St. Louis Blues: Breaking down the schedule, roster and projections in the pandemic-altered 2020-21 season
ST. LOUIS (KY3) - The St. Louis Blues held the title of defending Stanley Cup champions longer than most of their successors in the 21st century; a year-plus stretch dating back to June 12, 2019, partially extended from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a Stanley Cup repeat wasn’t meant to be last year. With the NHL season paused for nearly five months amid the pandemic, the Blues returned to play in a bubble, only to be eliminated in the first round of an adjusted playoff format in mid-August.
Fast forward nearly another five months, the St. Louis Blues hit the ice for an abbreviated 2020-21 season.
The new campaign officially begins Wednesday when the Blues take on the Colorado Avalanche. Puck drop is set for 9:30 p.m. CT.
Plenty of changes surround the Blues in a second consecutive season altered by the pandemic. Some will impact the circumstances of how the season moves along, while others pertain more to the team’s identity.
Here’s a closer look at the upcoming schedule, roster and projections as the St. Louis Blues begin their bid for a second Stanley Cup in three years.
In an effort to limit travel and potential exposure to COVID-19, the National Hockey League created four temporary divisions for the 2020-21 season. Teams are only scheduled to play games within their divisions prior to playoffs.
The temporary divisions include:
- Scotia NHL® North Division
- Honda NHL® West Division
- Discover NHL® Central Division
- MassMutual NHL® East Division
With these adjustments, the NHL organized a 56-game regular season schedule for each of its 31 teams. The North Division consists of Canada’s seven teams, while the other three are based on geographical arrangements within the United States.
The Blues ended up in the West Division with a schedule featuring seven opponents, all but one outside of the Central time zone. The realignment means that some traditional rivalries, such as ones against the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, have been put on hold.
While the temporary scheduling arrangements will contribute to some longer road trips and later start times, the Blues will avoid strenuous travel by playing a two-game series at one site over a few days for most of the schedule.
The season starts with a pair of road games against the Colorado Avalanche over three days, including a nationally-televised game on Jan. 13. The Blues then head back to St. Louis for their home opener against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 18, kicking off a four-game homestand.
Former Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, fresh into a seven-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights, takes on his former team for the first time on January 26. St. Louis’s last two captains, Pietrangelo and Anaheim Ducks forward David Backes, could combine for up to 16 games against their former team this season.
February’s slate features eight home games, the most of any month for the Blues in the truncated season. Common opponents over the month include the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks, both set to play the Blues four times.
Each NHL team will be offered a five-day break throughout the season. The Blues will take their five-day break from March 7-11.
March also features two road trips in California, each consisting of four road games and at least one two-game series against the Los Angeles Kings.
One common opponent late into the season could have huge implications on the standings. Six of the final 15 contests for the St. Louis Blues come against the Minnesota Wild.
The home finale is set with the Anaheim Ducks on May 5. The Blues wrap up the regular season with games on back-to-back nights against the Vegas Golden Knights from May 7-8.
A few other notes regarding the schedule:
- Only eight of the 56 games start at 9 p.m. or later, a friendly arrangement considering a slew of West Coast games.
- Teams will wear Reverse Retro jerseys for a few games over the 2020-21 season, including designated rivalry games, though specific dates have not yet been announced. The Blues reverse retro jersey is red and uses an opposite color scheme of the Blues’ primary jersey of the 1990′s.
- Regarding fan attendance at games, the Blues is planning to invite a limited number of frontline workers to the first homestand under specific public health protocols. The team released the following statement Monday: “The team is working with local healthcare systems, as well as public safety organizations, to identify and invite a small number of frontline workers who will be in attendance at all January home games.”
The St. Louis Blues will officially announce their 23-man roster ahead of Wednesday’s season opener. The announcement is expected later Tuesday.
It’s expected that the team will begin the season with 13 healthy forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders. The Blues can only dress 20 skaters at a single time for each game, but can rotate anyone from their active roster into the lineup.
Here’s a closer look at the projected roster:
This year’s team still includes several core members from the 2019 Stanley Cup championship, but not without a bit of transition.
Most notably, longtime defenseman Alex Pietrangelo departed in free agency after signing a lengthy contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. The new season also begins without veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Alexander Steen, both who retired following the 2019-20 season over health concerns.
Ryan O’Reilly takes over as captain, becoming the 23rd player in franchise history to take on the prestigious role. The 29-year-old center is considered one of the strongest two-way forwards in the league, winning the Selke Trophy for his defensive prowess in 2019 and averaging just under a point per game over the last two years.
O’Reilly leads a balanced veteran presence that also includes the likes of David Perron, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz, three 20-goal scorers from last season.
Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the team’s longest-tenured players and a former 40-goal scorer, will begin the season on the long-term injured reserve. The designation opens up a temporary roster spot and frees up cap space while he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn anchor a defense that has seen some shuffling and new additions in recent seasons. Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo are the only other remaining defensemen from the 2019 Stanley Cup team, though both are more likely to be rotated in and out the lineup based on schedule demands and opponent matchups.
Jordan Binnington, who emerged as the go-to goalie during the 2019 Stanley Cup run, will handle the lion’s share of starts in net once again. He will look to regain form after a tough stretch in last year’s playoffs (discussed further below), but that will come without above-average backup Jake Allen, who was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in the offseason.
MEET THE NEW GUYS
- Torey Krug signed a seven-year, $45 million contract in October. It’s the largest deal the Blues have handed to an unrestricted free agent in franchise history, one representing the team’s confidence as he replaces Alex Pietrangelo on defense. Krug was well on pace for his fourth consecutive 50-point season prior to the pandemic-forced shutdown last year, and a career Corsi-factor near 55% shows promise in his playmaking abilities.
- Mike Hoffman just finalized a one-year, $4 million contract Monday following a preseason tryout. Coming into the season with six consecutive 20-goal campaigns, Hoffman offers a big boost for the powerplay unit and immediately slides into a Top-6 forward role. If he can play both sides of the wing, he may get frequent minutes with top playmakers Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron.
- Ville Husso will finally get a chance to defend the crease after four-plus years in the Blues farm system. He is expected to backup Jordan Binnington this year, who he split time with in the American Hockey League as recently as 2018. Husso should get opportunities on a near-weekly basis through early-May, particularly during 10 instances in which the Blues play opponents on back-to-back days.
- Robert Thomas has shown glimpses of elite offensive production over his first two seasons. He finished with 26 even-strength assists last season, second-best on the team, and saw his ice team increase to nearly 16 minutes per game in the 2020 playoffs. Topping personal scoring records might be difficult in a shortened season, but results will come if he continues to force takeaways and transition the puck into the offensive zone.
- Zach Sanford shattered personal bests in goals, assists and hits last season, taking advantage of playing time with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron. The key to replicate such production? Keep firing shots at the net. Sanford had a remarkable 17.8 shooting percentage last year, and a 53% expected goals for percentage over the last two years means the Blues are setting up more quality chances than opponents when he’s on the ice.
- Colton Parayko has finished with the same number of goals (10) and assists (18) over the last two seasons, but he accomplished that in 16 fewer games last season. However, it was only the second time he didn’t register at least 100 hits and blocked shots. Parayko figures to see a healthy increase in ice time with Alex Pietrangelo’s departure, which means more opportunities to make an impact on special teams and possibly more opportunities to unleash a 100-mph slapshot.
BOUNCE BACK CANDIDATES
- Justin Faulk faced some tough luck in his first season with the Blues. The former All-Star defenseman only delivered 16 points in 69 games, resulting in career-low 0.23 points-per-game rate. Faulk is a natural right-side defenseman, but the Blues often shuffled defensive pairings last year due to an excess of skill from the right. Torey Krug and Marco Scandella will offer more stability to the left side than years past, so Faulk could see a resurgence with more time at his natural side.
- Oskar Sundqvist can truly be a make-or-break piece when it comes to the Blues offensive depth. He potted a dozen goals for the second straight season, an impressive feat on a defensive-minded fourth line. He couldn’t quite find that form in the bubble, limited to just one assist in nine playoff games. There’s reason to hope that was just a fluke, as he has strong chemistry with linemate Ivan Barbashev and has three times more takeaways than giveaways in his Blues career.
- Jordan Binnington had a strong 2019-20 season on paper, winning 30 games despite some mild regression in save percentage and goals against average. What the stats don’t immediately point out, he had 11 starts where he allowed three or more goals, including six of at least four goals, from January 2020 to mid-March when the pandemic shut down the league. When the Blues returned to play in the bubble, Binnington was winless over five playoff games, many in which the Blues fell behind early. It was polar opposite from the record-setting Stanley Cup campaign the year before. Combined with the fact that he’s playing for a new contract beyond 2021, Binnington should be motivated to bounce back in the shortened season.
Eight of the last nine seasons have resulted in playoffs for the St. Louis Blues. A playoff berth appears to be the floor for the 2020-21 squad, even with the temporary division alignment.
If the Blues secure another playoff bid, a run to the top will look slightly different compared to years past:
- The top four teams in each division will battle in a first-round series with the two victors advancing to the second round and playing for a final four spot.
- The remaining teams from each four divisions will face each other, ranked by overall points.
- Two of the four will compete in the Stanley Cup Final in July 2021.
With the scheduling adjustments considered, JFresh Hockey, an NHL analytics-based website, predicts a second-place finish for the Blues in the West division with 74 points.
The analytics-based projection isn’t too far off from St. Louis’s pace last season against their upcoming opponents. The Blues finished with a 13-4-3 record (29 points) over 20 games against their temporary division foes in the 2019-20 season, which paces to around 81 points over 56 games.
For further comparison, the JFresh Hockey projection, if carried out on pace with the last two season, would be nearly equal to the 94 points in 71 games from 2019-20 and higher than the 99 points in 82 games from 2018-19.
It’s promising projection for the Blues, who will likely jockey with the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights for the West’s top three spots in playoff seeding.
Daily Faceoff projects the Blues will have several team leaders for individual stats in 2020-21, including:
- Goals: Mike Hoffman (19)
- Assists: Torey Krug (37)
- Points: Torey Krug (45)
- Plus/minus: Ryan O’Reilly (+12)
- Shots on goal: Mike Hoffman (161)
- Hits: Sammy Blais (124)
- Blocks: Justin Faulk (62)
- Wins: Jordan Binnington (21)
- Goals Against Average: Jordan Binnington (2.60)
- Save Percentage: Jordan Binnington (.914)
Looking further, the Blues have a chance to accomplish an elusive feat that’s been done twice in the past decade, but otherwise has proved uncommon in the expansion era... Winning two Stanley Cups in three years without a repeat title in between.
Right now, sports betting organization PointsBet gives the Blues 20/1 odds (+2000) to accomplish that feat. PointsBet projects that only six teams have stronger odds for a Stanley Cup championship this season, including two West division foes in the Colorado Avalanche (+550) and Vegas Golden Knights (+675).
The championship window remains wide open for the St. Louis Blues, but they’ll have to navigate through a season unlike any other in recent franchise history to make it happen.
It’s time for “Blues Hockey In A Pandemic, Part II.” Enjoy the new season!
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