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2021 Division Preview: How high can the Blues go without Pietrangelo?

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Another team that had to name a new captain, the Blues are looking to rebound from a dismal finish to the 2019-20 season.

St Louis Blues v Vancouver Canucks - Game Four Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Despite being only one season removed from hoisting their first Stanley Cup, Play Gloria seems a lifetime away. Much of that is due to lengthy season suspensions and delays due to COVID, but for Blues fans, their first-round upset at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs after a first-place finish in the Central division only added to the painful downtime.

But the fact of the matter remains — what made the St. Louis Blues a dangerous team is still very much present: a strong top six, potential difference-makers on defense, and a goaltender that, when hot, can not only steal a series, but can sustain an entire Stanley Cup playoff run.

Unfortunately for the Blues, however, the traditional Central is on hold for a season, and the makeshift West has them facing off with not only traditional division foes in the young and talented Colorado Avalanche, but a strong Vegas Golden Knights squad as well. Getting past those two teams in the standings will require the Blues to answer some pressing questions — namely, can the players they brought in to replace departing stars get up to speed quickly, and can Vladamir Tarasenko return from injury to provide a needed scoring spark?

The Fresh Faces

Torey Krug, D

The long-time Boston Bruin brings his 50+ yearly points to a St. Louis squad who needs him to replace outgoing defensive star and captain Alex Pietrangelo. To get their man, general manager Doug Armstrong backed up the Brinks truck to the tune of seven years at $6.43 AAV. Offensively, Krug should be able to match Pietrangelo’s production on the top pairing with Colton Parayko. Defensively, while Krug shouldn’t be considered a liability, comparisons to Pietrangelo will fall short.

The Blues would be happy with a point-for-point replacement offensively and a serviceable defensive effort from the soon-to-be 30-year-old Krug, but what happens if he struggles to gel with his defensive linemates during an abbreviated training camp and shortened regular season?

Mike Hoffman, F

The former Ottawa Senator and Florida Panther signed a professional tryout contract with the Blues in late December, and should the 31-year-old forward make the St. Louis roster after training camp, Hoffman could provide secondary scoring in a middle-six role. Hoffman is only one season removed from career highs in goals (36) and points (70), and added another 59 points in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. The only problem: the PTO doesn’t prevent Hoffman from signing with another NHL team during training camp (though a PTO-signed player opting to join a different team is less likely historically).

The Departures

Alex Pietrangelo, D

The 12-year veteran (and captain for four seasons) signed a massive seven-year, $61 million deal with the now-division rival Golden Knights, bringing elite-level two-way defensive talent to an already loaded lineup, featuring Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb. As mentioned before, Krug was brought on board for a matching seven-year deal to fill those skates, but the Blues will no doubt miss Pietrangelo’s presence on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room - especially when they’ll have to go up against him eight times this season.

Jake Allen, G

While the emergence of Jordan Binnington during the Blues 2018-19 cup run made Allen expendable, losing their veteran starter for third- and seventh-round draft picks as a cap casualty means that St. Louis will be relying on 2014 fourth-round selection Ville Husso to back up Binnington. Husso is yet to play a single NHL game, and his AHL numbers with the San Antonio Rampage aren’t exactly what you want to see from someone who may be called upon to see the net in a condensed NHL season (2.56 GAA, .909 SV% in 2019-20; 3.67 GAA and .871 SV% in 2018-19).

At the very least, the Wild will no longer have to worry about seeing the 2017 playoff star in their nightmares, as Allen will be stuck above the border in Montreal.

Alex Steen, C

While replacing Steen’s numbers in recent seasons won’t be as difficult as it will be for Pietrangelo, the 37-year-old’s retirement will definitely leave an impact on the locker room. Called “the pulse of the team” and a “spokesman of the locker room” by teammates and staff, “Steener’s” absence creates a leadership void that only grows larger without former captain Pietrangelo.

The Difference Makers

Jordan Binnington, G

In his rookie season, Binnington carried the Blues on his back to the highest of highs. The 2019-20 season saw a slight but understandable regression as teams figured him out, but most concerning was the Calder finalist’s playoff performance, as Binnington lost all five of his starts (including all three round-robin games), allowing a dismal 4.72 goals against with a .851 save percentage. This year, there’s no Pietrangelo to help him out in the slot, there’s no Jake Allen waiting on the bench to salvage a rough start, and there’s only 56 games instead of the regular 81 to earn as many valuable points as possible. If Binnington can’t shake off the disappointment of 2020, the Blues have little chance of keeping up with the Avs and the Golden Knights.

Vladamir Tarasenko, F

The perennial 30-goal and 70-point elite forward missed all but ten games of the 2019-20 season due to shoulder surgery, but even more concerning was that Tarasenko would need additional time under the knife to fix the problem in August of last year, keeping him off the ice for a minimum five more months and causing him to miss the start of the 2021 season. As it sits, Vlad won’t even be reevaluated by doctors until late January or February, and his timetable for return after that could be weeks or months, even if his rehab goes perfectly. And the Blues have to hope it does, because for St. Louis to make it back to the top of their division, they will desperately need a healthy and effective Tarasenko scoring goals and playing big minutes.

Ryan O’Reilly, C

Since coming to the Blues from the Buffalo Sabres, O’Reilly has had a notable couple of seasons wearing the note. He won the Selke and the Conn Smythe during the Blues Stanley Cup-winning season, and finished as a Bing finalist while scoring a team-leading 61 points in 71 regular-season games and added another 11 points in the playoffs. Coming into the 2021 season, O’Reilly has been named the Blues’ new captain in Pietrangelo’s absence. The Blues would benefit from continued strong leadership on and off the ice, and O’Reilly can go a long way to providing that.

Predicting the Season

In the 2021 West division, just like in real life, there are the haves and the have-nots (or should I say, the “Avs” and the “Av-nots”). In a season without wildcards and with the top four of eight teams making the postseason, the Avalanche and Golden Knights are all but shoo-ins for the top two playoff spots. Beyond that, with two spots left to contend for, there’s no reason that the St. Louis Blues shouldn’t be able to earn a postseason berth, especially since over half their games will be against the muddled mess that is the bottom of the West, including young, rebuilding, cap-strapped or inconsistent teams like the Wild, Kings, Coyotes, Sharks and Ducks.

That being said, there is a lot that can go wrong with not a lot of good secondary options. In net, can Binnington recapture the magic of 2018-19? Or was the 2020 playoffs more than just an aberration? If Binnington does struggle, can Husso fill in the gap, or will the learning curve be too much for a rookie with zero time in an NHL net entering the season? Can Krug pick up where Pietrangelo left off, or will he struggle to shoulder what has to be a heavy load? Can Marco Scandella and Justin Faulk step it up on the second pairing, neither of whom looked great with the Blues last season? Will Mike Hoffman make the team, and if he does, what does he have left in the tank? And, perhaps most importantly, will Vlad Tarasenko get healthy - and stay that way for most of the season?

Speaking of unknowns, the Wild’s roster has a bunch of them as well, many of them revolving around how newcomers like Kirill Kaprizov, Cam Talbot, Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstad and Marcus Johnansson will fit in. The Blues swept the Wild in the regular season, winning all three games by a combined score of 10-4. But minus Pietrangelo, Tarasenko (at least for the first quarter of the season) and Wild-killer Jake Allen, the Wild have an opportunity to match up better with the Blues than they did last year. At the very least, their away games will be at reasonable times of the night in the Central time zone, which they can’t say about any of their other opponents. While I’m not confident enough yet to say the Wild will win the season against their rivals down the Mississippi, I could easily see the teams splitting their series 4-4.

The Blues proved last year that they could overcome adversity, winning the division despite having only ten games from Tarasenko. But should problems and injuries pile up in a short season filled completely with division battles, getting back to the top of the heap — or past the second round of the playoffs - could be a tough ask. That being said, unless absolute disaster strikes (or multiple California/Arizona teams strike gold in their rebuild), pencil in the Blues to a third-place finish in the West.