The summer is coming to a quick close, yet many restricted free agents remain on the market. Many players are fighting for a player-friendly contract with their respective teams, arguing over either the salary or the length offered by the new deal. It seems the latter is the issue for the only remaining free agent on the St. Louis Blues: Ivan Barbashev.
Many expected Barabshev’s deal to be a fairly easy one to wrap up. He’s yet to see a true breakout in the NHL, which gives Blues general manager Doug Armstrong the upper-hand in negotiations. Seemingly the only thing the Blues had to wait on, before signing Barbashev, was the decision from Joel Edmundson’s arbitration hearing. That was announced on August 6, though, and still, Barbashev remains without a new deal.
This has raised a few eyebrows among the Blues fanbase. A deal that should have been fairly easy to sign is instead dragging on. Armstrong himself, who has a great track record with every member of the team’s lineup, sounded a bit shaky when talking about the deal. “We are close enough where it takes one phone call, but that phone call may or may not come before training camp.”
In fact, Armstrong didn’t put aside the idea of Barbashev leaving the NHL entirely next season, in favor of the KHL. The Blues GM said, “I expect him to play hockey this season, whether it’s in North America or somewhere else. I understand the economics of it.” He also went on to site the very similar situation the Blues had with Vladimir Sobotka. On Thursday morning, Blues guru Jeremy Rutherford tweeted out that Barbashev is keeping all options option, per his agent.
Dan Milstein, the agent for Blues restricted-free agent Ivan Barbashev, tells @TheAthleticSTL this morning that his client is “looking at options on both sides of the ocean.” Milstein insists this is not a negotiating ploy and the Blues know where they stand. #stlblues— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) August 15, 2019
How Barbashev’s Absence Changes the Lineup
Barbashev is one of the most interesting players on the Blues lineup. After a modest start to his career, he quickly became a fan favorite during the team’s resurgence last season. In 80 games last year, Barbashev recorded 26 points. 12 of those came in only 33 games following the All-Star break, including eight of his 14 goals. This hot-streak died off in the post-season, though, with Barbashev only recording six points in the 25 playoff games he appeared in.
The Blues did make use of Barbashev elsewhere, though. His most apparent use was as a human-wrecking-ball for the Blues. The modestly-sized Barbashev (6’0”, 187lbs) recorded insane hitting numbers during the playoffs. He led the entire league with 87 hits during the post-season. This averaged out 3.5-per-game, a much more modest stat. Nonetheless, this burst of physicality was very impressive coming from Barbashev, who only recorded 86 during the entire regular season.
Barbashev was also a prominent member of the Blues penalty kill during the post-season. He recorded just over 34 minutes of short-handed ice time, ranking him fourth on the team behind Alexander Steen, Ryan O’Reilly, and Oskar Sundqvist. While the Blues ‘PK’ was admittedly poor during the playoffs, Barbashev’s presence simply goes to show his versatility. On top of being a tremendously reliable fourth-line center, he provided a terrific spark to the team’s lineup during a historical post-season run.
This great reliability is what makes Barbashev such a great addition to the Blues lineup. While fourth lines are usually fairly inconsequential, the Blues showed the benefits of having such a trustworthy trio backing the lineup. So, while Barbashev’s point totals are nowhere near where his pre-draft expectations had hoped, he is still a very valuable asset for St. Louis. This means replacing him is both entirely necessary, and very difficult.
The Blues have plenty of reserves in the waiting, though. While losing Barbashev for a season wouldn’t be ideal, it helps clear the way for future stars to make their NHL debuts. If the star power doesn’t meet expectations, the Blues also have a fairly modest group of veteran minor-league players, well deserving of a shot at the NHL.
Jordan Kyrou is the obvious choice for the role. Next to Robert Thomas, who is now an NHL mainstay, Kyrou is the Blues best prospect right now. He had a dazzling end to his career in the OHL, with 94 points in 66 games in 2016-17 and 109 points in 56 games in 2017-18. He flaunted a tremendous two-way style of play, ultimately becoming one of the most versatile OHL players by the end of his tenure in the league.
Kyrou kept up this great track record during his rookie year in the AHL last season. He ranked third on the San Antonio Rampage in scoring, with 43 points, only four points behind Joey LaLeggia’s team-leading 47 points. What makes Kyrou’s year so special, though, is the fact that he netted his 43 points in only 47 games. This is a 70-point pace, had he appeared in all 76 AHL games last year.
Following such a terrific season, there should be no reason Kyrou would be anywhere but the NHL next year. Yet, there are a few reservations. The biggest is simply the knee injury that Kyrou suffered last year. He underwent surgery and is expected to be 100 percent before training camp but skeptics remain. There’s no telling how a player will rebound from such a surgery and a stint in the AHL to start the season could be what Kyrou needs to successfully rehab.
Kyrou also looked fairly lackluster in the 16 NHL games he was granted last year. While this is a thinly veiled argument against Kyrou, with all 16 games coming when both he and the Blues were ice-cold, it’s still something to keep in mind. His jump to the NHL could be much less exciting than some would hope, as he’ll undeniably need to find his footing.
With all of this in mind, Kyrou would still be the best option to fill Barbashev’s role. Kyrou is just as well-rounded and would provide a spark to the Blues bottom-six that has been missing for years. He also adds a right-handed shot to the mix, another thing that is much-needed among the team’s bottom lines. The Blues could fit Kyrou in at either center or right wing as well, adding an extra dose of versatility to his repertoire.
If not Kyrou, many fans will call for the promotion of Klim Kostin. The Russian phenom also has many accolades to his name. He captained Russia’s U17 and U18 team during the 2015-16 season. With these teams, he scored a combined 9 points in 11 games. After bouncing around in Russian leagues during the 2016-17 season, the highly-touted Russian was drafted by the Blues, using the pick acquired in the trade that swapped Ryan Reaves for Sundqvist.
Since being drafted, Kostin has appeared in two seasons in the AHL. In those, he has a combined, and very lackluster, 52 points in 133 games. Yet, he’s remained red-hot in international play. During the 2018 U20 World Juniors, Kostin recorded eight points in only five games. Last year, in the same tournament, he netted six points in seven games.
This is the basis of the issues with Kostin. His tremendous play during international tournaments was the entire reason he was drafted, but he hasn’t backed it up with strong play in the AHL. While it’s too soon to count out Kostin, the weak start to his North American career is fairly worrisome.
When it comes down to it, Kostin has the skill to play in the world’s best league. There’s no denying that. If the Blues really want to put Kostin to the test, a fairly inconsequential position, like fourth-line center, could be the perfect option. While his AHL play hasn’t exactly qualified him for a promotion, it may be the best way to find out what he’s made of. If all goes well, Kostin will be a big body, adding terrific playmaking and shooting abilities to an already strong Blues bottom-six.
The final option takes a step away from the young, future stardom that is Kyrou and Kostin. Michael Vecchione hasn’t made headlines in the last few seasons and his addition to the Blues farm system went fairly unnoticed by many. Yet, he is poised to make a tremendous splash in St. Louis.
Vecchione is, simply put, a great depth player who has been neglected of his moment in the spotlight. His terrific statistics date back to the 2012-13 season, where he recorded 60 points in 63 games with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. That was his final year in the league before playing hockey for Union College. With Union, Vecchione was equally as productive. He netted 50 points in 39 games during his sophomore season, also averaging roughly 0.9 points-per-game in both his freshman and junior year. His senior year was where he truly broke out, though. He recorded 63 points in only 38 games, tying with Zach-Aston Reese and Tyler Kelleher for league-lead. His 29 goals ranked him second among all of D1 college hockey, while his 34 assists tied him for fourth.
All-in-all, Vecchione was a dazzling player in college. He went undrafted but joined the Philadelphia Flyers organization after graduating from Union. Over the last two seasons, Vecchione has been a prominent member of the Flyers AHL roster. He recorded 40 points in 65 games during the 2017-18 season, then netted 38 points in 67 games last year.
If a hole opens up, Vecchione should be one of the first options for a promotion. Some argue if he’s ready for the jump to the NHL but his production in the minor leagues, and in college, clearly show he can handle his own. He’s a dominant two-way player, often discounted for his 5’10” stature. Nonetheless, he is well-versed in every aspect of the game. His versatility is met with a great ability to create chances and finish any scoring opportunities. In the absence of Barbashev, the 26-year old Vecchione could very well be the safest bet. He is also a right-handed shot, again something much needed among the Blues bottom-six.