Not that long ago, neither Joel Hofer nor Nikita Alexandrov were on the radar of their country’s national junior team.
Yet there they were, playing central roles in the World Junior Championship earlier this month in the Czech Republic. Hofer, a goalie, came off the bench to lead Team Canada to the gold medal. Alexandrov, a forward, played a prominent role for silver-medalist Russia.
“And you like to see that,” said Bill Armstrong, the Blues’ assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting. “That’s a very good sign for us.”
Hofer was taken in the fourth round, No. 107 overall in the 2018 draft, about a week before the Blues went wild on the first day of free agency — trading for Ryan O’Reilly and signing David Perron and Tyler Bozak.
Alexandrov was the Blues’ first pick in the 2019 draft last June, albeit with the last pick of the second round, No. 62 overall. At the time, the Blues were basking in the afterglow of their Stanley Cup Final victory over the Boston Bruins less than two weeks earlier.
So their arrival may have seemed like an afterthought, but both 19-year-olds have since wedged their way into the Blues’ consciousness.
Hofer, who was born in Winnipeg, didn’t even get invited to one of the tryout camps for the Team Canada junior team last spring and summer.
“There were 14 goaltenders that were invited I believe to camp at one point in Canada and he wasn’t one of the 14,” Armstrong said.
But after participating for the Blues’ team at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in early September, the Blues encouraged him to do whatever he could to make the junior national team.
“That should be your goal, to be one of the top goaltenders in junior hockey in Canada,” Armstrong said.
Thanks to a stellar start to his junior season for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, and an impressive showing in the Canada vs. Russia junior series in November, Hofer earned a spot on Team Canada.
“And then when he got his opportunity (at the World Juniors) he seized the net and just ran with it,” said Armstrong, no relation to Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
After sitting out the first game of pool play, Hofer replaced starter Nicolas Daws in goal after Russia took a 4-0 lead early in the second period of Game 2. As fate would have it, a goal by Alexandrov — to make it 4-0 Russia — chased Daws and got fellow Blues prospect Hofer into the net.
He never left. Hofer went 5-0-0, posting the best goals-against average (1.60) and best save percentage (.939) at the World Juniors. Not surprisingly, he was named the tournament’s best goaltender and made the tournament all-star team.
In the title game, Alexandrov scored against his Blues “teammate” to open the scoring, but Hofer stopped 35 of 38 shots overall to help Canada to a 4-3 win and the championship.
Being the starting goalie at any level for Team Canada is a big deal, and Hofer thrived in that spotlight at the World Juniors.
“What people don’t understand about that, too, is that the whole country of Canada is watching,” Armstrong said. “It’s a big thing in Canada so I think all the kids know that. It’s a good stage to be on. There’s a lot of pressure.
“Robert Thomas played in it, Jordan Kyrou played in it. Klim Kostin played for Russia. So it’s really a good chance to see where your prospect is at compared to the other prospects in the world.”
Since the tournament ended Jan. 5, Hofer returned to the Winterhawks and is 4-0-1. For the season, he’s 24-4-2 with a 2.03 GAA and a .932 save percentage. He’s second in both goals-against and save percentage in the 22-team WHL, and is tied for first in wins.
“His size, that’s the first thing you notice,” Armstrong said. “He covers a lot of the net. The second thing you’re gonna note about him is he’s a goalie’s goalie. . . . He really has a good awareness of where the puck’s going and who it’s going to. He’s got a very high IQ as a goaltender.”
Another thing you notice is that at 6-5, 172 pounds, he’s just as skinny as Blues star Jordan Binnington.
When asked if Hofer needed to put on some weight, Armstrong laughed and said: “Well, ‘Binny’ never did. And he’s OK. I think we’re past the point of putting weight on our goaltenders.”
As for Alexandrov, he finished the World Juniors with two goals and six assists for Russia, with at least one point in all seven tournament games. His eight points tied for second on the team. Alexandrov played on Russia’s second line, and as the tournament progressed he began seeing power play duty as well.
“He worked his way on (that team),” Armstrong said. “I gotta be honest with you, he wasn’t a natural fit for that team because he hadn’t played for their national team growing up. So he had to earn his stripes and he really got a ton of playing time. That coach really liked him.”
Although of Russian descent, Alexandrov was born and raised in Germany, so he really wasn’t around the Russian hockey scene growing up.
“He is a (Tyler) Bozak,” Armstrong said, referring to the veteran Blues forward. “That’s who he is. He makes subtle plays that make people better around him. Every time he touches the puck, he puts the puck in the right place at the right time. And he’s always in the right place at the right time.”
Since returning to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he plays for the Charlottetown Islanders, Alexandrov has one goal and four assists in five games. For the season he has 15 goals and 13 assists in 24 games.
“He’s a quality kid; he really is,” Armstrong said. “We’re really impressed. He’s gonna turn pro (as is Hofer) after this year. So we got both him and Hofer coming in next year which is really huge for our organization.”
Gordo grades the Blues
DAVID PERRON, Forward
GORDO ON PERRON: With Vladimir Tarasenko shelved by shoulder surgery, Perron stepped up to become the team’s top shooter. He leads the Blues with 230 shot attempts and 21 goals, eight of them game-winners. He is the top power-player producer with 25 points. He made the All-Star Game as one of the “Last Men In,” as voted by fans, and the honor was well-deserved.
RYAN O'REILLY, Forward
GORDO ON O'REILLY: He has checked most of his boxes this season. Checking? Yes, with his team-high 52 takeaways, 29 blocked shots and positive possession metrics. Face-off wins? Yes, with 56.9 percent success, Playmaking? Yes, 34 assists in 49 games. Scoring goals? Ah, not so much. O’Reilly scored just nine goals overall and just two in 25 home games. But his leadership on and off the ice has kept the Blues atop the Western Conference.
VLADIMIR TARASENKO, Forward
GORDO ON TARASENKO: He played just fine until suffering another shoulder injury. He scored 10 points in 10 games and stayed engaged physically (17 hits, seven blocked shots). Tarasenko earned a minus-2 rating, but good possession metrics in his limited duty. The power-play has clicked well in his absence, so it will be interesting to see how he is deployed if he makes it back from surgical repairs this season.
JADEN SCHWARTZ, Forward
GORDO ON SCHWARTZ: Last season he scored just 11 goals in 69 regular-season games. Schwartz has worked diligently on his net-front finishing skills and gained a nice payoff: 16 goals with a 14.4 percent conversion rate. He has regained his skating jump and become ever more tenacious on the forecheck. His 33 takeaways trail only O’Reilly on this team. But his plus-minus rating of minus-6 is worst among Blues forwards.
OSKAR SUNDQVIST, Forward
GORDO ON SUNDQVIST: It’s hard to believe he scored just two goals in his first 70 NHL games. He broke out for 14 last season in his supporting role and he has 11 in 43 games this season despite his 63.3 percent defensive zone starts. Sundqvist plays a physical game (47 hits) and checks tenaciously at both ends of the ice (21 blocked shots, 31 takeaways). He isn’t great on faceoffs (44.2 percent), but that is secondary assignment for him on this team.
SAMMY BLAIS, Forward
GORDO ON BLAIS: Given his lengthy absence due to wrist surgery, we can forget how impressive he was earlier this season. Blais delivered 70 hits in just 20 games. He scored five goals, all at even strength, and built strong possession metrics. It’s no wonder coach Craig Berube is such a fan.
ROBERT THOMAS, Forward
GORDO ON THOMAS: After producing just three goals and one assist in his first 16 games, Thomas emerged as an effective playmaker, producing 23 points in 28 games since then despite averaging just 14 minutes of ice time overall. He has 25 points at even strength and a plus-11 rating. He is at his best playing center, although he struggles on faceoffs with just 42.8 percent success.
BRAYDEN SCHENN, Forward
GORDO ON SCHENN: He bounced back from a tough 2018-19 campaign to score 17 goals this season, matching last year’s total. His 75 hits rank second on the team. Schenn isn’t great in the faceoff circle (49.2 percent success) and he has more giveaways (28) than takeaways (18). His minus-5 rating is second-worst on the team, but he still has positive possession metrics.
TYLER BOZAK, Forward
GORDO ON BOZAK: He moved to the wing and found tremendous chemistry with Thomas on the No. 3 forward line. After producing just 11 points in his first 31 games this season, Bozak has 13 points in his last 17 games. He is the team’s second-best face-off man (54.7 percent success) and that helps offset Thomas’ struggles there. He is plus-8 with 22 takeaways, but his possession metrics are just OK.
IVAN BARBASHEV, Forward
GORDO ON BARBASHEV: First and foremost, he still embraces his role as a human missile. His 102 hits leads the team by a wide margin. He uses his speed to hit with leverage. Barbashev fills mostly a checking role, with 61.7 defensive zone starts, but he chipped in with 20 points with a plus-4 rating in 47 games. He’s not great on faceoffs (47.1 percent) and his possession metrics weren’t great either.
MACKENZIE MACEACHERN, Forward
GORDO ON MACEACHERN: Berube savors reliable, energetic straight-line players who play the body and drive the net. Fourth-line forwards have a simple but demanding assignment: get the puck deep, keep the puck deep, then get off the ice. MacEachern has embraced that role and earned regular work over more highly touted prospects. He has 67 hits in 42 games despite averaging just 8:58 in playing time.
ALEXANDER STEEN, Forward
GORDO ON STEEN: He was invisible offensively until New Year’s Eve. He produced no goals and five assists in his first 24 games this season. But since Dec. 31 he has four goals and five assists while moving up into some Top 6 work at forward. He is a terrific penalty killer who has blocked 29 shots in 33 games. His excellent checking at even strength is reflected with his plus-12 rating. And Steen’s leadership is highly valued by his teammates and the coaching staff.
JORDAN KYROU, Forward
GORDO ON KYROU: It would be fun to see what he could do in a scoring-line role with scoring-line minutes. He produced two goals, two assists and a few highlight reel flourishes in 12 games while shifting between a Top 6 role and a fourth-line assignment. Kyrou is averaging just 12:19 of ice time when he does play — and he hasn’t played since Jan, 9. He needs to get stronger on the puck, but he’s not going to learn much while sitting around.
ZACH SANFORD, Forward
GORDO ON SANFORD: He went into the break on a high note with four points in his last four games. He has been playing a more robust game overall, answering Berube’s challenge to use his size. Sanford has 57 hits in 36 games this season after delivering just 48 in 60 games last season. But he is still striving to earn a regular role against firm competition for playing time.
JACOB DE LA ROSE, Forward
GORDO ON DE LA ROSE: The Blues sent some offensive upside in Robby Fabbri to Detroit to gain another fourth-line soldier in de la Rose. He embraced his role after coming over from the Red Wings, delivering 66 hits in 28 games. De la Rose has chipped in as a penalty killer, but he doesn’t add much offense (one goal, four assists) and he isn’t good in the faceoff circle (43.8 percent). He isn’t as versatile as other Blues forwards and he may not see much action if the Blues get healthier for the stretch run.
TROY BROUWER, Forward
GORDO ON BROUWER: The Blues value his grit and veteran presence, but they haven’t had much need to actually deploy him lately. Brouwer hasn’t played since Dec. 18. He scored one goal in 10 games and while throwing his body around for 19 hits and five blocked shots.
NATHAN WALKER, Forward
GORDO ON WALKER: He generated a little buzz during his five games filling in. He produced a goal and an assist while playing with the expected energy. Walker is a solid AHL veteran who adds solid depth, but it will take multiple injuries to get him much Blues playing time down the stretch.
ALEX PIETRANGELO, Defenseman
GORDO ON PIETRANGELO: It’s hard to imagine a player performing better in the walk year of his contract. Pietrangelo has 13 goals (matching last season’s total for 70 games) and 40 points in 49 games. He has a plus-12 rating and excellent possession metrics. He has racked up 20 power-play points, five more than all of last season, while quarterbacking the team’s first unit. If the Blues keep winning he should get some Norris Trophy votes. If he wants to chase every last dollar on the open market this summer he could attract some huge offers.
COLTON PARAYKO, Defenseman
GORDO ON PARAYKO: After flashing considerable offensive promise earlier in his career -- scoring 33 or more points in his first three seasons -- he has settled into more of a defensive role on this deep team. Parayko produced just two goals and 11 assists in 42 games while seeing limited power-play duty. He blocked a team-high 75 shots despite losing time to an upper-body injury. His 55 hits lead all Blues defensemen. While he was a plus-3, he had more giveaways (27) than takeaways (22) and his possession metrics were not great.
VINCE DUNN, Defenseman
GORDO ON DUNN: He hasn’t been as sheltered this season (55.9 percent offensive zone starts) as last season (61.1 percent). In fact, he has moved up to see some Top 4 duty. He is plus-14 with strong possession metrics, due in part to his usage. He has improved his giveaway rate from last season and his point production (seven goals, seven assists) would improve with more power-play time (just 1:28 per game) this season. He is playing a more physical game, at coach Berube’s urging, and his fight with Jacob Trouba reminded us he won’t won a Lady Byng Award.
NIKO MIKKOLA, Defenseman
GORDO ON MIKKOLA: His five-game sample was most impressive: one assist, plus-3 rating, just one giveaway and spectacular possession metrics. Mikkola used his big reach well and was very strong on the puck even though he is still growing into his 6-foot-4 frame. He averaged just 14:22 per game in ice time and got sheltered usage (65.9 percent offensive zone starts), but his efficiency went a long way toward offsetting Parayko’s recent absence.
JAY BOUWMEESTER, Defenseman
GORDO ON BOUWMEESTER: He struggled through half of last season while coming back from hip surgery. This season Bouwmeester came out flying at the age of 36 and shouldered a slightly bigger workload. He keeps doing the dirty work, with 57.8 percent defensive zone starts a team-high average of 2:43 time on ice shorthanded. Like Parayko, he has more giveaways (28) than takeaways (11) and less-than-stellar possession metrics owing in part to his usage against elite forwards.
JUSTIN FAULK, Defenseman
GORDO ON FAULK: After seeing lots of first-unit duty on the Carolina power play, Faulk had to settle for a secondary role here with an average of 1:21 time on ice with the man advantage. After scoring 31 or more points in his previous six years with the Hurricanes, he has produced just 13 so far this season. He has become more offensively assertive during 5-on-5 play and his 194 shot attempts overall rank third on the team. He has added to the team’s defensive toughness with 55 hits and 48 blocked shots. But he is minus-6 and his possession metrics are just OK.
ROBERT BORTUZZO, Defenseman
GORDO ON BORTUZZO: He is certainly the nastiest Blues defenseman around the crease, which earned him a four-game NHL suspension for cross-checking Viktor Arvidsson earlier this season. He puts himself in harm’s way (40 hits, 30 blocked shots in 30 games), especially while killing penalties. His plus-11 rating is aided by sheltered usage in 5-on-5 scenarios and his possession metrics aren’t great.
CARL GUNNARSSON, Defenseman
GORDO ON GUNNARSSON: He has fallen to the edge of the playing rotation while continuing to battle injuries. In 18 games, he has nine giveaways and just one takeaway. He blocked 23 shots, but his 54.4 percent defensive zone starts contributed to his mediocre possession metrics.
JAKE ALLEN, Goalie
GORDO ON ALLEN: After suffering a full collapse last season, Allen has rebounded to excel in a back-up role. He is 8-3-3 with a.927 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. After struggling at home last season with a 3.65 GAA and .878 save percentage, Allen defeated that curse by going 2-1 with a 1.89 GAA in four appearances at Enterprise Center so far this season.
JORDAN BINNINGTON, Goalie
GORDO ON BINNINGTON: You knew he couldn’t repeat last year’s remarkable regular season performance and he hasn’t. His save percentage (.927 to .912) and goals-against average (1.89 to 2.58) have suffered major regression. Binnington is 3-2-1 this month with dismal ratios (3.59, .865). That said, he is still 22-8-5 overall and headed to the All-Star Game with the reputation for clutch performance.
CRAIG BERUBE, Coach
GORDO ON BERUBE AND STAFF: So what’s this Stanley Cup hangover we’ve heard so much about? Head coach Craig Berube and his staff have kept the Blues atop the Western Conference despite taking big injury hits, most notably to top goal-scoring threat Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues needed to improve their power play and, with the help of new assistant coach Marc Savard, they ranked fourth in the NHL with 25.3 percent efficiency through the weekend. They are allowing just 2.67 goals per game because they remain committed to tight checking at both ends of the ice. They have beaten up their immediate rivals, going 10-3-1 within the Central Division and 21-5-4 against this side of the league.
DOUG ARMSTRONG, General Manager
GORDO ON ARMSTRONG: General manager Doug Armstrong made a big move before the season, adding defenseman Justin Faulk in a swap for Joel Edmundson and first-round pick Dominik Bokk. He signed Faulk to a reasonable contract extension, bolstering his long-term team nucleus. He also signed Brayden Schenn to a team-friendly extension, but he hasn’t been able to extend captain Alex Pietrangelo to this point. Fans quibbled with the trade that sent Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings for Jacob de la Rose in a housecleaning move. Fabbri has flashed his Top 6 forward skills in Motown while de la Rose has settled on as a fourth-liner at best for the Blues. While Fabbri had exhausted his opportunities to win over Berube, it’s fair to wonder if he should have fetched a bigger trade return. Armstrong will likely revisit his forward corps closer to the NHL trade deadline.