The St. Louis Blues have gradually been retooling their defense since they won the Stanley Cup in 2019. As they enter the next phase of that makeover this season, several young defensemen will have opportunities to establish themselves as NHL regulars.
Five of the six defensemen who played in the Blues' Game 7 victory over the Bruins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final are no longer in the organization. Over the past 28 months, Joel Edmundson was traded away, Alex Pietrangelo departed via free agency, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson retired and Vince Dunn was selected by the Seattle Kraken in this year's expansion draft. Colton Parayko is the only blueliner from that game who remains. (Robert Bortuzzo played in 17 playoff games that year but was a healthy scratch for Game 7.)
These days, the St. Louis defense is as different philosophically as it is in terms of personnel. The Blues primarily relied on big, physical defensemen as they won their first and only Stanley Cup. But they lost 6-foot-4 Bouwmeester and 6-3 Pietrangelo, arguably their two most important defensemen during the Cup run, prior to last season and gave a large chunk of their minutes to 6-0 Justin Faulk and 5-9 Torey Krug. While Faulk and Krug are high-caliber puck movers, they're not quite as adept in front of their own net as Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo were.
The Blues hoped the continued presence of 6-6 Parayko and the addition of 6-3 Marco Scandella, who was acquired prior to the 2020 trade deadline and then signed to a four-year extension, would help offset the losses of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo. But a back injury cost Parayko 24 games, and Scandella's play leveled off from where it had been prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, shedding light on the Blues' decreased sturdiness along the blue line.
In an apparent effort to adapt to their personnel, the Blues are transitioning to a modified "swarm" defensive system this season, which involves a forward dropping back to help with net-front coverage. That should give Faulk and Krug more protection in their own zone. The strategic change seemingly also made it more feasible for the Blues to keep top defensive prospect and 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich on their Opening Night roster — a possibility that looked fairly likely throughout the preseason as head coach Craig Berube continually paired the 5-10, 175-pound defenseman with established NHL blueliners in exhibition games.
The Blues ultimately opted to send Perunovich, who didn't play in a game last season after undergoing shoulder surgery, to their AHL affiliate in Springfield to start the season. Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman, both 25, made the NHL roster and will battle to fill the vacancy in the Blues' regular top six that was created by Dunn's departure.
It appears that Walman will get the first chance to seize that spot. Walman, who made his NHL debut in January 2020, beat the odds and skated in 24 games last season, despite being on neither the initial NHL roster nor the taxi squad. Walman, who is entering his fifth professional season, may have less upside than Mikkola and Perunovich, but he provides the most balanced mix of offense and defense among the trio.
Berube says Walman "has played better and better as he’s gone along" after a slow start to training camp, and he's eager to see how he performs alongside Bortuzzo on the third pair. The head coach has a clear idea of what he wants to see from the 6-2, 215-pound defenseman: “Predictable and assertive with his skating and moving the puck. Getting it to the forwards as quickly as possible, keeping his game simple. He’s got to defend with his feet and he’s got to be hard on people when he’s defending, and then he’s got to make a first pass and get it out of our zone.”
It looks as though Mikkola, a stay-at-home defender who has great size at 6-4 and 209 pounds, will begin the season as a healthy scratch. The sturdiness he provides in his own zone could be a major asset for the Blues this year, though, especially against bigger, more physical opponents. Mikkola, who has played in 35 games over the last two seasons, figures to see plenty of action in 2021-22, whether he ends up entering the lineup as an injury replacement or rotating in for Walman and Bortuzzo on the third pair. "Mikkola's got a lot of upside to him," Berube said. "He needs to just keep working at his game and gaining confidence. He's going to play games, too."
If this season goes anything like the last, when the Blues used 11 defensemen in the 56-game regular season and postseason, Perunovich will also probably end up receiving substantial NHL playing time. While the University of Minnesota-Duluth product could still stand to get stronger and play with more discipline in his own zone, he looked like a game-changing offensive defenseman at times this preseason. As Berube said earlier this month, the rookie brings a unique skill set to the Blues' defensive corps: "Perunovich is a guy that's a different element. He came into camp and has impressed us all with his ability to move pucks and composure with pucks."
Berube says it was a "tough decision" to leave the 23-year-old off the initial roster but believes he'll be well-served to get some experience in the minors before he makes his NHL debut. "He had a great camp," Berube said. "He looked really good up here, but he needs to go play games."
St. Louis' last two deep playoff runs have featured breakout performances from young defensemen, with Edmundson and Parayko putting together outstanding showings as rookies during the Blues' run to the Western Conference Finals in 2016 and Dunn breaking out for a 35-point season as the Blues won the Cup in '19. Whether it's Mikkola, Perunovich or Walman, a strong showing from a young blueliner would give the Blues a huge boost in their quest to make another long playoff run.