St. Louis Blues had to get creative with complicated minor league setup

Author: Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Date: Oct 16, 2017

As the Blues dig in on their 2017-18 regular season, many of the 51 players on hand for the start of training camp have since scattered all over North America.

Or in the case of defenseman Niko Mikkola, back to Finland playing for Tappara Tampere in the Finnish Elite League.

Among the rest who either didn’t make the Blues’ roster or currently are on injured reserve, seven are playing junior hockey in Canada and 15 were assigned to the American Hockey League.

In case you missed it, the Blues don’t have an affiliate this year in the AHL — the highest-level of minor-league hockey. So they’re sharing their players with two organizations this season:

• The Vegas Golden Knights and their AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.

• The Colorado Avalanche and their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.

“We’re putting some players in Chicago and some players in San Antonio for one year,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said.

 The Post-Dispatch reported in August that San Antonio would be the Blues’ AHL affiliate, starting with the 2018-19 season.

As for this year, the Blues assigned six players to Chicago and nine to San Antonio, hardly an ideal situation when you’re trying to put prospects in positions where they can develop and be most successful.

“We’re fortunate to work with two organizations where we’re comfortable,” Armstrong said. “I know the (general) managers on both teams. And more importantly, Kevin McDonald, our assistant (general) manager that runs the minor league team, knows the guys running those teams in San Antonio and Chicago.

 “So we tried to work with Vegas and Colorado on areas where they might not have as much depth. And if we had depth, we put it there. We’re just trying to find a home that is good for both parties and all the players involved — that they’re gonna get the opportunity to play at a high level and get on the ice.”

Forwards Beau Bennett, Conner Bleackley and MacKenzie MacEachern went to the Chicago Wolves, along with defensemen Petteri Lindbohm and Jake Walman, and goalie Jordan Binnington. Bennett has a goal and an assist in two games for the Wolves so far.

For Binnington, however, Chicago is a dead end because the Wolves already have two goalies from the Vegas Golden Knights organization in Oscar Dansk and Maxime Legace. Legace was in goal for Chicago’s season opener Friday; Dansk was in the nets Saturday.

“They don’t need an extra goalie so we’re trying to find (Binnington) a home now,” Armstrong said. “He’s the one player that we’re looking for a place to slot.”

 As for San Antonio, the Blues sent nine players there: forwards Samuel Blais, Klim Kostin, Adam Musil and Justin Selman; defensemen Chris Butler, Jordan Schmaltz, Dmitrii Sergeev and Thomas Vannelli, and goalie Ville Husso.

Kostin, who made a strong run at a Blues roster spot, suffered a lower body injury in the team’s preseason finale Oct. 1 against the Washington Capitals. Now healthy, he was assigned to San Antonio on Thursday.

Armstrong said lots of discussion has taken place, long ago actually, in trying to figure out who to send where in the AHL.

“This started last year, well prior to the end of the season,” Armstrong said. “Sort of penciling in players you think might be there.”

In San Antonio, Selman, Sergeev and Vannelli didn’t make it to the regular season. They were reassigned to the Tulsa Oilers of the ECHL, a level lower than the AHL in minor league hockey. The Oilers are a Blues affiliate, controlled by the team and coached by Rob Murray, who coached the Blues’ squad at the NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich.

That’s a luxury the Blues don’t have this year when it comes to San Antonio and Chicago of the AHL.

“We don’t have any coaches or trainers or strength coaches (in San Antonio or Chicago),” Armstrong said. “We’re just sending players to those teams and those organizations control all the work environment.”

As for the Blues’ prospects with those AHL teams ...

“They’re gonna have to go earn their ice like any other time,” Armstrong said. “But as I said, I have a lot of faith in the coaching staffs in both organizations that they’re trying to do what’s best for the players.”

Blues director of player development Tim Taylor and player development coach Barret Jackman will keep tabs on the team’s AHL players. But it’s not the same as having your organization’s coaches working with them every day.

“I don’t think it’s an irritation or a frustration,” Armstrong said. “But it is what it is. You sort of just play with the cards that you’re dealt, and this year we’re the one team that doesn’t have an (AHL) affiliate and we hope to rectify that by next season.”

Blais and Schmaltz, by the way, accounted for both goals Saturday in San Antonio’s season-opening 2-1 victory over the Ontario Reign.

(UPDATE: Goaltender Jordan Binnington has been loaned by the Blues to the Providence Bruins of the AHL according to the Providence Journal.) 

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