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COVID forces Blues minor league coaches, players to scramble

COVID forces Blues minor league coaches, players to scramble

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Drew Bannister of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Photo by Terr

Drew Bannister of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.

This wasn’t the first time the Blues shared an American Hockey League roster with another NHL club. Just the first time they’ve done so during a pandemic. And with next to no notice.

Caught without an AHL affiliate just four years ago when the Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL as an expansion team, the Blues sent nine prospects to the San Antonio Rampage, then a Colorado Avalanche affiliate. And six prospects to the Chicago Wolves, who had parted ways with the Blues to become a Vegas affiliate.

Some may recall that there wasn’t a spot for Jordan Binnington on either the Rampage or Wolves rosters that season — he ended up playing for the Providence Bruins instead, surrounded by Boston Bruins prospects.

In terms of player development, the Blues survived that strange 2017-18 season in AHL limbo to win the Stanley Cup the following season. With Binnington leading the charge in goal.

So they’ll probably survive a 2020-21 season in which they sent prospects to the Utica (N.Y.) Comets, an affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. While also sprinkling a few prospects overseas just to get on a playing team in a COVID world.

For Drew Bannister, it meant a “demotion” and a situation where he made lemonade when life handed him lemons.

“It was a strange year in that sense, that I took a step back,” Bannister, 47, said. “But for me, in my own development, I thought it was a great year.”

After two years as head coach of the Blues’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio, Bannister was set to coach the Blues’ new affiliate — the Springfield (Mass.) Thunderbirds.

Bannister has yet to make it to Springfield. On Jan. 4, the day after the Blues reported to training camp, Springfield announced it was opting out of the season for COVID-related reasons. The Blues worked out an arrangement with Utica, where Trent Cull was beginning his fourth season as head coach.

Bannister became the associate head coach.

“Working under Trent this year was a great experience for me,” Bannister said. “I learned some things on how he would run things, and what I liked, and maybe changes that I would make. Different ideas.

“It gives you a different perspective in the game, and how you’re dealing with players. I appreciated this year in that fact for myself.”

Bannister didn’t retire as a player until 2012. So for someone still relatively new to the coaching game, particularly at the pro level, it was a valuable learning experience to watch Cull run the show in Utica.

Bannister still ran, by his estimation, about 40 percent of each practice. He ran the power play and the pre-scout video. But Cull was still the head coach.

Bottom line, though, Bannister’s job is to develop prospects into future Blues. And for those young men, this was a trying season — unlike any other.

“It was paramount that we were able to get our players somewhere to continue their development,” Bannister said. “So on that side, I was really happy for our players. It’s been a tough year obviously for them and I totally understand them not getting a paycheck for quite a while.

“They had bills to pay, they had mortgages, some of them have wives, some of them have kids. So in that sense I was really happy for our players to get back playing. And then certainly, how they conducted themselves as professionals and players in a tough situation coming in, and the accountability they had to themselves.”

AHL players can generally make around $70,000 to $100,000 — in some cases more. It’s a decent living. But there were no games, and no paychecks until the AHL began its condensed season Feb. 5. Despite a couple of COVID shutdowns — Bannister said the Comets had “upwards of nine players” on their COVID list over the course of the season Pandemic forces Blues minor league coaches, players to scramble — they managed to play 28 games, finishing 16-11-1.

From Utica to St. Louis

All told, the Blues had 17 prospects play between one and 27 games. Many went back and forth between Utica and the Blues’ taxi squad and/or active roster.

Among those Utica callups, Nathan Walker, Dakota Joshua, Steven Santini and Mitch Reinke worked their way into the Blues’ lineup at one time or another; Santini and Reinke played in the Colorado playoff series after injuries in Game 2 sidelined Justin Faulk and Robert Bortuzzo.

Joshua, who wasn’t even invited to Blues training camp in January, now has worked himself onto the team’s radar.

“In talking with Kevin (McDonald) and knowing what we knew about Dakota last year and the trajectory he was on, we knew he was gonna get a chance to play in the NHL,” Bannister said.

(McDonald is the Blues’ AHL team general manager.)

“Did I think it was gonna be that quick? Probably not,” Bannister continued. “But that’s a credit to Dakota and the work that he put in last summer. When I talked to him last summer, he said all the right things and he was doing all the right things.”

Santini was impressive enough in practice that the Blues signed him to a two-year, two-way contract extension after he had played in just one game with the big club.

Among other Comets, forward Sam Anas, who spent part of the season on the Blues’ taxi squad, was the leading scorer among Blues prospects — and tied for the overall Utica team scoring lead — with 23 points on four goals and 19 assists. Nolan Stevens led the Utica Blues prospects with six goals.

On defense, 2018 draft pick Tyler Tucker made the most of his first extensive experience in pro hockey, appearing in 27 of the 28 games.

“He averaged over 23 minutes a game with us,” Bannister said. “That doesn’t happen in a normal year. You don’t have a 20-year-old defenseman (playing that much).

“His trajectory is so much farther ahead because of this, even though it was (27) games. Just the ice time that he had, the situations that he was put in, the recognition now of what it takes to be a pro. How things are run.”

No less than six goalies saw action for Utica, and four of them were Blues prospects. There were times when the Comets had three or four goalies on the ice for practice — not an ideal situation.

Joel Hofer, who began the season on the Blues’ taxi squad, and returned to St. Louis at the very end of the Blues’ regular season, saw the most action among the six, playing 10 games. Those 10 games were all crammed into a one-month period, from April 10 through May 10.

“The unfortunate thing for him, he came down to us (in early March), he had a week of practice and then we hit that COVID pause,” Bannister said. “Then he was off for a month.”

Once Utica finally cleared the COVID hurdle, Hofer made his first start of the season — and first start in 13 months — April 10 against Syracuse. He had four games where he allowed five or six goals, but four games where he allowed zero or one goal.

“Some ups and downs, which you would expect for a young goalie that hadn’t played a game in a year,” Bannister said. “But I think when he left us to go back up to St. Louis, he was playing some really good hockey for us.”

It was valuable experience for Hofer, 20, who could be the No. 3 goalie in the Blues’ organization next season behind Binnington and Ville Husso.

“Our guys made great strides,” Bannister said. “We were really happy with our group, and where they went this year with our guidance. It was a two-team split and they understood that.”

Again, the Blues were sharing the roster and thus sharing playing time with the Vancouver prospects. When asked if he had input on the lineup, Bannister said:

“Yes and no. At the end of the day it was their (lineup) card and it was their organization, right? So if it was in the other hand, you would probably imagine that there’d be more St. Louis guys in the lineup than Vancouver guys. That’s how it was.”

So it wasn’t an even 50-50 split in playing time between Canucks and Blues. But the Blues (and Canucks) made it work. Bannister said the silver lining in that situation was that the Blues’ prospects stayed ready, motivated, and competitive for spots in the lineup.

Late arrivals

There were some late-season arrivals as well in Utica. Nikita Alexandrov, the Blues’ top pick in the 2019 draft, played seven late-season games and scored three goals for Utica after completing a year in the Liiga, Finland’s top pro league.

Keean Washkurak, age 19 and also a 2019 Blues draft pick, got in three late season-games after a stint playing in the Slovakia2 league.

He was supposed to play in the Ontario Hockey League, but the Blues shuffled him off to Europe to get games. Forward Tanner Dickinson and goalie Will Cranley, 2020 draft picks who turned 19 during the season, weren’t as lucky.

They also were scheduled to play in the OHL, but weren’t placed elsewhere. The OHL never got its 2020-21 season going because of COVID, so Dickinson’s three games and Cranley’s one game in Utica at the very end of the season were their only contests.

“I would say that we’ll probably look back on this and say the Europeans had an advanced development year, (more) than the North Americans,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “It seemed like there were more leagues going on over there, there were more players playing.

“It was difficult for the North American players. Even the American Hockey League, the way it was set up, it was set up with no playoffs and you played a small number of teams.”

Except for an abbreviated postseason for the seven teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division, there were no playoffs in the AHL this season. And regardless of the level, postseason play is a key ingredient in prospect development and evaluation.

“The emotion of hockey is about the postseason,” Armstrong said. “It’s about preparing yourself to be on the perfect level — to hit that and then run for a championship. It’s something that we all dealt with though. It’s no different.

“But yeah, there’s gonna be a stagnation in growth for some players for sure.”

As such, there were sacrifices made under trying situations. Especially when it came to taxi squad members who at worst would have been piling up game experience in the AHL under normal conditions.

“I think that those were the players that sacrificed the most,” Armstrong said. “Certainly in our organization, I don’t want to speak for others. But I was so impressed with our taxi squad. They came to work every day. They did the skill development. ... They were prepared when necessary.

“Some of them drove back and forth from St. Louis to Utica on multiple occasions just to play so they didn’t have to quarantine. And they did it with a smile on. I owe them a debt of gratitude and I said that to ‘em in front of the team.

“They were true pros in a time where it could’ve been easy not to be that.”

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