Ryan's Ramblings: Roster Shaping Up

Ryan's Ramblings: 22-23 Roster Taking Shape

Aug 11, 2022

Will Bitten perhaps put it best when I had a chance to congratulate him and welcome him back to the organization when he re-signed with St. Louis on July 13.

His reply in text was concise but pointed. “Fired up to be back, we’ve got some unfinished business to take care of.”

From afar, the Thunderbirds’ run to an Eastern Conference championship was magical from just about every angle. The always-talked-about but rarely achieved unity of veteran stalwarts and hungry prospects made Springfield’s 2021-22 product arguably the most tight-knit and beloved in the City of Firsts since the turn of the millennium.

Nobody on the outside likely considers a loss in the Calder Cup Finals to the league’s regular season champions to be an “unacceptable” outcome. However, Bitten is one of the 19 returning members of that Calder Cup Finals roster who shares in the feeling that there is more to be done.

Having so many players returning to the Blues/Thunderbirds organization is not a commonality in an age where AHL general managers have many different needs to satisfy. No more than five players with 320+ games of pro experience are permitted to skate in the same game, with only one additional player with 260-319 games of experience allowed as a “veteran exemption.”

Adding another wrinkle to this offseason is the changing of the guard in the Blues’ hockey operations department. Following his team’s push to the Finals, T-Birds general manager Kevin McDonald accepted a new position in Colorado, opening the door for longtime Rangers scout Kevin Maxwell to take over the reins for Springfield. He inherits a team with, by far, the most returning players year-over-year in the Thunderbirds’ young history.

Of the 19 players* returning to the organization, 14 have played in fewer than 260 games as a professional. This emphasis on youth is a big part of what makes the AHL such an exciting league – young, budding NHL stars of tomorrow are leaned upon in high-pressure situations.

Bitten certainly fit that mold in the postseason. The spunky winger, acquired from Minnesota just before New Year’s, proved to be a thorn in the sides of opponents on a nightly basis, as evidenced by his team-leading 21 playoff points, +13 rating, and propensity to stir up chaos in and around the net. His four-goal performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Laval was just the second such game by a T-Birds player in team history and the first in the postseason.

Bitten is just one such example of a player catapulting his stock within the organization on the heels of a ferocious playoff push. While it was not feasible for the whole T-Birds roster to return for the new season, St. Louis’s acquisitions in the offseason show a clear dedication to putting Springfield right back into the upper tier of Calder Cup contenders.

With now a couple of weeks gone by in the free agent window and a clearer roster picture taking shape, I’ll delve into what excites me about both the returning players, as well as the key additions who could see time in Springfield when the puck drops on October 15. Note that I’ll only be highlighting those who skated in the Calder Cup Finals.


Nikita Alexandrov, C (21 yo): Alexandrov’s progression in his first full AHL season was noticeable. Primarily touted as a highly-skilled offensive player as a second-round pick, Alexandrov’s commitment to rounding into a full 200-foot player was my biggest takeaway from his season. Perhaps not surprisingly, as his responsibilities increased, especially his penalty killing time, so did his confidence. He made shot block after shot block in the postseason, sometimes without a stick. It would not shock me to see his game take a huge step forward on the offensive end next season.


Will Bitten, RW (24 yo): I could go on for pages about Bitten. He went from being a player who got a fresh start after the trade from Minnesota, to becoming a player who has made himself into one who could challenge for call-ups to St. Louis. He has shown reliability in a variety of roles, and no matter whose line he was on, he was almost always engaged offensively. His playoff performance proves that he is built for big moments, and the Blues certainly noticed, rewarding him with a two-year deal.


Klim Kostin, LW (23 yo): Kostin received a one-way deal from the Blues, meaning he’ll make the same salary in the NHL and the AHL this season. Ordinarily, this means an NHL team believes the player will be in contention for a roster spot. Kostin had more than his fair share of time in St. Louis last year with 40 games for the Blues before his assignment to Springfield. When he’s at his best, Kostin uses his blend of power and speed to maintain leverage against defenders. I expect him to re-establish himself in St. Louis, especially with the depth the Blues lost in their bottom six in the offseason.


Hugh McGing, LW (24 yo): McGing proved to be a jack-of-all-trades for Springfield in his first full pro season, as he played all three forward positions and was a frequent contributor on the man advantage. Until an upper-body injury finally took him out of the lineup in March, he was the T-Birds’ longest-standing iron man in 2021-22, a feat made more impressive considering his bowling-ball style of play and his smaller frame (5-10, 175). He’s cut from a very similar cloth to Bitten, as he always seems to find his way to the chaos between the whistles and after them. Like Alexandrov, I think there is a lot of runway for his offense to take even more strides. 34 points in a rookie season – especially one with many role changes – is a terrific showing in the AHL.


Matthew Peca, C (29 yo): Peca’s career year (60 points – 23g, 37a) highlighted just how pivotal he was to the Thunderbirds’ success. A top-line center, power play force and penalty-killing maven, Peca was seemingly on the ice for every important face-off from the onset of the season. In the postseason, he was Springfield’s go-to man in the clutch, as he scored one overtime goal (Game 1 vs. LAV) and set up another (Game 5 @ LAV) en route to a nearly point-per-game pace in the postseason. He will continue to be a key leader up front for Springfield.


Nathan Todd, RW (26 yo): One of the most unsung heroes of the T-Birds’ season, Todd’s story is a feel-good one to say the least. Prior to 2020, he had fewer than 30 AHL games on his resume despite turning pro in 2016. Injury cut his season down to 49 games, but like Alexandrov, he was constantly laying his body on the line in his own zone to block shots and disrupt the opposition. The painful irony is his injury came late in a game whose outcome was already decided, but it showcased his character. Todd’s also got a sneaky shot that netted him three goals in the Laval series. A healthy Todd could push upwards of 20-25 goals.


Keean Washkurak, LW (20 yo): A 20-year-old rookie, Washkurak was a key contributor, especially when the T-Birds had their bouts with COVID in December. Washkurak had 13 goals, including one streak of four straight games with a tally, all while providing rugged, high-energy minutes primarily in the bottom-six. He earned a lot of trust from Drew Bannister as the season progressed. With a few wingers moving on, he should be able to slide into a more defined role in his sophomore campaign.


Luke Witkowski, RW/D (32 yo): Witkowski is never going to set the scoresheet ablaze, but his tenacity and physicality are always appreciated by his teammates. His ability to play up front and on the blueline also provides some flexibility for Bannister and the coaching staff. It may not be a fighting-based league this day and age, but Witkowski can stick up for himself and fellow T-Birds with the best of them. He has also been a captain in the league before and can be another important voice in the room.




Tommy Cross, D (32 yo): The captain gutted out 85 games between the regular season and postseason, selling out his body on more occasions than can be counted. His propensity for clutch, timely goals never seemed to stop all season, as four of his eight regular season tallies were game-winners, including three in overtime. Cross’s impact on this team is immeasurable and goes far beyond statistics and the “eye test.” One thing every player in the dressing room can attest to is Captain Cross being among the very best leaders in the American League.


Matt Kessel, D (22 yo): The UMASS stalwart joined Springfield late in the season, but nobody could have foreseen just how vital the rookie would be in the T-Birds’ charge to the Finals. First off, in his 15-game regular season segment, Kessel was among the T-Birds’ most reliable players in his own zone. His poise with the puck is astounding, especially for a rookie blueliner. In the postseason, he only produced two points, but those points were: a primary assist on an overtime goal in Game 1 of the Conference Finals and his first pro goal in OT of Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals - not a bad opening act. His role will increase considerably in 2022-23, and being paired with Cross did Kessel wonders in the playoffs. I imagine we may see that pair reunited.


Griffin Luce, D (24 yo): Luce was exactly what you look for in a depth defenseman. When called upon, he provided a very reliable defensive presence, consistent shot-blocking, and a courageous attitude in a thankless role. Anybody who stands up to Dylan McIlrath and takes his best shots in a fight is deserving of praise on that alone. Like Witkowski, he will not be challenging for any scoring accolades, but you know what you are getting when Luce is on the ice and that in itself is something all coaches look for in their players.


Brady Lyle, D (23 yo): If Bitten was the forward group’s “fresh start” star, Lyle fit that bill on the blue line. Stuck in a crowded blueline in Providence, Lyle was traded to the T-Birds with more playing time in his future, and the second-year pro took full advantage. He showed flashes of his offensive exploits with seven points in 15 regular season contests, but in the postseason, he took it up another notch. He scored two monstrous game-tying goals in the closing minutes of Game 1 in both the Conference Finals and the Calder Cup Finals, two games Springfield would go on to win. He is the prototypical right-handed cannon from the point, and he should figure into the power play plans going forward on that alone.


Calle Rosen, D (29 yo): If you watched Rosen for any length of time with Springfield, you would likely agree that his skating stride is so effortless that he makes the game look easy, especially when he’s playing with full confidence. Being pressed into heavier-than-expected NHL duty in St. Louis should prove to be a great experience for the veteran to have in his back pocket going forward. With the Blues keeping much of their blue line intact, Rosen will either be a 7th blueliner in St. Louis or a top-pair minutes machine in Springfield. I made the case last year that he was one of the most irreplaceable players for the T-Birds, and I still hold true to that sentiment because of how smooth his game can be.


Steven Santini, D (27 yo): Santini and Tyler Tucker were a nearly unbreakable defense pairing for long stretches of 2021-22, and it’s not surprising to see why that was the case as the pair became one of the more reliable shut-down duos in the division. Santini’s focus has always been in the defensive zone, and his career +29 in the AHL is proof of that. You will not get any flashiness in Santini’s play, because he does not need flash to be his most effective.


Tyler Tucker, D (22 yo): It remains so easy to forget that Tucker is still just 22 years of age, especially when you consider he was given a leadership letter in just his second AHL season. Tucker has continued to bloom into a gem of a seventh-round selection. He is willing to hit anything that moves, drop the mitts when the time is right, and play a sturdy style in the defensive end of the ice. His back-to-back 50-point seasons in juniors also show that he has good offensive instincts that he just has not prioritized as a young pro. If he gains more confidence in the O-zone, look out for Tucker to take a giant step forward in his development.



Anthony Angello, RW (26 yo): Of the new additions, the T-Birds have seen Angello the most, as he has been in the Penguins’ organization dating back to 2018. Angello’s size is hard to miss at 6-foot-5, but what’s more impressive is the great skating he possesses for his big frame. Something else you would not necessarily assume for a big winger is a great shooting touch, but Angello can wire the puck from nearly anywhere in the O-zone, as evidenced in the clip below. I think he has even more potential to his game if he really hones in on using his sheer size to wear down defenders. He has the size and the footspeed to be a right-handed version of Alexei Toropchenko at his best, to me.

Martin Frk, RW (28 yo): Acquiring the player with the hardest recorded shot in NHL/AHL All-Star Game history is an eye-opener, but Martin Frk is so much more than the hard-shooting novelty. His 40 goals in 58 games last season in Ontario were second-most in the AHL, and he already has both a Memorial Cup and a Calder Cup in his trophy case, so winning has followed him. Frk provides arguably the highest goal-scoring threat the T-Birds have ever had. He is a goaltender’s worst nightmare, not just for the bruising his shots leave the netminders, but for his exploits on the power play, where he feasted in 2021-22 with 15 man-advantage goals.

Matthew Highmore, LW (26 yo): An undrafted find by the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in 2017, Highmore jumped on the AHL scene with 24 goals in 2017-18, which he parlayed into 137 NHL games for the Blackhawks and Canucks. Tell me where you’ve heard this one before when talking about Blues prospects – Highmore has tremendous skating ability. A look at his highlights below will show you that he’s unafraid to engage below the goal line, but he does so in a way that won’t frequently get him into penalty trouble (just 14 PIMs in 46 games w/ Vancouver). Should he be a consistent presence in Springfield, his AHL numbers are terrific – 31 goals, 33 assists in 97 AHL games.

Josh Leivo, RW (29 yo): I would not get too excited about seeing Leivo in Springfield, as it would not surprise me if he is a member of the Blues Opening Night roster. He certainly proved he is one of the AHL’s very best players in 2021-22, posting 46 points in just 54 regular season games. That alone is gawdy production, but unfortunately for Springfield, his true wrath came in the playoffs, when he led the AHL in goals (15) and points (29) en route to the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP. He does also have 214 NHL games on his resume, so this was by no means a shocking development. If he did wind up with the T-Birds for any stretch of time, he would instantly become the go-to-guy in just about every situation offensively.

To say I’m fired up for the T-Birds to tackle their unfinished business would be an understatement. The pulse is strong.

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