The St. Louis Blues affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL) is the Springfield Thunderbirds, who have taken a step back this season. However, there are still plenty of exciting things going on in Springfield. They had two players named to the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic — forward Matthew Highmore and goaltender Joel Hofer.
Related: Tarasenko’s All-Star Nod Only Helps Trade Value
The AHL All-Star Classic will take place on Feb. 5 and 6 in Laval, Quebec. Despite the down season thus far for the Thunderbirds, they’ve had a wealth of young talent in and out of their lineup. Let’s discuss the two Thunderbirds that will be in Laval in a few weeks, as they’ve earned their spots on the roster.
Highmore Is a Journeyman in the AHL
Highmore signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues in July. He spent the last two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, playing a total of 64 games. He hadn’t played in the AHL since 2019-20 with the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate Rockford Icehogs prior to this season. Going into 2022-23, he had played a total of 97 games in the AHL. But despite not playing in the minors for the past three seasons, he’s been fantastic for the Thunderbirds.
In 2022-23, Highmore has scored seven goals and racked up 24 assists for 31 points in 34 games. He’s been both efficient and reliable for the Thunderbirds. In his first season in the AHL with Rockford, he scored 43 points in 64 games, so he should be able to get his career high this season. I’m sure he’d like to be in the NHL right now, but that seems unlikely to happen this season with the Blues. However, his play in Springfield could earn him a spot in the bottom six of an NHL lineup next season.
Hofer Should Be in St. Louis Next Season
Hofer has been incredible for the Thunderbirds this season. He’s played the fourth most games for a goaltender in the league. On top of this, he has the sixth-best save percentage (SV%) at .931. I thought Hofer would take a step forward this season, but he’s done more than that. He’s solidified himself as one of the best goaltenders in the AHL at the age of 22.
Latest News & Highlights
There’s no doubt that Hofer is the next man up for the Blues in the net. He signed a two-year contract extension at the beginning of this year that carries a salary cap hit of $775,000 and starts in the 2023-24 season. The idea is that the Blues would let Thomas Greiss go back to free agency after this season, and Hofer would step in behind Jordan Binnington. Hofer played in two games for the Blues last season and showed flashes of what he could become. His growth this season should be a sign that he’s almost ready to take the step up to the NHL. The Blues’ organizational goaltending depth still has some unanswered questions, but Hofer is clearly next in line to jump into the NHL full-time.
Thunderbirds Have Plenty of Young Talent
I know the Thunderbirds aren’t as good as they were last season, but the young talent is there. They’ve also had a lot of rotating players between the AHL and NHL, which has affected their results. Players like Nikita Alexandrov and Josh Leivo have solidified themselves as mainstays in the Blues lineup; both of them would likely be team leaders in production if they played their entire season in the AHL. With that said, the Blues’ prospect pool has a couple of nice pieces in the AHL right now.
Alexandrov has played 22 games and scored 18 points for the Thunderbirds this season, but he’s played 15 games at the NHL level for the Blues. He’s still just 22 years old and could be a big part of the Blues’ unknown future at the center position. I think Alexandrov has terrific poise and ability at his age right now, as he’s been impressive in his two stints with the Blues.
The Thunderbirds also have defenseman Matthew Kessel, a former fifth-round pick of the Blues in the 2020 draft. He’s been solid in his first full AHL season after spending three seasons in college at UMass-Amherst. He might not get time with the Blues next season as he develops, but I like his progression already in 2022-23.
There’s still a lot to like for the Thunderbirds and the future of the Blues, but they both have issues to fix. They’re currently in sixth place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division, which would put them in a playoff spot as six of the eight teams in the Atlantic get in. The bizarre 23-team playoff format in the AHL will likely help the Thunderbirds, but they still need to improve as a team. Hopefully, players like Hofer and Highmore can lead the way for them down the stretch.
Explore everything hockey with THW’s Hockeypedia pages.
Ethan Carter has been writing at The Hockey Writers for over three years now. He also co-hosts The Blue Note Podcast for the Bleav Network, which covers the Blues and the NHL multiple times per week.