and had four assists. It's evident by the few games I got to watch Perunovich that he's slick with the puck, fluid, smooth, a pinpoint passer of the puck. When Krug went down, he stepped in and was given the utmost confidence to run the top power play unit, and that's where he recorded his four playoff points. He ran the point well. But it's evident he has plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the puck. There were two glaring examples of getting caught on a pinch, leaving his d-partner exposed for an odd-man rush in the postseason. Being a smaller guy, he's going to have to learn how to break pucks out without getting clobbered or hemmed in by these bigger, faster forwards that are on top of you quick. He has the offensive gifts, that's evident. He hasn't scored yet, but he has a very deceptive shot and looks to get those point wristers through to the net to, if anything, create rebounds. He just needs games to keep improving his defensive game and that will come. The offensive game has been decent at this level; the defensive game ... OK at best.
My grade: C+

Calle Rosen -- A 28-year-old journeyman who the Blues didn't think in their wildest dreams they'd have to recall and play an integral role for a stretch of games, Rosen did some admirable work in his short stint in St. Louis this season. Prior to this season, he played in a total of 20 games in three seasons for Toronto and Colorado and had a goal and four assists. In 18 games this season for the Blues, he had seven points (two goals, five assists); he didn't register a point in nine playoff games but was called upon to play important minutes with injuries to Krug, Leddy, Bortuzzo and Scandella in the postseason. It's the first time I had the chance to see Rosen play and teammates like Bozak, who played with Rosen in Toronto, backed him up that he's a solid skater and reads the play smartly when jumping into an offensive zone rush. Yes, there were times Rosen was exposed, and he was one of the unfortunate players involved in the play that knocked Jordan Binnington out for the playoffs, but I'd have to say in his small sample size window of solid play, Rosen earned himself the new contract he signed on June 1, a two-year, two-way contract. That's not an easy situation to be called in and patch up and play when the Blues were down, but Rosen did a solid job with it. Now it's back in Springfield trying to help the Thunderbirds win a Calder Cup.
My grade: B

Jordan Binnington -- The way Binnington's regular season was going, and it wasn't going very well, you had to wonder if he was going to be a starting goalie with the Blues again despite the size of his contract and the way his partner, Ville Husso, stepped in and basically wriggled the No. 1 job away from him. Let's face it, Husso earned the job. Binnington was 18-14-4 in 37 games. His 3.13 goals-against average was unacceptable by his and by a top-end starter's standards, and a .901 save percentage simply wasn't good enough. In 17 of his first 24 appearances, he allowed three or more goals and in 10 of those games, allowed four or more. That's not going to give your team many chances to win in today's game. There are games where a goalie is hung out to dry, and in a number of cases, the Blues did hang Binnington out to dry, but he also didn't help himself. He allowed goals that simply shouldn't have gone in, his confidence wavered and it lasted for quite some time. Meanwhile Husso was taking command of the net, Binnington was left to work with goalie coach Dave Alexander to try and figure out what was going on with his game, but it wasn't until he had a rock solid four-game set down the stretch where it looked like Binnington was back to his old form. But it wasn't until he was inserted into Game 4 of the first round against the Wild that Binnington caught fire, a former self of his playoff performance of 2019, that brought out that oozing confidence again. When the Blues were down 2-1 in the series against the Wild, Binnington shut it down winning three straight and stopping 83 of 88 shots faced. Against the Avalanche, he was well on his way too. He was the sole reason Game 1 was within reach to win when he made 51 saves in a 3-2 OT loss, then was sharp again, stopping 30 of 31 in a 4-1 win in Game 2. But then when he was run over by Nazem Kadri early in Game 3, it ended Binnington's season with a left knee injury. He was 4-1 with a sparkling 1.72 GAA and .949 save percentage. That's more like the guy that signed the five-year, $30 million contract in 2021. Binnington is 28 and hitting the prime years of his career. If that was a slumping patch he had to work through, he and the Blues have to hope and feel it's behind him with this recent stretch of play. I've seen this guy at a confident level. You don't win a Cup without feeling it, but he had to have tested his own mental fortitude with the way he was playing earlier in the season, and it wasn't near good enough. If I were grading this on playoff merit alone, Binnington would get an A+. But even when he was winning games in the regular season, a potent offense was giving him enough goal support to win without his best. The superb play in the playoffs is just a small sample size compared to the regular season, so ... 
My grade: C

Ville Husso -- Did anyone see that coming? Certainly not me. But what Husso did more than anything with his performance this season was set himself up nicely for his next contract, whether it be here or someplace else, because as of July 13, he can hit the open market, and there will be a demand for starting goalies. The 27-year-old came in as the clear-cut backup to Binnington, who would get the occasional spot start and play roughly 25-30 games. For the first two months of the season, Husso made seven appearances, which is common. But then he had to deal with a groin injury that sidelined him four weeks. From January 13th on, it was turning into his show. Starting with a Jan. 7 start, he had allowed two or fewer goals in eight of 10 appearances, and it was obvious the Blues weren't pleased with Binnington's play, so Berube started giving Husso more games. And the more games he played, the better he got. He finished the regular season 25-7-6 with a respectable 2.56 GAA and a decent .919 save percentage. Berube wasn't going to deny Husso's accomplishments, and instead of going with the oncoming Binnington to start the postseason, Berube rewarded Husso with the Game 1 start and he promptly shuts out the Wild on 37 saves in a 4-0 win at Xcel Energy Center. Things went south after that for Husso when he allowed nine goals in Games 2-3 against the Wild, he got supplanted by Binnington, who soared back into his crease and only to relinquish it due to injury and Husso would allow four or five goals in five of his final six postseason appearances when he went 2-5 with a 3.67 GAA and .890 save percentage. Husso's regular season play was largely one of the reasons the Blues finished as well as they did; too bad his playoff performances brought his grade down a notch, but if you're a Blues fan, you cannot complain the performances he gave you throughout the season. The only question remaining is where will he be in September. Conventional wisdom says it won't be here, and I believe it won't be either, but you never know.
My grade: B+

The following goalies all get incomplete grades simply for lack of games played: Charlie Lindgren, Joel Hofer. Although if I were to grade Lindgren, he gets an A+++ for holding down the fort and being practically perfect in his Blues stint when he was 5-0-0 with a 1.22 GAA and scintillating .958 save percentage.

Doug Armstrong -- After back-to-back first-round exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Armstrong knew he had work to do. The lineup as is wasn't good enough to get the Blues back into the elite company and competing for titles three years removed from winning it all in 2019. No longer with the team, including those that made impacts on winning that championship included Blais, Jaden Schwartz, Vince Dunn, Kyle Clifford, Mike Hoffman, Zach Sanford and Carl Gunnarsson (retired). Armstrong felt the offense needed some retooling with guys that have the knack for scoring but were also responsible on the other side of the puck. The New York Rangers were in a dilemma with Buchnevich. They knew he was due for a larger pay raise he'd get as am arbitration-eligible RFA. So Armstrong pounced and acquired the winger for Blais and a second-round pick this year and promptly signed Buchnevich to a four-year, $23.2 million contract ($5.8 million AAV). It was a home run trade on July 27, 2021, it's a grand slam now. Two days later, Armstrong wasn't done; he waits until free agent frenzy dollars start to cool down before signing Saad to a very friendly five-year, $22.5 million contract ($4.5 million AAV). Saad was coming off a contract that paid him $6 million AAV, and word had it he could at least fetch that on the open market, which the Blues couldn't do. But to get Saad at that price for the production was a risk worth taking, and Saad rewarded it in the first year with a really solid season. Adding two guys that helped contribute to an NHL-leading nine players scoring at least 20 or more goals was a rousing success. Armstrong brought back Bozak for his leadership and experience at a team-friendly $750,000 AAV plus incentives and traded Sanford to get Brown, which could turn out to be a nice deal if Brown keeps developing. He added Leddy at the trade deadline that turned into a good move to help the Blues win a playoff series even though it cost the popular Sundqvist to get him, and if Leddy chooses to stay here, it turns into a great deal. But what impressed me more than anything about what Armstrong did was how he handled the Tarasenko situation. I, for one, wouldn't have been as patient as the Blues GM was. If a player doesn't want to play for me anymore, I'd be the one that goes, "OK, I'll ship your a-- somewhere where the team sucks and won't make the playoffs." But he rolled the dice, exposed him in the expansion draft, and Seattle passed. Then Armstrong remained patient knowing Tarasenko still had two years left on his contract and expected him to fulfill it. Man, did that ever pay off well this season. The Blues made progress in winning a playoff round for the first time since winning the Cup, but they're not satisfied. They know their window to win still remains open and there are challenges ahead to make this team even better. Armstrong must fortify that left side of the defense moving forward; he will most likely need to find someone to tandem with Binnington, whether it be Lindgren or someone else from the outside; does he want to or can he bring back Leddy? What about getting that contract done with Perron? Are there trades in store? And does he roll the dice again and go into next season knowing it's the final year of contracts for Tarasenko and O'Reilly? That's why he's the GM and that's why he gets to work on these valuable decisions, but for the job he did this season, Armstrong gets solid marks.
My grade: A  
Craig Berube -- All Berube does is win. Ever since he was put in the top spot coaching the Blues early in the season in 2018-19, he wins the Cup that season and moving forward, puts the team in position to make the playoffs and make a run at the Cup time and time again. Of course, the past two seasons losing in the first round didn't go over well with anyone, Berube included, but it's still evident he has a pulse in the room and his message resonates well. Their 109 points this season is the most since also earning 109 in 2014-15 under Ken Hitchcock. Since taking over for Mike Yeo, Berube is now 156-80-36, which is good for a .640 points percentage. Players speak highly of him and his calm demeanor when things aren't going smoothly. He instills the trust in his players and allows them the time and freedom to rest when needed and to work when it's time to ramp things up. Players appreciate that and will play for a guy that understands how to give and receive. The Blues signed Berube to a three-year contract extension on Feb. 9 and rightfully so. He helped orchestrate the only top-5 power-play and penalty kill unit in the league this season with assistants Steve Ott (power play), Jim Montgomery (penalty kill) and Mike Van Ryn (defense) as a whole were terrific together. I thought Berube handled the goaltending situation as well as could be. He allowed Binnington a leash to a certain degree, but the bottom line is winning and when Husso was doing it, he handed the Finn the keys and it paid off. Berube's abilities to mix and match the defensemen and forwards always seemed to pay off. When it was time to break lines up and try something fresh, Berube seemed to know when to make those moves. He trusted younger guys to go into the lineup and get the job done, and that brings as much confidence to a younger player than anything else and makes them want to do anything for a coach, which is key. I think the Blues are in good hands with 'Chief' moving forward. He has a thirst to win again after doing so already, and the roster is set up to keep plugging away at it knowing they beat a very good Minnesota team and to this point, be the only ones to put a blemish on the Avalanche's playoff record.
My grade: A

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Blues coach Craig Berube

ST. LOUIS -- Craig Berube's third season as coach of the Blues could be summarized as to what his team felt like it was this season: close.

It's no secret Berube's style and culture reflects that of his players, and there's a tightly-knit bond there between coach and player. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Craig Berube (top left) completed his third full season behind
the bench and took the team to the second round this season.

The coach was close, the players were close, but it wasn't quite enough, but all things considered, with the Blues losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs and seeing how easily the Avalanche disposed of the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final, one can easily see that the Blues were the only team that gave the Avalanche any kind of resistance en route to the Cup Final.

Berube is 156-80-36 in his three-plus regular seasons, good for a .640 winning percentage, and 24-27 in the Stanley Cup playoffs guiding the Blues, and taking the next steps is his goal after being given a three-year extension in February through the 2024-25 season.

He summarized his thoughts on the season and looking forward:

Opening remarks:
Doug (Armstrong) does a great job obviously of putting a good product on the ice and giving us a chance. So every year I’ve coached here we have an opportunity to win. And that’s all you ask for. Throughout the season, you've got to play extremely well to make the playoffs because it’s a tough league and it’s a lot of good teams. I thought our team did a good job. We went through a couple stretches that weren’t great. But our team battled hard all year. We went through a ton of injuries and COVID stuff. We had a lot of guys come up from the minors and play really well for us and provide a lot of energy and spark to our team. Our goaltenders, we used both of them, they both had really good years in my opinion. I know 'Binner' went through a little bit of a tough time but found his way and played really well in the playoffs for us. So overall, I’m very happy with the team, how we came together as a team. They’re a very close-knit group. I think that we need everybody to be successful, and that’s how we’re built. And I thought that we got that this year. Now, going into playoffs, we were close to Colorado there. There’s a couple bounces here and there that go a little bit differently, who knows, we might not be talking to you guys right now. But that’s the way it goes and like Doug said, we've got to try and improve. That’s the focus, to get a little bit better.

On if this team made strides:
The team made huge strides from last year, I thought. We added a couple of players this year, which really helped our team – (Brandon) Saad and (Pavel) Buchnevich. I think the goaltending tandem was key. Ville (Husso) improved from last year tremendously. And from a mental standpoint, our team this year was way different. We were in a way better spot mentally. We had a real good team atmosphere. I thought that it was team first this year. I thought there were struggles last year of getting that through to the guys. This team here was in a way better spot. I told you guys that before going into playoffs. This is a very good team, but again we didn’t win. So how are we going to get better? So as a coaching staff, we've got to look at things and see what way we can improve a little bit. We’ll watch hockey here down the stretch and see what teams are doing and why they’re successful.

On how long will it take you to get over Colorado, or do you:
How do you get over this? You don’t get over it. But it’s over with, so you've got to move on and try to go throughout your program in the summertime of what you've got to do. You can’t just sulk over it. It’s over. And we got beat.

On David Perron's importance to you as a coach:
Very important. He’s a helluva hockey player for sure. Highly competitive. And a great shot. And can run a power play as good as anybody I’ve ever coached. He’s a tremendous power play player. I didn’t know David at all until I got here, but he’s really grown as a person in my opinion and a teammate. Provided very good leadership for us, not wearing a 'C' or an 'A'.
Very vocal. He’s like a right-arm extension for the coaches in my opinion, preaching the right things all the time and teaching our young guys. Playing the game properly, being competitive.  Along all those lines. I’ve really enjoyed coaching him, enjoyed being around him, too.

On Binnington and Husso pushing each other, but doing what’s best for the team on a nightly basis:
Yeah, 100 percent. It’s got to be tough for 'Binner' to sit there and watch Ville win and keep playing, and then we started him in the playoffs. But Binner (was) very positive about it all. Very, very positive. Very good team guy, both of them. And that’s a big thing. I think that’s why you have a tandem like that and it has success.

On how much do you weight postseason vs. regular season in evaluating players:
Postseason hockey is different for me. Obviously, it gets a lot harder. Tighter. I think some of our guys made some good strides this year in the postseason and learned how to have success. So that’s important because going forward, regular season’s regular season. When the postseason comes around, it’s a different game. It’s a lot harder. It’s more intense. There’s no room. You've got to fight for space every shift. I think some of our guys really understood that and got better.

On if you believe league is going toward speed and skill:
One hundred percent. The back end, you've got to be able to move the puck. You've got to have some size, too. You go against some – obviously the last playoff series – (Nathan) MacKinnon and (Gabriel) Landeskog, they’re hard to handle. They’re big guys. So you've got to have some size, too. But puck movement from the back end is very important for sure. That’s where everything is generated from. The game’s getting faster. There’s more goals this year. Goals are up this year. It’s a goal-scorer’s league. Power plays are up. So, speed and skill are really important.

On one or two things you’d like to see the team do better:
That’s a tough question. Again, I look at it and we’re talking about goals are up this year. I think that we that we can be better, we can check better. I’d like to see our goals (allowed) come down a little bit. I thought the penalty kill was excellent this year. But 5-on-5, I’d like to see our goals (allowed) come down a little bit, that’d be one area of improvement. And then, I look at the whole year, you have some ups and downs. I’d like the ups and downs to be a little bit less. A little more consistency. Night in and night out, this is what we’re getting, this is what we’re getting, this is what we're getting. I know it’s boring. That’s probably boring for players. But you win more. We had 109 points, we probably could have had 116, the way I look at it. That’s a helluva year. It’s a helluva year anyhow, but consistency and I think that we can get our goals-against down a little bit. And we've got to continue to score goals. We had nine 20-goal scorers this year, which was phenomenal. We might not have that next year, who knows? But we've got to continue to score, that’s part of the game, right?

On how close was Torey Krug close to playing Game 6 vs. Avalanche, what missed most about his absence:
If it was up to 'Kruger' he would have played that game. It was a tough call. Yeah, with his injury and stuff like that and with (Marco) Scandella’s injury, I didn’t want to go seven D. It was tough. He was ready. He could’ve played probably, but I didn’t think it was worth it at the time. But power play maybe it would’ve been maybe, right? It’s a tough call. But if we got past that game, he would’ve been in Game 7.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong

ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong will forever be known as the one who orchestrated the phrase, "You need to take the knife and jam it through their eye into their brain and kill them." It's been synonymous with his end-of-year sessions with the Blues following many seasons earlier in his tenure as Blues general manager.

Following his media session last week, it wasn't one of those times. That's because the Blues took steps forward after two straight first-round exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs following the year of winning it all in 2019.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues president of hockey operations and GM Doug Armstrong feels the
team is headed back in the right direction after a strong 2021-22 season.

Everyone knows not only a structured, skilled and talented roster is needed to not only advance in the postseason and win, but luck is needed as well.

The Blues ran into some bad luck when facing the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, after prevailing through some impactful injuries in defeating the Minnesota Wild in the first round, losing your starting goalie when it appeared the Blues could grab the momentum in the second round, along with missing some key pieces on the blue line, wasn't enough to prevail.

And although Armstrong, who completed his 14th season with the organization, will continue to upgrade the Blues roster moving forward in 2022-23, having many of the pieces that produced 109 points in the regular season is a good place to start, so for a change, there may not be much the GM will have to do other than keep some of the pieces he already has, and if he is unable to do that, then there may have to be some important decisions to be made.

Armstrong is pleased with the direction the Blues are going in again, and he will be tasked with keeping it competitive after ownership gave him a five-year extension at the start of this past season

He talked about those things and other important topics from his season-ending remarks:

Opening remarks:
Thanks for coming today. We're obviously here to put a bow on the season. I'd like to thank our players. I thought starting in September, they had a focus on having a good regular season. We played a good Colorado team and could never get over the hump, but I thought they played well and played with character. What they did in Game 5 is a foundation-builder moving forward. Craig (Berube) and I talked about that. It would have been an easier time, if there was time to fold the tent and just say it wasn't our year and they didn't do that. Not only for that team, but you have (Jake) Neighbours and (Zachary) Bolduc watching us from a distance seeing the foundation and the character that this group has is only going to build us moving forward. To the players and the coaches, I want to thank them for a very good season. Obviously regular season, playoff disappointment is what it is, there's only going to be one champion. We know that we have to improve. When I look back since 2011-12, we've been a consistent participant in the Western Conference. Chicago has popped in there, we've had bouts with them; we've had battles with Los Angeles, Nashville, Winnipeg, now it's Colorado. But what I look at is we're the team that's there year in, year out and that's our focus moving forward. There's a couple more teams in the Eastern Conference like that. You have Pittsburgh, you have Washington, you have Boston. You look at those four teams and if you put us in there, we're trying to fight Father Time year in, year out. When you go back to the 2011-12 season, I was looking at it this morning, I think Colorado's had five top-10 picks and seven picks in the top 16. They're supposed to be good. We're competing against teams that are in a different growth pattern. We haven't had top picks and we're still trying to find ways to maneuver this roster and stay competitive. I thank Craig for taking this group of players and molding them into a competitive team. As I said, we're not happy that we're not playing right now, but our job is to get a little bit better and be a team that we're here next year and whoever wants to join us, we welcome them aboard.

Strides from last year to now; does this roster needs major tweaking:
The second part, no, it doesn't need major tweaking. In a cap system, we're in a really good spot for next season. We have so many returning players under contract. Obviously we have a couple good players in (David) Perron and (Nick) Leddy and other players, (Ville) Husso, I don't want to single each guy, but we do have a lot of returning players is what I want to say. Excited about our American League team. They're undefeated in the playoffs right now (until last night). They're in the conference finals. We have Bolduc and Neighbours, our last two first-round picks playing very good in their respective junior leagues trying to get to the Memorial Cup. There will be change. That's just the nature of pro sport under a cap system, but I do like the group we're bringing back.

On possibility of bringing Leddy back:
I thought he played very well for us. We understand what the salary cap's going to be. It's locked in stone now, so it's just massaging it to get a number of good players back, but I thought Nick came in here and you look at our winning percentage since the trade deadline, he was a big part of that. He's a calming influence, he's experienced, he's the player that I thought our pro scouts told me he was going to be and he came in here and he was that guy.

On shuffling the D, want a rhythm on D moving forward:
I was actually talking to one of the players on the number of days this year, I didn't have the answer, of the 82 regular-season games and playoffs, how many times did we have our full roster on there. I'll bet you it was less than a handful. It was a strange year that way. Of course you want continuity. Continuity is good. For the players on the ice, they understand once you've played with someone long enough, we've seen that obviously with Perron and O'Reilly, that sixth sense of knowing where a guy's going to be. With the rotation that Craig had to maneuver this year on the back end, the number of guys coming in and coming out, I look at Game 4 of the first round, we had -- according to our depth charts -- our eighth, ninth and 10th defensemen playing in that game. I give guys a lot of credit for fighting through and finding ways, but for sure, I'd love to have continuity and less movement on the back end if we can.

On bringing Perron back, his impact on this organization:
I sure would. I feel like I've been here a long time and he proceeds me. He's been in and out over that term, but when I got here, he was here back in, what, would it be '08? So he's been around a long time and he's a helluva player. He fights Father Time better than anyone than 95-99 percent of the NHL. What he did this year was spectacular. Obviously the injury he sustained in Chicago was nerve-wracking for everyone involved, but when he got back here, he showed what he can do down the stretch and in the playoffs, he's a very good player. More importantly, he's a better person. I've seen him grow and become a husband and a father. I've seen the influence he's had on our younger players. They see the competitiveness that he has on a daily basis. He's a true pro and been a very good St. Louis Blue and if we can make it work out, I'd love to.

See Leddy, Perron AND Husso all return:
I wouldn't say no (laughing). We're going to go to work. That's our job is to try and find a way to bring as many good players into the organization, whether they're here, whether they're from the outside, but yeah, the cap is the cap and everyone knows the numbers. But if we can make it work, we will. We're not just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, 'We can't bring anyone back.' That's not how the St. Louis Blues have operated and that's not how we're going to operate moving forward. We're going to try the best we can to put out the best team next year and if those players on a good team this year, they'd be good players on a good team next year.

Get any sense if Husso wants to look around:
Ville and I had a conversation this morning. He's put himself in a very good spot; he had a great regular season. Obviously the playoffs were up and down for all of us. He was put into a really difficult situation coming into the Colorado series. I'm a Ville Husso fan. I told him I'd love him to come back, but also it's a business for him also and he's put himself in a spot now where if he wants to test the market, I would understand it. For all of these guys, it's a long time between today and July 13th when they're allowed to hit free agency. We have some time to work on it. I think the tandem and Craig can probably speak better to it than I. They seem from a distance to get along very well. One thing I said to Ville today was I was impressed with his ability to stay positive and push (Jordan) Binnington and understand he was part of a team, and I was also very impressed with Binnington's ability to stay positive and push Husso until he got the opportunity. Sometimes you see tandems that view that as competition and they can't see past that and do what's best for the team. I thought both of those guys did what was best for the team on a nightly basis.

On Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich, your biggest acquisitions last off-season:
I thought they came in and played very well. Saad for me was a more known quantity. Know the player. We've seen him in the Western Conference for a number of years. He was a championship player and so he came in and was as advertised. With Buch, I thought it was a really good year he had prior to. He was still a player defining himself. When you look at his year, I look back, I don't have to ask the coach what he thought of him. How did he use him? He used him on the power play, he used him killing penalties, he used him 5-on-5. I think Buch had a great first year. With him and Kyrou and Thomas, they give us something to build around as we move forward. We have great veterans here, but those guys needs support, and Buch, (Jordan) Kyrou and (Robert) Thomas are that group we need to support that group of forwards coming in and then as I said, you're going to have guys pop up next year, whether from junior hockey or the American Hockey League, a guy like Brownie who I thought showed really good promise. He got caught in a numbers game. I was talking to one of the players just a few minutes ago and I said when you're a competitive team, it's very hard to crack the lineup, but when you crack the lineup, it's very hard to be taken out of the lineup. So now a guy like Brownie's job is to get in there and then when he comes in, he knows he's not concerned being in and out. I'm not sure if that makes sense to you guys. It's a hard group to crack, but when you crack it, it's really a hard group to get taken out of. That's part of being on a competitive team year in, year out. When you've gained the coach's trust and you're doing the job, the coach trusts you for a long time.

On Scott Perunovich:
Scotty, he's had a difficult career quite honestly as a pro. Injuries have not been his friend. I already talked to him about ... he's mature now where I said, 'Training camp starts mid-September. That's when we need you at your best. Whatever you need to do, you don't need us holding your hand anymore. You know your body, you know what needs to get done.' But it's a proof's in the pudding league. I thought he did a great job. I thought Craig did a great job again. It's one thing to dress somebody in the playoffs. It's another thing to say, 'We're going to put you on the No. 1 power play unit even though you haven't been healthy enough to play in a couple of months.' That takes a lot of courage as a coach, but more importantly, a lot of belief in the player that you're putting in that spot. As a coach you want to put guys in a position to succeed, not fail. For Craig to put him in that group, I thought was a great feather in Perun's cap. As a league, we look at a guy like Foxy and the Rangers right now and what he's doing. (Samuel) Girard was having a good year, (Cale) Makar had a good year. They're not 6-3, 230 any of these guys. There's the ability to play both of these guys on a nightly basis. For Scotty specifically, he has to come in and have a good training camp and he has to stay healthy enough where he's in that conversation. It's not that he's done anything wrong, it's just that's how the cards have been dealt to him so far and now he needs to reshuffle and get better cards where he stays healthy.

On Vladimir Tarasenko, will he be here next year:
I thought Vladi had a real good year. Big time players score big time goals. I think what we saw this year was a healthy Vladimir Tarasenko. Even when he's not scoring, the other team is nervous. When he's on the ice in any game, any playoff series, he's a circled player. Being a circled player, if he's not scoring, it opens up opportunities for other guys. I thought Vladi had a very good regular season. I thought he was a player that we counted on in the playoffs and we always have and he always delivers. I'm not concerned about Vladi for next year at all. I've already read some articles, local and national, well what about '23-'24 and these guys are all free (agents)? I'm going to worry about '23-'24, a year from now. Hopefully I'm not answering questions, 'Are you going to trade Ryan O'Reilly if you don't get him signed? Are you going to trade Tarasenko if you don't get him signed? Are you going to trade (Ivan) Barbashev if you don't get him signed?' I'm not sure the concern of everybody worrying about two years from now, let's just dissect this year, give us your information on how you think we did as a whole, get ready for next year. I don't want to spend all summer saying, 'Well, what about two years from now?' I just want to worry about next year when it's over. I'll then worry about the year after.

On the league going more towards speed and skill:
I would agree with that. The game's evolving. Goal-scoring is up, but there's also been a generation of goalies that have been at the forefront that are at the end of their careers or exiting the league totally. Now you have (Andrei) Vasilevskiy for me and then you have everybody else. The Ranger goalie (Igor Shesterkin) looks like he's trending that way, but the difference between him and Vasilevskiy is he's done it year in and year out, year in and year out. So this next wave of goaltending, they have to not only prove they can do it each year but every year moving forward. But as far as the game itself, I think the fans love the goals probably more than the coach loves the goals. It's a great game and it's entertaining, it's fast-paced. I also think when you get into the playoffs, quite honestly, you lose half of the team so the talent level goes up, then you lose another half and the talent level goes up. Same with the referees. When you get into the semifinals or when you get into the round of eight, you're down to the best referees, you're down to the best teams that don't commit fouls, that don't need to commit fouls to play a 60-minute game. I don't think we're going to see a lot of penalties moving forward because I see the refereeing game has gotten better but also the teams have gotten better. I think that they understand what's at stake but as a whole, it's trending towards a younger man's game. Younger players are ready quicker than before on and off the ice both at forward and on the back end. I do believe what we're seeing now is going to continue to evolve to more skill.

On do any players need surgeries:
Players are doing their medicals tonight, so I'll have better information. I know some guys are going to need some things, but we'll probably wait and do the whole laundry list in the next ... probably Thursday or Friday (of last week) when I get all the information.

Any poaching from other organizations on the coaching staff for head coaching jobs:
I hope there is. I really hope there is. I think that Robby DiMaio who was with us for a long time is now an assistant GM in Anaheim, I think that's a reflection on the great work Rob did here and also being part of a good organization. I think that our three assistant coaches, we have multiple coaches, but Steve Ott has come right from playing to coaching. I think he helped Craig with the power play, I think he did a really good job with that. I think he has the ability to be a head coach. Jimmy Montgomery has been an NHL head coach before, I thought he did a great job. I thought Mike Van Ryn has really touched everything, development coach, a minor league coach, an assistant coach. I think all three of these guys have aspirations to be NHL head coaches. I think they're all deserving. I hope they get interviews. I hope they get to reach the goals they want to reach. But if they don't, we'd love to have them back. Craig has told me that. I concur 100 percent, but also, I think part of any organization, you want to see growth and growth of those guys is commanding and taking part and running their own bench. If they get that opportunity, we'll endorse them, we'll push for them. But if they're back, we're a really good organization. But to answer your question quite honestly, I'm compiling a list. I think these guys are great coaches and I hope they get the opportunity.