The Blues 2021-2022 season officially kicks off on Saturday, October 16th against the Colorado Avalanche. Fans may remember the inauspicious way that the Avalanche dismissed the Blues in four games during last season’s playoffs, so to say that this game has a storyline is an understatement.
The Blues’ season is about more than last year’s playoffs, though, and it’s more than just one game against the Avalanche. The team has underlying issues that have been leaving fans scratching their heads all off-season. General manager Doug Armstrong took steps to shore up the offense this off-season, but in other areas, it looks like the status quo is being expected to improve.
What direction this team takes this year is anyone’s guess - crystal balls are a dime a dozen and none of them work right. You might as well watch the season unfold and see where it gets you. If you’re in the metro St. Louis area, and have a cable provider that has been cooperating, Bally Sports Midwest is your landing spot. If you’re outside of metro St. Louis, ESPN+ is going to be your go-to. Heck, even if you’re overseas, ESPN+ will be your go-to, because they’re broadcasting games in 109 countries. A subscription gives you access, live and on-demand, to games broadcast on local markets, ESPN exclusive broadcasting, and live games broadcast live on national ESPN networks (cable subscription needed). It also gets you access to ESPN+ exclusive articles on espn.com, and all for significantly less than the cost of the old NHL.tv plan.
While you’re busy watching a full season of Blues’ hockey for the first time since the 2018-2019 year, here’re some storylines to keep your eyes on:
What will be the outcome of holding on to Vladimir Tarasenko?
Based on what we’ve seen so far during pre-season, Tarasenko looks good.
Vladi doing Vladi things again. #stlblues pic.twitter.com/ZGuGm2QI5u— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) October 2, 2021
Is this enough to evaluate how he’ll play during the regular season? Sadly, no. After an off-season of trade talks, the forward is opening the year in St. Louis, and is 100% committed to not being a distraction in the room or on the ice. That’s fantastic, and expected of a professional who wants a change of scenery. He already has the baggage of three shoulder surgeries hanging over his head; why create the baggage of being a bad team player?
It would behoove Tarasenko to have a season that telegraphs a clear return to form. Armstrong’s inability to trade him in a year with zero cap space increase wasn’t all due to the cap. Why deal for a question mark? It’s a dangerous business to trade away players based on another player’s reputation of speculation about their playing condition.
Tarasenko looks to be clicking with Brandon Saad and Robert Thomas, and will probably begin the year on a line with those two players. If that becomes another impact line for the Blues, well, fans will be happy to have them. There’s not much downside to having Tarasenko with the team still, and if he continues his strong play, there shouldn’t be any once the season gets going.
Can the Blues’ defense get back to what fans expect out of them?
This off-season, Doug Armstrong shored up the team’s offense by adding Saad and Pavel Buchnevich. He streamlined the forward corps by dealing Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford, two young players who had rough seasons last year and who were, with Jordan Kyrou, Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas, and a healthy Oskar Sundqvist on the team, completely expendable. Goaltending was not open for discussion - it was widely expected that Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso would be the tandem.
But what of the defense?
Justin Faulk had a bounceback year last year, but away from what he knew in Boston’s system and against tougher competition, Torey Krug struggled a bit. Marco Scandella was fine, Robert Bortuzzo was fine, and Jake Walman and Niko Mikkola looked good for third pairing defensemen.
No one other than Faulk stood out, and quite a bit of this was due to the back injuries of Colton Parayko. Without the defense’s anchor, they struggled. They were a slightly above middle of the pack (13th overall) with goals allowed, at 167. Their 2.98 goals allowed per game was the worst number that the team’s put up in years.
Not all of that is due to the loss of Alex Pietrangelo, though losing his focus doesn’t help. Doug Armstrong apparently so strongly believes in a bounce-back year for Krug a la Faulk, and in a fully recovered Colton Parayko, that he saw no need to upgrade the rest of the defense. The jury’s going to stay out on this decision for a bit.
Player to Watch: Robert Thomas
It took two days short of forever to get Robert Thomas signed to his two season, $2 million per contract. It took three days after that for the Blues to trade Zach Sanford to the Ottawa Senators for Logan Brown and some cleared out cap space.
That’s a vote of confidence from the team. You know that they expect something when they trade a player that a coach likes to clear the cap space to keep you.
Last season, Thomas played in just 33 games, netting 12 points (3G, 9A). Injury held him back from reproducing the previous season’s breakout numbers, but this year he’s fully healthy, and centering Saad and Tarasenko during the pre-season.
People believe in him, and with good reason. He’s a talented center, and clearly someone the team wants to build around. If he’s healthy, this year should reward the Blues. If Thomas faces another injury-laden season, on the other hand, that’s deeply to the team’s detriment.
Blues finish in a playoff spot, but not by much
The Blues will probably finish up third or fourth in the Central Division. That is said that not as a critique of the team, but rather as a statement to how strong the division should be this season. Colorado is, again, the favorite to run away with it, and if Minnesota can build on a surprisingly successful season in the Western Division, then it will be tough for the Blues to finish above third. If the Winnipeg Jets, who were solid in the North last year, continues their level of play, then it could be a slugfest for a wild card spot. It’s tough to see a Blues team that finishes with fewer than 90 points on the season - that’s how tough the Central should be.
Tarasenko finishes the year with the Blues, except if...
If the Blues aren’t in a playoff position by the trade deadline on March 21st of next year, then Tarasenko is certainly getting moved. He should play well this season between motivation and the miracle of modern medicine, and if a player’s playing well and being productive, why in the world would Doug Armstrong trade him?
If the Blues are playoff bound, or in a tight race, Tarasenko gets traded during the off-season. If they’re not, he gets dealt. Armstrong is good at working with players who want or need a change in scenery, so him holding on to Tarasenko through the year isn’t personal - if it’s what the team needs, it’s what the team needs.