A lot of the media is going to tell you that this year’s Blues team was built in the first week of NHL Free Agency last summer. That period was definitely a big deal: In the space of roughly two weeks, the Blues signed Tyler Bozak, former Blue David Perron, and St. Louis native Pat Maroon. They also made a blockbuster trade for Ryan O’Reilly, trading Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and draft picks.
What you won’t hear much about is the 2017 NHL Draft, a draft that was just as important to the current team’s success and possibly more.
Going into the Draft
Going into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Blues had 2 first round picks. First, the 20th overall pick belonged to the Blues. The other was the 27th pick, which St. Louis acquired from Washington in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.
The Blues had a lot of needs, trying to recover from the exits of former captain David Backes and Troy Brouwer. The trade of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also left a massive hole on the top defensive pair, and a trade of underperforming prospect Ty Rattie left the Blues a little light on offensive depth.
Finally, the goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Jake Allen wasn’t exactly performing up to snuff, and Phoenix Copley, who many thought was a possible future starter, was now gone as part of the Shattenkirk trade.
With few prospects standing out in the Chicago Wolves roster and the current roster starting to bleed players, the St. Louis Blues looked to be in a tight spot following their best playoff runs in recent history.
All of that led most people, myself included, to believe the Blues would hold onto those two picks and try and rebuild the farm system. There were also those that were expecting the Blues to maybe try and trade up to acquire one of the many top end prospects that were available in that draft, including Elias Pettersson, one of the finalists for this year’s Calder trophy.
The Blues elected not to trade up, but that didn’t mean they didn’t make a move. The Blues would end up making two moves. Two major moves, and in the end, they would come out of the first round of that draft with 4 new players, 3 of which have become instrumental to this year’s Blues team.
The Trades – Lehtera & Picks for Schenn
The first trade of the night was a huge one for the Blues. They sent the 27th overall pick, a 1st round pick in the 2018 draft, and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers. In return for that, the Blues got one player, Brayden Schenn.
This trade, simply put, was a big win for the Blues. Lehtera was already on a downturn for the Blues after posting solid seasons in ’14-’15 and ’15-’16, but he more or less fell apart in ’16-’17. He declined in literally every statistical category and couldn’t manage to keep up with his good buddy, Tarasenko, whom he had been centering for the previous years.
Those stats continued to drop in his two years in Philly culminating with his arrest, charge, and conviction for Cocaine possession in Finland. That landed him a four-month suspended prison sentence in Finland and a lengthy NHL suspension to boot.
The other two parts of that trade for Philly turned into Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee.
Frost has had a few great seasons in the OHL juniors in Canada. He looks like he could be good, but he has yet to show he can excel at the professional level.
Farabee has similarly had some success first in the USHL and then at Boston College, but again, has yet to break into the professional game. Where those two will end up is still anybody’s guess. They may both be great NHL players at some point, but right now they are just prospects with question marks.
The Blues Win This Trade
In exchange for a cocaine dealer and two question marks, the Blues received Brayden Schenn. Schenn made an immediate impact on the Blues by posting a career-high in essentially everything (GP, goals, Assists, Points, +/-, faceoff wins, faceoff %).
He also established himself as a legitimate NHL center, something he hadn’t been given the chance to do in Philly. This year he hasn’t been as good, missing a few games due to injury, and had a weak early season.
However, Schenn was instrumental in the late-season surge that saw the Blues into the playoffs, scoring 27 of his 54 pts in February, March, and April, despite missing games due to injury. He did that as the LW for O’Reilly and Tarasenko and then showed that he could still play center by jumping down to Center with Schwartz for the 3rd period of game 5 and all of game 6 in the first round against Winnipeg. That line essentially won both of those games offensively.
Schenn has 1 year left on his current contract and is in line for a substantial raise after next year. The Blues would be well served in keeping him around if they can make it work with the player and the cap. However, if Schenn is going to walk after next season, the Blues could easily trade him and probably get something pretty good in return. Either way, Schenn will either be a key part of the Blues team going forward or could be the trade that brings in future key pieces.
The Sun Comes Out in St. Louis
The Second trade was not as high profile nationally but was heartbreaking to the local fans. The Blues sent a 2nd round pick, 51st overall, and fan favorite Ryan Reaves to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In return, the Blues got the 31st overall pick and Oskar Sundqvist.
That trade came out of nowhere and most people had one response, sadness. Nobody in St. Louis wanted to see Reaves go. We were all shocked to see that trade happen, and then equally shocked to see that we had somehow managed to get a 1st round pick out of it. After the shock wore off, a bigger question arose, “Who the hell is Oskar Sundqvist?”
His first year, Sunny didn’t really do much for the Blues. He only played 42 games and his stats didn’t say much. This year, however, he has suddenly jumped into the St. Louis spotlight.
Sunny is one of those Swiss Army Knife players, he can play center or either wing. His game makes him look like a 3rd or 4th liner, but he is equally as comfortable on the 2nd line, and could step up to the top line, in the event of injury, and hold his own.
Sunny broke out this year to the tune of 31 pts, 14 goals and 17 assists over 74 games. Sundqvist looks like the kind of player that fills in the middle six forwards of the Blues, moving wherever the team needs him, not only for season to season but from game to game and even shift to shift as well. Every good team needs at least one of those and Sunny looks like he could easily be ours.
To put it into better terms, Sundqvist looks like a bigger, stronger and better version of Vladimir Sobotka, before he went to Russia. To top all of that off, Sunny is only 25 years old and still a Restricted Free Agent. The Blues will re-sign him next year, probably to a reasonable contract, and he looks to be filling the Blues’ middle six forward for years to come.
The Picks – Robert Thomas
Along with those two huge trades that brought both top end and middle level talent to St. Louis, the blues also made 6 draft picks in the 2017 draft and three of those picks are notable. The first is the Blues pick at 20th overall, Robert Thomas.
My first reaction upon hearing that the Blues drafted Thomas was, “Why did we draft the lead singer from Matchbox 20?” Then I went and looked him up.
Thomas has had multiple great seasons in the OHL of Canadian Juniors, including 2-50pt seasons (’16-’17 and ’17-’18), he also won the OHL title with Hamilton in 2017-18, then tagged on a 2018 World Junior Championship with Canada.
All of that, added to a great camp with the Blues and the fact that since he was only 19, he would have to go back to juniors if the Blues didn’t keep him in the NHL, secured Thomas a spot on the Blues NHL roster at the start of this season.
At first he looked timid and honestly a little outmatched in the NHL, as he only managed 7 pts in October and November. He also only played 6 games in October and was left on the Healthy Scratch List for a while to try and learn the NHL game.
Once December rolled around, Thomas had established himself on the 3rd and 4th line, but then when the Blues took off in March, he took off with them. Thomas posted 12 of his 33 points in just March and by the time the playoffs had started, he had firmly established himself on the 2nd line.
He hasn’t been as good in the playoffs, scoring only 1 point in 8 games, but like the start of the season, he is just getting his first taste of playoff hockey and he should grow into the game as he plays it more.
Regardless of his performance this year, Thomas has shown that he belongs in the NHL and is well on his way to proving he belongs in the top 6. He is also only 20 years old and on his entry-level deal, meaning that we will likely be seeing Robert Thomas for a decade to come.
Add in the pack of talented young players behind him, Jordan Kyrou, Dominic Bokk, etc., and Thomas could be the key cog in a massive wave of young superstars that we could see wash over St. Louis in the next few years.
It may be early in his career, but right now, Ryan O’Reilly is the Blues top Center, and Robert Thomas is his heir apparent.
The Second Pick – Klim Kostin
After the Robert Thomas pick came the Reaves trade and then the Blues suddenly had the 31st overall pick. They wasted no time in picking up Klim Kostin.
Kostin draws a lot of parallels with Vladimir Tarasenko. He is also Russian, but he also free fell down the draft board. Kostin was one of the most talked about prospects going into the 2017 draft and then he got injured right before it, and the talked shifted from his skill to his health.
It then shifted to the same talk that surrounded Tarasenko, namely whether he would choose to play in the NHL or go back to Russia and the KHL. Much like Tarasenko, the Blues saw a supremely talented player fall down the draft board and then, when the opportunity presented itself, they made a big deal and snatched him up.
Kostin so far has yet to play a single minute of NHL hockey. He was called up after the first round of the playoffs, but I would be incredibly surprised if he sees game time during the playoffs. You don’t drop a totally untested rookie into a playoff game. I know sometimes you have to throw the kid in the pool to see if he can swim, but throwing Kostin into a playoff game would be like tossing the kid into the Mississippi at flood stage and saying, “Swim for your life, Kid!”
The primary reason why I think Kostin hasn’t made the NHL yet, and a reason that could come back to bite the Blues, is the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. If Kostin doesn’t play in the NHL this season or next, then he isn’t eligible for Seattle to take him.
That would be huge for the Blues. They would get to keep a young, very talented player and not have to burn a protection spot on him. However, Kostin is not the most patient player. He wants to be in the NHL, and he feels he’s ready for it, but his stats don’t support that position.
He has managed only 28 points and 24 points in his two AHL seasons, and while he has had good showings in his 2 World Juniors appearances, he hasn’t exactly been lights out.
All of that taken into account, Kostin’s raw talent is obvious, and if he and the Blues can keep their patience and wait one more year, he could be a significant part of the Blues forward core going forward, possibly alongside Thomas or Dominic Bokk.
Sleeper Pick – Alexei Toropchenko
Now, this last pick is going to sound like a bit of a reach for some. The Blues didn’t pick in the 2nd round, due to the Ryan Reaves trade. They also didn’t have a pick in the 3rd round due to an earlier trade during the season. The Blues next pick was in the 4th round at 113 overall.
With that pick they took another Russian winger in Alexei Toropchenko. Most of the time 4th round picks don’t really merit a mention anywhere, but Alexei looks like he could be a steal. Physically speaking he is 19 years old, 6’ 3” and 201lbs, he needs to put on a little more muscle, but that is a great build for a middle pack forward.
He finished off 2016-17 in the Russian MHL where he put up some decent looking numbers, albeit I’m not really sure what the competition level in the Russian MHL is, but 31 points in 45 games is fairly good in any league.
Then immediately after the Blues drafted him, he made the very difficult jump to North America. Alexei has played the last 2 years in the OHL with the Guelph Storm, where he has racked up 39 and 43 points respectively. That’s actually pretty good for a Russian, 4th round pick, in Canadian Juniors.
Alexei clearly needs more time to season and learn the game, however, he should make the jump from Juniors to the AHL next year, and if he can secure himself a spot on the San Antonio team, he could be only a couple of years from the NHL.
Every team needs talented middle 6 and bottom 6 forwards and no matter how you shape it, many of the Blues’ guys are nearing their expiration dates. Guys like Perron, Steen, Bozak and Maroon, are only getting closer to the end of their careers and guys like Toropchenko could be the cheap but talented replacements that the Blues will need to keep their string of success going for years to come.
The Blues are in a transition period that began after the 2015-16 season. The Blues saw David Backes leave after a disappointing loss in the Western Conference final. Then we lost Perron to the expansion draft. Shattenkirk and Stastny left in high profile trades, and the Blues were left to pick up the pieces and reassemble a team around the new core of Tarasenko, Schwartz and Pietrangelo.
That process is nearing its completion and the Blues have done it right. They went out and traded for younger players that could fill crucial roles right now, and the acquired and developed prospects to fill the roles down the road. Then to cover the gap between them, they went out and picked up some hired guns to fill in, while they were developing those prospects.
Now the final step is to replace those hired guns with younger guys from our own system, and as that process plays out over the next few years, the 2017 NHL Draft will likely be the key to the future of the St. Louis Blues.
That draft is already paying dividends to the Blues right now though. 3 players acquired in this draft are currently on the Blues active team and 2 of them are top six forwards. Whatever the Blues do this year, the players picked up at the 2017 Draft will be a key part of it, and that sentiment is likely to be repeated for years to come.