Should the St. Louis Blues Carry Eight Defensemen to Start the Regular Season?

Oct 1, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Tyler Motte (64) skates on St. Louis Blues defenseman Petteri Lindbohm (48) during the first period of a preseason hockey game at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 1, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Tyler Motte (64) skates on St. Louis Blues defenseman Petteri Lindbohm (48) during the first period of a preseason hockey game at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

No one has stood out in the battle for a 14th forward spot on the St. Louis Blues’ roster. Could they begin the season with eight defensemen instead?

The St. Louis Blues have been forced to deal with two unexpected (or perhaps expected, if you’re a less optimistic Blues fan) changes to their NHL roster over the past month. Forward Vladimir Sobotka couldn’t get out of his KHL contract and stayed overseas rather than coming back to the Blues, then winger Jaden Schwartz suffered his third serious injury in the past three seasons, going down in practice with an elbow injury that’s expected to sideline him until the end of October.

In the absence of those two veterans, the Blues have been staging a battle for the final forward spots on the initial 23-man NHL roster. While it looked like young wingers Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi, and Ty Rattie would be battling with veteran tryout players T.J. Galiardi, Eric Nystrom, and Chris Porter at the beginning of camp, Jaskin and Paajarvi now look to have secured spots, while all three veterans have been released from their tryouts.

That’s led to a battle for presumed 13th and 14th forward spots (the guys who are expected to be healthy scratches more often than not) among Rattie, three-year NHL vet Landon Ferraro, 24-year-old offseason signing Kenny Agostino (who has had two cups of coffee with the Calgary Flames), and 2014 second-rounder Ivan Barbashev.

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With a goal, three assists, and a plus-2 rating over five preseason games, Rattie seems to be the heavy favorite for the 13th spot, even though he still needs to improve as a defender in his own zone. However, no one has really grabbed ahold of the 14th spot.

Ferraro has just one point in four preseason games, and he hasn’t really made a difference except as a penalty killer. Barbashev has no points and a minus-2 rating while clearly lacking physical strength in five preseason contests, and since he’s still just 20 years old and has no shot of cracking the Blues’ regular lineup right now, it wouldn’t make much sense at all to have him sitting in the press box rather than continuing to develop in the AHL.

Agostino is third in the entire NHL with six points in five preseason games, but five of those points came in his first game. He’s been relatively quiet the rest of the way, and he’s rather redundant with Rattie in terms of his skill set. He was placed on waivers for the purpose of reassignment Tuesday morning, so at this point it’d be a major surprise if he ended up making the team.

All of this is to say that none of the candidates for the final NHL job have looked particularly NHL-worthy this preseason; conversely, the Blues have at least nine defensemen who have shown themselves to be worthy of NHL minutes this season. In addition to their returning top six of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues have received strong preseason performances from Robert Bortuzzo, Petteri Lindbohm, and Jordan Schmaltz.

With only 13 forwards who have established themselves and nine defensemen who have looked solid, might it make the most sense to start the season with eight defensemen, even with six guys who are already set to get most of the action?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford wrote in his Tuesday “Morning Skate” blog that the Blues may be giving more thought to that idea than we previously believed:

"If they keep 14, that means two out of Rattie, Ferraro, Barbashev and Agostino could be cut.There is a chance, however, that only one of those four makes the opening-night roster, according to Hitchcock. He said that the club is considering keeping 13 forwards and eight defensemen.“Something Doug (Armstrong) and I will talk about, what’s the best road to go,” Hitchcock said. “There’s a number of guys that have really good camps, especially on defense. Some guys have really pushed for work and played awful well during the preseason.”"

One would think that if the Blues do keep eight, the two to make it would be Lindbohm and Bortuzzo. Bortuzzo has been part of the Blues’ NHL roster for the past two seasons and hasn’t done anything wrong to lose his job this preseason, he’s shown a strong ability to hop right back into the action without missing a beat after sitting for long periods, and he brings a physical element that no other defenseman on the Blues’ roster really brings at the moment.

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Lindbohm, meanwhile, has spent the past two seasons riding the NHL-AHL shuttle, and though he’s still just 23 years old, he doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove in the AHL at this point. Lindbohm and Bortuzzo would also provide the Blues with a lefty-righty shot combo, allowing them to replace an injured or underperforming defenseman with a player of the same handedness when necessary.

Both Lindbohm (one goal, two assists, even rating in three games) and Schmaltz (one goal and a plus-1 rating in five games) have been productive on the stat sheet this preseason. With that said, Schmaltz has more to gain from returning to the AHL. Last season was the former first-rounder’s first pro campaign, and he spent all 71 of his games at AHL Chicago.

We’ve seen guys like Parayko and Edmundson rapidly develop into NHL players, but in more cases than not, a guy with as little pro experience as Schmaltz has can benefit from a second minor-league campaign. He’s also a righthanded shooter, so if he and Bortuzzo were the two extra defensemen to make the team, his presence in the lineup would force a righthanded-shooting blueliner to the left side.

The Blues have shown that they’re willing to interrupt Schmaltz’s minor-league development for short periods in the interest of getting him work with the NHL team–he was with the Blues from February 21-28 of last season, though he didn’t play in a game–but in this situation, it just seems to make a whole lot more sense to keep Lindbohm. Considering that Schmaltz has gotten more preseason exposure, though, perhaps the Blues will surprise us when they finish rounding out the roster later this week.

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Ultimately, it won’t make too much of a difference, as Schwartz’s return near the end of the month will likely spurn the demotion of the lucky defenseman (if there even ends up being one) back to the AHL, and until an injury occurs, there’s not an obvious reason for Hitchcock to deviate from his usual top six blueliners. But with both Lindbohm and Schmaltz on two-way contracts and looking to establish themselves as NHL regulars sooner or later, it will be interesting to see which–if either–player earns a spot to begin the season.