The Blues’ season is over, but their American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Thunderbirds, is still going, and their chance of lifting a trophy is very much alive.
The T-Birds, in their first season as the Blues’ top farm team, have reached the final of the AHL playoffs, and their best-of-seven series with the Chicago Wolves, once the Blues’ affiliate and now the farm team of the Carolina Hurricanes, for the Calder Cup begins Sunday afternoon in Rosemont, Illinois. It would be the first title for a Blues’ top affiliate since 1991 when the Peoria Rivermen under Bob Plager won the IHL championship.
“Playing for championships is always a good thing,” said T-Bird forward Mackenzie MacEachern, who played in 14 games with the Blues this season before an injury ended his NHL season.
The Springfield roster is loaded with players who spent time in St. Louis this season: goalies Charlie Lindgren and Joel Hofer; defensemen Calle Rosen and Steven Santini; forwards MacEachern, James Neal, Matthew Peca, Dakota Joshua and Klim Kostin. Other players — Nathan Walker, Alexei Toropchenko, Logan Brown and Scott Perunovich — started the season at Springfield but finished the season in St. Louis and aren’t on Springfield’s playoff roster.
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“I think it’s a good mixture of everything,” MacEachern said. “We’ve got good goaltenders — we got two of them — got good defensemen, good forwards, a good mix of young guys, good mix of veteran guys.”
Springfield was instrumental in the Blues’ success this season. In the first half of the season, the Blues were routinely losing players to injury or COVID, and it was the Springfield players who filled the gaps and played integral roles. (Lindgren, for example, was 5-0 with a .958 save percentage when Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso were both out.) That, however, didn’t make it easy for Springfield, because it forced Springfield coach Drew Bannister and GM Kevin McDonald to replace its best players with players in the ECHL or free agents on tryouts. Springfield used 56 players during the season, the second-most in the AHL, but still managed to finish second in the Atlantic Division, which got it an important first-round bye.
“In one stretch, I think we had 11 or 12 PTOs in the lineup,” Bannister said. “We came out of that I think a stronger team.”
While Walker and Toropchenko didn’t return to the team after the Blues’ season, Rosen and Lindgren did, and that has added to a deep and experienced team by AHL standards. MacEachern didn’t play in the postseason for the Blues in their Stanley Cup season but he was along for the ride in the playoffs, getting first hand experience. Kostin won the Gagarin Cup in the KHL last season.
“In the American Hockey League,” Bannister said, “you don’t get a lot of that, whether it’s Stanley Cup champions, American Hockey League champions, with the turnover, so having (MacEachern) in the lineup, having a guy like Calle Rosen who won a Calder Cup with the Marlies, that’s experience that’s tough to find at this level so it’s nice to have those players in our lineup and work with our young kids and help them through the ups and downs of the playoffs and the grind of it.”
And then there’s Neal, who has 869 games of NHL experience and has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice. He came to Blues camp on a tryout, made the team, but once everyone got healthy, they ran out of roster space for him and sent him in January to Springfield, where he had 14 goals and 12 assists in 28 regular-season games.
“James has been great,” said Bannister. “He hasn’t played in the American League since he was 21 or 22. Certainly for him, you could understand that he would be a difficult situation for him but he’s been a great pro down here, a great leader in our locker room. He’s taken it very well, and he’s contributed and he’s having fun. He’s playing a lot of hockey, he’s played in situations that he probably hasn’t played in two or three years, and I think feels he’s getting his legs back and his game back to where it was when he was playing well in Vegas and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
“Guys lean on him for experience,” MacEachern said. “After those losses, he’s still happy, still walking around talking to everyone. He’s got good insight before games. Before Game 7 (in the Eastern Conference final), he’s running it down, easing the nerves for some of the guys that haven’t been in that situation. He’s been in about every situation in his hockey career, playing in the Stanley Cup Final. He’s been a vital part on and off the ice, for sure. Guys are leaning on him to take care of the job on the ice and they listen to him for all the years off the ice, to hear his experience, his memories and what he’s learned from that.”
Not everyone on Springfield got to St. Louis this season, but Bannister thinks others will: On defense, Tyler Tucker and Matthew Kessel, and forwards Hugh McGing, Nikita Alexandrov and Will Bitten. “It will be tough to make team,” said MacEachern, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, “but if not they’ll be pushing and knocking on the door next year.”
But first, there’s a championship to play for.