Wednesday’s announcement that Jake Allen would miss the start of Blues training camp with back spasms resulting from an off-ice training incident was the sort of thing that sends a cold shiver through a fan base and sets precisely the opposite of the desired tone for arguably the team’s most important player.
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong received universal acclaim for his moves to enhance the roster over the summer. He took dramatic steps to build depth and redundancy into the forward corps and built strength through the center of the ice that was designed to compliment an already-stalwart group of defensemen. At the back of that alignment – and in the front of the minds of fans – was Allen. His quixotic 2017-18 campaign left the team with more questions than answers and his injury adds yet another.
Behind Allen is Chad Johnson, signed as a free agent from Buffalo after a challenging season of his own. Johnson is generally considered to be a step back from Carter Hutton, last year’s sometime starter. Behind Johnson is Ville Husso, the team’s top goaltending prospect and widely contemplated solution du jour.
Husso’s reputation and standing among the fans in St. Louis have undoubtedly been enhanced by what’s frequently termed Backup Quarterback Syndrome. Husso hasn’t been seen failing yet, and so he must be able to succeed. With Allen sidelined, it’s worth evaluating whether Husso is capable of being as functional as he is fashionable.
Husso turns 24 in February. It can no longer be argued that he’s young for the league or may need more time to mature. Indeed, Husso is already older now than Matt Murray was when he secured the Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins for the *second* time. He’s approximately six months younger than Andrei Vasilevskiy, heading into his third season as the full-time starter in Tampa Bay after taking his team to last year’s Eastern Conference Final. Fellow Finn Juuse Saros is two months younger than Husso and has already arrived as the heir apparent in Nashville.
After a rough start, Husso rallied last season to put up impressive numbers for San Antonio in the AHL. He was tied for 11th in the league in goals against average (2.42) and tied for sixth in the league in save percentage (.922). Fellow Blues prospect Jordan Binnington did best him in both categories, though Binnington played substantially fewer minutes while on loan to a Providence Bruins team that far outclassed last year’s ramshackle Rampage outfit.
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, the publication’s top prospect guru, published his ranking of the top 100 prospects in the NHL on, conveniently, the day Allen’s injury was announced. He listed Husso as his sixth best goaltending prospect, placing him firmly in Pronman’s “legit NHL prospect” grouping. Only one goaltender, Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, was listed as a “very good NHL prospect.”
Pronman notes in his rankings that Husso is “not a dynamic athlete” but instead relies on positioning and smarts to keep himself in the best position to make saves. This is an interesting contrast with Allen, whose struggles with position maintenance are often the first warning sign that his play is beginning to deteriorate. After three years of up and down performance from Allen, it’s easy to understand why Husso’s consistency would be a draw.
Though he was recalled to serve as a backup on several occasions last season, Husso didn’t appear in an NHL game. What limited exposure he does have to the league has come through preseason action, which casts a high quotient of doubt on the validity and veracity of the numbers he’s recorded. He’ll certainly have the chance in the coming weeks to continue to build his showcase and display his talents, and the Blues will be left to sift through the preseason static to find the regular season signal.
Whether or not Husso can hack it at the next level will soon be a matter of record rather than debate. Johnson, after all, signed a one-year contract with a low dollar value. Even if Allen bounces back healthy ten days from now and stays that way for the duration of the season, the succession plan is clear. Husso’s time may not be now, but it’s coming.
Or, perhaps it is now. Great success has been born of much less opportunity than the one currently in front of today’s goalie of the future. Two of Allen, Husso, and Johnson’s teammates, Robby Fabbri and David Perron, forced their way onto the NHL roster sooner than expected because their preparation and performance made them impossible to deny. For the next few weeks, the runway in front of Ville Husso is clear. He has the opportunity to take off.
He might ascend. He might stall. The Blues, suddenly, are short on time to figure out the answer.