The St. Louis Blues drafted Luke Opilka, one of the top American-born netminding prospects in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, in the fifth round. Opilka went 146th overall — but the St. Louis native has already inked an entry level deal with the club that took him just this spring, with the Central Division club signing him just hours after the Edmonton Oilers inked Connor McDavid.
This would be news in itself, but it’s especially unique given the situation — Opilka just opted out of his spot at the University of Wisconsin to play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers next year, and the team just picked up last season’s AHL breakout Pheonix Copley in a deal that sent winger T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals earlier this week.
Looking at St. Louis’ Preexisting Depth
The Blues already have a handful of netminders in their system who could pan out into bona fide prospects, and it would be unfair (not to mention unwise) not to look at the netminders already existing in the system.
Niklas Lundstrom has one year left on his entry-level contract (signed in May of 2013 with St. Louis out of AIK in Sweden), and a good camp could see him either split his 2015-2016 season between the ECHL and the AHL or start in the AHL altogether. The oversized Swedish netminder has had trouble with sitting too far back in the net and lapsing in his lateral movement, and he’s a butterfly prospect — which I’m always wary of for injury purposes as butterfly skaters get older — but he could see his sophomore North American season develop more consistency and earn him a contract extension moving forward. Many of his most obvious mistakes seem fixable with more confidence on North American rink dimensions.
The Blues also have one of Canada’s most highly-touted goaltending prospects in Jordan Binnington; the 22 year old netminder has continued to get increasingly more confident in net since his .936 SV% fifty-start senior season with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, and he had a more than impressive first season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. As is to be expected this upcoming year with Lundstrom, Binnington spent a season shuttling between the ECHL and the Blues’ top affiliate in Chicago — so with his development continuing to trend upwards, it’s hard to consider him leaving the system moving forward.
Francois Tremblay has continued to struggle out of the QMJHL, and the team seems to have moved away from him (he inked a one year AHL deal with the Lake Erie Monsters in August of 2014, but spent the season back in Quebec anyway) and Ville Husso still seems to be skating in Finland, where he’s spent the last two years with HIFK-Helinski of the SM-liiga.
Where do Opilka and Copley Fit In, Then?
Pheonix Copley was one of the most effective netminders in the AHL last season as an undrafted free agent signing, flying up the depth chart for the Washington Capitals to split starts with bona fide number one Philip Grubauer of the Hershey Bears. Copley was the beneficiary of some poorly-timed injuries to Grubauer, and he finished his first pro year as a legitimate NHL prospect.
It seems safe to assume that Copley, who showed a bit more poise and in-net control than Binnington (though hasn’t had the high-profile development following in a major junior system — and as an NHL prospect — to really evaluate his comparative upside), will take the slight majority of the starts for St. Louis’ AHL affiliate next season.
In comparison, Opilka — despite having already inked a three year deal with St. Louis — has inked a standard player agreement with the Kitchener Rangers for next season. Goaltenders need time to develop, and he likely would have done so at the University of Wisconsin — but the Blues are clearly high on Opilka, and that leaves the team with four high-ceiling goaltending prospects behind an extremely young Jake Allen.
It was assumed that Brian Elliott could be a starter for the team for at most another three years, giving Allen three years before one of the four will be taking his role as backup. That timetable may be sped up now that Binnington and Copley are in the AHL.
I like Opilka’s game more than Lundstrom’s by a bit, because he focuses so much of his game development on tracking, positioning, and mental flow. That’s a rarely-talked about concept in goaltending that emphasizes spiritual confidence and mental remote stability, which leaves the technical aspect of the game to be acted out mindlessly while the goaltender focuses most of his mental aspect of the game on tracking the puck and breaking down the play. Opilka is the polar opposite of the current netminding tandem the Boston Bruins have in their prospect pool, where both Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre play a very reactionary-based game; Opilka, on the other hand, has stressed that he wants to avoid basing his play on reactions and lack of control.
For St. Louis, signing Opilka was a huge flag to me; Binnington and Copley will likely only have two seasons to figure out who is moving up to the NHL level before Opilka arrives in an attempt to earn an AHL spot. While some goaltenders need ECHL development, Opilka’s play and his development trajectory suggest that he’s got the raw materials and focus to be AHL-ready right out of the major juniors.
It seems possible that, like Tremblay, Lundstrom may be the odd man out before long. Unless his play improves at the North American level enough to push his way up within the depth chart (something that Louis Domingue did in the Arizona system just this last year), he’ll be faced with either staying in the ECHL or moving out of the system altogether.
For St. Louis, though, this isn’t a bad position to be in.
Next season will be important for St. Louis fans. Watching Copley’s technical refinement and Binnington’s ability to control the game when he loses focus will be important, but it’s important to take into account that opportunity is just as pivotal in this situation as skill.
Back in 2009, the Goalie Guild did a piece on whether skill or opportunity should weigh more into a hockey fantasy owner’s decision to draft a certain goaltender. Many of the names used as examples — such as Peter Budaj, Dan Ellis, Alex Auld, and Marty Turco — have long since faded from the netminding depth charts of the NHL. Budaj never regained that in-game confidence that had first earned him a look as a potential starter, while Andrew Raycroft — another name mentioned in the piece — has finally faded from the minds of nearly everyone but Toronto fans. Others, such as Cory Schneider, are still big parts of the NHL — but no longer where they were at the time.
This could affect whether Copley or Binnington moves into a backup position behind Allen next year. It could also affect whether Lundstrom remains in the ECHL or moves up to the Chicago Wolves with any shift in the depth chart. After all, this is how Chicago Blackhawks backup Scott Darling found his way in the NHL last year — while he likely would have outplayed his ECHL contemporaries regardless, the opportunity to see a shift in the depth chart in his favor was what truly earned him a second look at the pro level.
For now, though, there’s no way to clearly determine where Binnington and Copley fit into the system — and there’s no way to know why the team is so eager to ink Opilka — but with this many prospects looking as promising as they do, it’s worth noting for future reference.