Blues refocused Matt Kessel’s game and it led to top-4 role, new contract

ST. LOUIS — Matthew Kessel had a goal of getting called up by the St. Louis Blues this season and another of signing a one-way contract extension.

Kessel, 23, checked the first box in December when the Blues summoned him from AHL Springfield in late December, and he checked the second one earlier this week when he inked a two-year, one-way deal worth $1.6 million.

“It’s exciting, and I just keep growing with this organization,” he said.

Just 26 games into his NHL career, Kessel is growing before Blues fans’ eyes.

On a roster with a lot of veteran defensemen, the 2020 fifth-round draft pick is playing a pivotal role for a team that is engaged in a tight battle for a wild-card playoff berth in the Western Conference. He remained in the second pairing with Torey Krug against Minnesota on Saturday, and while they were on the ice for one goal against, they continued a strong run on the blue line together in the Blues’ 3-2 shootout win over the Wild.

“He’s been solid,” said Blues forward Jordan Kyrou, who had a power-play goal and the shootout clincher Saturday. “Anytime a young guy comes up and they can play like that, it builds confidence in themselves and everyone else as well, so it’s great to see. I’m happy to see him sign as well.”

Before the season, the Blues refocused Kessel’s game to the defensive side of the puck and the penalty kill, and that may have led to an earlier arrival for him with the big club.

He had always been solid in his own zone during his career, which included 114 games in the United States Hockey League (USHL), but his offense started to come alive at the University of Massachusetts. He had seven goals as a freshman, and then as a sophomore led all college defensemen with 10, including five on the power play.

Kessel turned pro after his junior year at UMass and joined AHL Springfield, where he met then-Thunderbirds coach and current Blues coach Drew Bannister.

As they do with all of their young players when they arrive in the minor leagues, the Blues just let Kessel play to see where that evaluation took them. And even though he put up some good offensive numbers in his first full season in Springfield — five goals and 33 points in 71 games — they felt his future was as a defenseman who stayed back in the play more and let his partner jump on whatever offensive opportunities came along.

“Coming out of college, he was a power-play guy and put up pretty good numbers on that good UMass team,” Bannister said. “We put him in that position early on, and then we decided, ‘OK, we’ve got to change this up, slow it down a little bit, focus more on the defensive side and get him to become a real solid matchup guy and more of a penalty killer than a power-play guy.’

“Sometimes those are difficult conversations, but not with the younger players. You know like, ‘For you to have success in the NHL, this is what you have to do in the American League, so let’s focus on that.’ I think he really bought into that and has a better understanding of what type of player he has to be on the ice to have success. Then it’s just consistency part and getting used to the day-to-day grind of the NHL, but he’s adapted very quickly.”

Kessel said the conversation wasn’t that difficult.

“He didn’t say … negatively, like, ‘You don’t have that ability,’” Kessel said. “Obviously, I want to be chipping in on the offense five-on-five as much as I can, and I have the ability to do that. That’s how I saw myself as an NHL defenseman, as a defensive-minded player. But I think that conversation helped me focus on my role, which helped me make an easy transition to come up here.”

An example of Kessel’s shutdown style came in the first period of Wednesday’s 3-1 win over L.A. when he made a strong, physical play in the defensive zone on the Kings’ Trevor Moore.

“It’s something that I’ve taken pride in,” Kessel said. “In my time at UMass, (coach) Greg Carvel was tough on me defensively, making sure I’m always staying above my guy and winning my battles. I just think that time there, and with all the competitive practices we have here (with the Blues), it’s something I’ve focused on for a while, playing against some good players.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman is getting those assignments because the Blues entrusted him with being in the top four with Krug, pushing Krug’s regular partner, Justin Faulk, down to the third pair.

Kessel and Krug have played nearly 300 minutes of five-on-five ice time together, per Natural Stat Trick, and have been on the ice for a respectable six goals for and nine against.

“It’s nice to be able to come up here and play in the top four,” Kessel said. “It’s been a lot of fun being able to play against some other teams’ top lines. Being able to have a partner that talks well, that makes the game a lot easier out there. It’s been great to be able to play with him, and I think we’ve worked well together.”

The Blues recently sent Kessel back to Springfield but recalled him shortly after the trade deadline.

“I got off to a great start here, and it wasn’t going as well the last few games that I was up here,” he said. “But overall they said good things. They liked how I’ve been playing and told me to go down there just to get a little reset and be back up here soon.”

Kessel was reunited with Krug, and now with a contract in hand, it’s hard not to see the Blues somehow finding a full-time spot for him in the top four next season.

“It’s great to hear, and I hope to be able to do that,” he said. “That’s the player I hope to become and want to be right now.”

Bannister, who’s watched every step of Kessel’s progression, was happy to see the two-year extension.

“It’s well-deserved,” Bannister said. “Now it’s going to be up to him to put in the work over the next two years for the next contract. Is he going to be an everyday NHL defenseman, and where’s he going to fit? But good on him for coming here and proving that he’s ready to play.”

(Photo of Matthew Kessel against the Kraken on Jan. 26: Steven Bisig / USA Today)

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