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Hochman: As Blues fans yearn for defensive addition (Chychrun? Giordano?), Mikkola proves worth in present

Two last minute goals lift Blues to victory over the Stars 2-1

St. Louis Blues Niko Mikkola slaps at the puck as he goes down against the Dallas Stars in the second period as the Blues beat the Stars 2-1 at Enterprise Center on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

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St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube and players Brandon Saad and Tyler Bozak discuss defenseman Niko Mikkola. Video courtesy of Blue Note Productions

Niko Mikkola is now … a factor?

Yep, his ascension this season has been one of the most-surprising developments. These days, the defenseman leaves an imprint on seemingly every game he plays (and sometimes literally on an opponent).

Yet the Blues still should look to replace Mikkola as a top-four defenseman.

This isn’t an indictment on Mikkola — it’s simply saying they could have their cake and eat it, too. Make a trade that bolsters the Colton Parayko pairing, which thus bolsters your third pairing by moving down Mikkola, who is, if not a top-four defenseman, definitely top-four-ish.

On Thursday, a possible upgrade will be in St. Louis, while wearing the other team’s sweater (and the other team’s “C”). Seattle Kraken captain Mark Giordano is on the last year of his contract, and the former Flame surely has one in his belly to win a Cup. He does make a bunch of money ($6.75 million), and the Blues would have to get crazy-creative with salary-cap space, likely moving Marco Scandella and, say, Klim Kostin and even more to make it work.

But if the Blues are going to make a deep playoff run, they need to deepen their defensive depth. They clearly are stronger at the forward position than on “D.” And in 2022, it’s quite possible that one of their top-four guys could get COVID in the postseason, be it Parayko, Mikkola, Justin Faulk or his defensive partner Torey Krug. As it is, Parayko currently is on the COVID list, meaning that Mikkola will play with Faulk against the Kraken, while Krug will pair with Scandella.

At least Scandella no longer is with Parayko. Woof — that was rough. It was just a terrible pairing, for whatever reason. But since Mikkola was paired with Parayko, the Blues have played better team hockey — in part because Mikkola has been a reliable teammate.

“He’s a guy that does all the little things,” Blues teammate Brandon Saad said Wednesday. “You know, he might not be noticed too much. But he’s been doing a great job of playing that shutdown role. He’s got a big body, a long reach — he’s tough to play against in practice. So you can see with his physicality, and the way he closes in on guys, he’s having a lot of success. And he’s getting that bigger role, and he’s been a big part of our team and winning — and is a lot of fun to watch, as well.”

This isn’t to say No. 77 is a Ray Bourque on defense, but he’s at least a Jay McKee. Mikkola, 25, has aced his audition as a top-four defenseman — checking off boxes by finishing off checks and shutting down Czechs. He’s played fearless hockey. And he mixed it up with the notorious Tom Wilson of Washington, as well as Jamie Benn of Dallas and — did you see this? — Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. In his skirmish with Crosby, Mikkola even cut the front of the future Hall of Famer’s nose.

“Not usually the guy that guys go after,” Blues forward Tyler Bozak said. “There’s a lot you probably have to deal with after that in the game, (because) you’ll have the whole other team coming after you. So it takes a lot of courage. That’s the way he has to play the game to be successful. He needs to play hard. He needs to be hard on guys. And he’s done a heck of a job while doing it.

“Obviously, he’s still a young guy, he’s still gaining experience, but yeah, not a guy you want to play against. And I think that’s the biggest thing for him. He’s big, he plays mean and he plays hard. He’s annoying, I guess, would be the word on the ice. ... And even in practice, he’s not fun to play against.”

The trade deadline (March 21) is more than two months away. A lot could happen before then. One thing that’ll likely happen? Colorado asserts itself as a top-three team in the division. The Avs team that started 4-5-1 was a mirage. And Nashville (St. Louis’ opponent on Monday) has lost only three games since November ended. The Blues are good enough to make the playoffs. But are they good enough to make a playoff run? You could make an argument for that right now — but an added defenseman makes making that argument quite easier.

Another name that’s naturally floating around the cyberspace is Jakob Chychrun, because the Coyotes are rebuilding and he’s too good for a rebuilding team. Like Giordano, Chychrun is a lefty, which would pair with Parayko. Chychrun ($4.6 million) makes less per year than Giordano does, but Chychrun has three more years on his contract. Coyotes boss Bill Armstrong previously worked for Blues boss Doug Armstrong, so Bill knows the trade pieces and his potential trading partner.

Again, a lot could happen between now and the trade deadline.

But the Blues should make two moves — one for a defenseman, and the other of Mikkola down to the third pairing … even if Mikkola is worthy of more minutes.

“He’s learning on the fly, and he’s doing a good job of it,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “I think on defensive side of things, he’s reading plays and using a stick to break up plays. I think he’s starting to read when it can be aggressive — and when he’s got to pull back. Staying more patient at times. You know, that’s all stuff that with a guy like that, it takes time to learn — and you learn it over time. He’s doing that.”

Sports columnists Jeff Gordon and Ben Frederickson recall Seattle's whiff on Tarasenko and ponder the future of the forward as the Blues need defensive help before the trade deadline

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