St. Louis Blues 2020-21 NHL season preview

St. Louis Blues Preview
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The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we look at the St. Louis Blues.

St. Louis Blues 2019-20 Rewind

Record: 42-19-10 (94 points); First place in Central Division; First Place in Western Conference

Leading Scorers: Ryan O'Reilly (61 points); David Perron and Brayden Schenn (25 goals)

The St. Louis Blues followed up their 2019 Stanley Cup championship by finishing the 2019-20 regular season with the best record in the Western Conference. They did that despite getting just 10 games from Vladimir Tarasenko who missed almost all of the season due to injury. That success did not carry over to the playoff bubble.

After losing all three Round-Robin games, the Blues were eliminated in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six games to the Vancouver Canucks, finishing the return to play with a 2-6-1 mark in the seven games they played. Then in the offseason they said goodbye to long-time captain Alex Pietrangelo, welcomed Torey Krug, and named Ryan O’Reilly their next captain.

Additions

Torey Krug (free agency), Mike Hoffman (tryout contract)

Subtractions

Alex Pietrangelo (free agency), Jake Allen (trade), Alex Steen (retirement)

St. Louis Blues
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3 Most Interesting St. Louis Blues

• Torey Krug. Krug is interesting for the simple fact he was the Blues’ big-money offseason addition (seven years, $45.5 million) and is stepping into the lineup to basically replace Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues’ long-time captain. Those are some big shoes to fill on the blue line. Will Krug be capable of doing it? Given his track record in Boston, he should be able to step into that spot and replace a lot of what Pietrangelo provided.

Is Krug the complete two-way defender that Pietrangelo is? Maybe not quite to the same level, especially defensively, but every single metric regarding Krug’s game points to a top-pairing defender with the way he drives possession and can spark the offense. There is always risk with a seven-year contract in free agency just because of a player’s age, but the Blues should get a few great years out of Krug before they have to worry about that.

[MORE: 2021 NHL schedule notes: Stats, oddities, fuel for nasty rivalries]

Jordan BinningtonAfter coming out of nowhere in 2019 to fix the Blues’ goaltending issues and backstop them to their first Stanley Cup, Binnington entered the 2019-20 season as their top goalie. For the most part, he was very good. His numbers did regress, but he still finished with league average (all situations save percentage) to slightly above average (even-strength save percentage) numbers. Not a game-changer, but good enough to help an otherwise great team win a lot of games.

That all changed in the playoffs with what was almost certainly the absolute worst stretch of his brief NHL career.

The question for the Blues this season is what they actually have in goal with Binnington, and what his next contract is going to look like. He is entering the final year of a two-year contract that pays him $4 million, and he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season. Even though he is a Stanley Cup champion he still only has a 131-game resume in the NHL with some mixed results. This season could go a long way toward determining what his next contract looks like.

• Vladimir Tarasenko. He is expected to start the season on LTIR, so we are not entirely sure when we will see him. But outside of four games in the bubble we have not really seen him play a game in more than a calendar year. When healthy, he is the Blues’ most dynamic offensive player. But what sort of impact can the Blues expect when he returns? This is a team that finished with the best regular season record in the Western Conference despite getting just 10 games from him. When he does return that will be like adding another All-Star to the lineup.

Best-Case Scenario

The Blues are definitely on the short list of preseason Stanley Cup contenders. The best case scenario here is that Binnington bounces back from his postseason performance, Tarasenko returns as an impact player, and Mike Hoffman adds even more offensive punch to the roster and the Blues make a serious run at their second championship in three years.

Worst-Case Scenario

It is hard to envision a scenario where this Blues team misses the playoffs. Anything is possible, sure, but there is a huge gap between the top-three teams in the West Division and the five teams below them. It is hard to imagine them finishing lower than fourth. So with that in mind, there are some variables that could lessen the Blues’ chances. Binnington regressing, Tarasenko never being fully healthy or impactful, and Torey Krug not being as good of a fit as they hoped and they are unable to get through Colorado and/or Vegas in the division round of the playoffs.

Pointsbet – St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup odds

Pointsbet Stanley Cup odds: Blues +2000. (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.