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Gordo: Surprising depth fortifies Blues for Stanley Cup defense

Gordo: Surprising depth fortifies Blues for Stanley Cup defense

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Blues host Lightning

Blues left winger Sammy Blais and Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point compete for the puck on Nov. 19 at Enterprise Center. (Christian Gooden photo, cgooden@post-dispatch.com)

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has aggressively spent long-term assets while in win-now mode.

He has the defending Stanley Cup champions atop the Western Conference as a result.

Yet Armstrong can step back at the All-Star break and still see solid organizational depth supporting his roster.

If he wants to make an upgrade before the NHL trade deadline, he still has chips to play. If he chooses to hang on to them instead, he will have a hedge against spring fatigue and future salary cap challenges.

Either way, Armstrong is sitting more comfortably than most of his peers.

Even with wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Sammy Blais sidelined while recovering from surgical repairs, forwards Jordan Kyrou and Zach Sanford have had to alternate in the lineup and power forward Klim Kostin has remained in development in San Antonio.

On the blue line, Niko Mikkola has proven he is ready for the NHL right now and Jake Walman returned to the prospect track with a turnaround season at San Antonio.

So Armstrong still operates from strength despite wheeling and dealing first-round picks and top prospects the past few years.

Armstrong sent two first-round picks to Philadelphia in the package for forward Brayden Schenn. He sent a first-round pick and promising forward Tage Thompson, a 2016 first-rounder, to Buffalo in the package for center Ryan O’Reilly.

He sent winger Dominik Bokk, a 2018 first-round pick, to Carolina as part of the Justin Faulk trade before this season.

Yet the Blues still have a nice supply of good young players pushing for NHL work. How is this possible?

The Blues have done an excellent job drafting in the second round and later — unlike during previous regimes — and Armstrong and Co. have engineered smart trades to replenish the prospect pile along the way.

The best example of that, of course, was sending ruffian Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick to Pittsburgh for young forward Oskar Sundqvist and the first-round pick they used to select Kostin.

Sundqvist emerged last season as a key nucleus piece. Kostin scored a high-skill goal during his first action with the Blues this season and he has flashed offensive potential in the AHL.

At the very least Kostin will add some heft to the Blues when he finally settles into their supporting cast.

Another key trade was getting a 2017 first-round pick plus Sanford from Washington for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — who was determined to test free agency after his contract expired that summer.

The rangy Sanford has flashed some offensive upside during his second full NHL campaign. He produced four points in his last four games while playing a more robust game.

As for that No. 1 pick, Armstrong put that in the package for Schenn while also sending the Ghost of Jori Lehtera to haunt the unsuspecting Flyers.

When the Blues did get to make picks in recent years, they have found value down in the draft.

Mackenzie MacEachern, a third-round pick in 2012, has earned regular work as a straight-line grinder on the fourth line after playing three seasons at Michigan State and 2 ½ seasons in the AHL.

Walman, a third-round pick in 2014, struggled mightily in his first two pro seasons before reversing course this season and earning his first Blues duty. After producing just 13 points with an ugly minus-31 rating in 66 AHL games last season, he has progressed to 21 points with a plus-1 rating in 37 games this season.

Blais, a sixth-round pick in 2016, became a hit man with scoring instincts and touch — a perfect fit for Craig Berube’s offensive vision.

Mikkola, a fifth-round pick in 2015, excelled during his latest call-up. His long wingspan and strength on the puck could make him a nice long-range fit here. Jay Bouwmeester can’t play forever, right?

Kyrou, a second-round pick in 2016, has flashed Top 6 forward skills during his latest call-up to the Blues. His overall game has improved in the past year and he would be playing big minutes on lesser NHL teams.

Scott Perunovich, a second-round pick in 2018, is undersized but instinctive. He produced 25 points in his first 22 games at Minnesota-Duluth this season while also progressing as a defender. His ability to read the play at both ends could allow him to flourish like, say, Samuel Girard for the Colorado Avalanche.

Joel Hofer, a fourth-round pick in 2018, was not one of Canada’s early goaltending candidates for the World Junior Championships. But his dominant play in the Western Hockey League this season earned him his chance to shine in the tournament.

Nikita Alexandrov, a second-round pick in 2019, put up numbers in his last two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He scored two goals and six assists in seven games at the WJC while projecting at least third-line potential.

Armstrong must address his surplus at some point, since Mikkola is pushing for work right now and the looming return of the bulldozing Blais could create an even bigger logjam at forward.

As problems go, these are nice ones for a front-running team to possess.


Gordo grades the Blues

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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