The St. Louis Blues currently have plenty of depth in their defensive corps with their prospects all potentially ready to stake a claim at full-time employment in the NHL come opening night in October. There may be spots available depending on what happens in the offseason regarding trades and injuries. Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman, Niko Mikkola, and Mitch Reinke will all push for a spot to join the long-term fixtures on the blue line, namely Alex Pietrangelo, Joel Edmundson, Colton Parayko, and Vince Dunn. With Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Carl Gunnarsson all out of contract after next season, the time is now for the next four to stake their claim. Also, with the long-term injuries to Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson and that they will be unlikely to be available for the start of the season, the defensive prospects will have their opportunity.
The Blues drafted Jordan Schmaltz 25th overall back in the 2012 draft. Schmaltz is a puck-moving defenseman with a heavy right-handed shot. He is an AHL All-Star but is stuck behind Pietrangelo and Parayko as far as Blues’ right-handed defensemen. Schmaltz is a great passer and has excellent vision, he has been the top defenseman for the San Antonio Rampage, where he had 23 points in 31 games.
Schmaltz, however, does not have the same offensive upside as recent graduate Vince Dunn but is closest to cracking the lineup of the other three. He does excel as a power play specialist; in his time with Sioux City Musketeers and Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, he had 85 points in 108 games, where half of his output was on the power play. If he can develop in the defensive zone, having more of a physical presence will help him transcend to the NHL level. At this time, pairing him with stay-at-home veterans such as Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson, who can handle the defensive zone allowing him to use his skill in the offensive zone and transition game, will help as he develops into the demands of being an NHL player.
Schmaltz hasn’t quite won over his constituents, in fact, there was plenty of disappointment in his time spent with the team last season, where, in 13 games, it was felt his production and general play didn’t seem to justify him staying in the lineup. Schmaltz is ready for the next level, though, and can earn that spot with hard work, dedication, and him continuing his development. He will be a top-four defenseman in the future and in the offseason will unlikely be traded as he currently is the Blues’ only ready to ascend right-handed defenseman prospect. Maybe coach Mike Yeo takes a risk with Schmaltz like he did with Vince Dunn; that was undoubtedly a success and lightning could certainly strike twice. He will be 25 at the start of the season and needs to be thrown into the fire now or moved on to another NHL club who is willing to give him a fair shot.
Jake Walman was picked 87th overall in the 2014 draft and was expected to be a top-four two-way defender. The strongest of his abilities is undoubtedly his skating, as he’s an absolute elite skater and may have been the best skating defenseman in the NCAA. He also has great poise and excellent puck skills. Walman was a star with the Providence, scoring 69 points in 107 games spanning over three years. In his time with Providence, he has matured and become a better all-around player where he improved his defensive game without sacrificing his offense.
Walman has had plenty of awards sent his way, namely the OJHL top prospect and both CJHL and OJHL rookie of the year. However, injuries in recent times have stunted his progress somewhat. The Blues have high hopes for Walman and are hoping a year or two of seasoning will make the difference in enhancing his play. He has been getting some mentoring from former Blues defenseman and fan favorite Barret Jackman, who has been working with the Blues’ defensive prospects. Walman is a very enticing prospect and this summer may see him build a foundation for a long NHL career that may begin as soon as October.
Last season, it was felt that Walman had a better chance of making the roster ahead of Vince Dunn at training camp. Injuries and a lack of form had him starting the season with the Chicago Wolves before being reassigned to Binghamton in January. Walman and Dunn are very similar in terms of their playing style, they both possess impressive speed with scoring abilities and are both offensive defenders, making them valuable assets. With the Chicago Wolves, he had two goals and 11 assists in 40 games with a further seven points in 19 games with the Binghamton Devils. It is felt he was a casualty of the multiple AHL teams the Blues used last season but he remains an asset within the organization. There is hope he could turn into a Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild) type player in the future given his smarts and attributes he possesses.
Niko Mikkola first caught the attention of the Blues’ international scouts and was chosen by the Blues in the fifth round (127th overall) in the 2015 draft. The Blues, as recently as the end of May, signed the Finnish native to a two-year entry-level contract. Upon him being drafted in 2015, he was ranked 111th among European skaters and since that time has developed into a very stable and effective blueliner. Mikkola plays a very physical brand of hockey and is close to being NHL ready. Mikkola’s potential is to be a solid third pairing defenseman and he will be a shutdown defender who will log extended ice time on the penalty kill With a full season in the AHL with the Rampage, there may be time to gauge to see where he is at in his development. The Blues don’t necessarily need Mikkola to make the roster for October, nor it is realistic that he does. Spending time in the AHL will see how he makes the transition playing on North American ice, opposed to the European ice, which he has done in Finland.
There have been suggestions that he may be on the third pairing until Gunnarsson and Bouwmeester recover from their long-term injuries. Mikkola has played 171 career games and has produced 36 points (nine goals and 27 assists). He has also brought home a gold medal with Finland at the 2016 Under 20s World Junior Championships and accumulated 11 points in over 50 games in the SM-Liiga circuit. Generally, expectations are low for a fifth-round pick, so the Blues will be happy to have him as a nice addition to the defensive depth in the organization. There wont be a rush for him to push for a roster spot but they will hope he can contribute in the AHL with the Rampage and potentially push for a spot on the roster the following year.
Finally, Mitch Reinke was signed by the Blues to an entry-level contract back in late March as a college free agent. The undrafted defender is a bit undersized, even by today’s standards, where he stands at 5″11 and 182 lbs but poses good hockey sense to make up for it. The real value is his defensive play; despite his size, he seems to be plays ahead of the forwards, putting him in great positions to defend. Reinke helped Michigan Tech capture back-to-back WCHA championships in 2016/17 and 2017/18 and was a third-team WCHA all-star this season, where he had 44 points (nine goals and 35 assists) in 76 games. He is actually a real student of the game who understands the game and has the smarts to blend into the new style of the NHL. Earlier in his career, he played for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in the USHL, gathering 51 points (seven goals and 44 assists) in 111 games.
The Blues are light in the defensive department due to the long-term injuries to Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson, so the youngster may have a claim to be in the roster for the start of the season. A spot or two is available for Schmaltz, Walman, Mikkola, or Reinke. The Blues are in a great position with their young defensemen, they have become of the NHL’s top organizations at using the draft to build for the future. Doug Armstrong has basically built an entire defense outside of the first round, aside from franchise player and team captian Alex Pietrangelo, as Edmundson, Parayko, and Dunn were all drafted in the later rounds. Schamltz, Walman, Mikkola, and Reinke all have the potential to follow the current pattern.
These players can fit in to the lineup but none are ready to lead the team by themselves. They can all be good supplemental players and would be best utilized with veterans. If they are sprinkled in gradually, it will give them the best opportunity to shine. It’s always difficult for new players in the league to jump in and perform straight away. It’s only once in a blue moon that you get a player such as Sidney Crosby and Alex Oveckhin, who make immediate impacts when they join the league.
There will, thankfully, be much more stability in the minors as the Blues move to a sole AHL affiliate. Last season, the prospects were dispersed to multiple AHL teams and disrupted their rhythm and progress. The Rampage is going to be stacked for next season with all the prospects the Blues have accumulated in the last few years.
These young defenders will have a great chance at cracking the lineup in October. It’s an exciting time for these young men and hopefully it will translate to them having fruitful professional careers.