ST. LOUIS — If the Blues gave a rookie of the year award within the franchise, the obvious winner would be defenseman Vince Dunn.
Dunn, in only his second year as a pro, had five goals and 19 assists in 75 games, more goals than any of the team’s rookie forwards, none of whom got in more than half of the team’s games. By the end of the season, injuries had pushed him into the team’s second defensive pairing, and he spent time on the first power-play unit, giving it a spark that had been missing.
Now what the Blues want is for him to do it again.
It has not been unusual in recent seasons for the Blues to see rookies make a splash and then come back to earth the following season. This isn’t unusual: Rookies often have the element of surprise on opponents and they’re often sheltered, getting favorable zone starts and matchups as they get accustomed to the NHL. In the second season, opponents have taken notice of young players while their own coaching staff starts to give them more to do, potentially exposing their game. In many cases, there is as much to be learned in the second season as in the first.
Colton Parayko’s goals went down from nine to four (though his assists and points went up) in his sophomore season. Dmitrij Jaskin had 13 goals in 54 games in his first full season and hasn’t had more than six in any of the three seasons that followed. As a rookie, Ivan Barbashev had five goals in 30 games. This season, Barbashev spent six weeks in the minors and had seven goals in 53 games.
“I do look at Dunner as a guy that took a real positive step this year,” Blues coach Mike Yeo said. “Now, that said, Barby was one of those guys last year. Dunner, it was a great season for him as far as, No. 1, earning the trust of the coaching staff, proving that he can play in this league, and then the confidence that he grew. You look at how his minutes went up, how his role went up, and that’s obviously a great accomplishment.
“That said, for as long as we can all remember, there have been an awful lot of players in this league that have come in and had a good first season and then taken a step backwards, so I think his offseason is going to be incredibly important and how he handles it. But I have no reason to believe that this is a guy that’s going to take a step backwards. I think he’s a competitive kid, he’s a gamer, he wants to make plays when he’s out there, he has the ability. We can all see the way that he moves the puck. We’re going to continue to develop him and make sure that this isn’t the highest that we’ve seen.”
Dunn’s five goals were fifth most among rookie defensemen, and his 26 points were the sixth most. After being moved into the second pairing alongside Parayko on Feb. 27, he held his own and played some of his best hockey in the next month, including a four-point game at Chicago on March 18. Like the rest of the team, he faded down the stretch and was a minus-8 over the final six games of the season. Five of his games with the most ice time came over the final two weeks of the season.
“I think with the more ice time near the end of the year that makes it a lot easier,” Dunn said. “It’s a learning experience from start to finish. At the start, you’re just learning things. Every day is a new day, every day is a new learning experience. At the end, you’re kind of getting used to the routines and how guys are off the ice, how guys are on the ice, how things work off the ice and on the ice. It’s just kind of adapting to a new league and a new system. I think I found myself in good positions all year. I had a lot of resources to be successful and I was put in spots to be successful. I was pretty happy with my year.”
“He ingests a lot of information, he got better all year,” said defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who was Dunn’s partner for most of the season. “By the end he was taking more of an onus. He’s a bright talent for sure.”
The biggest lesson, Dunn said, wasn’t anything physical. It was mental.
“It’s more just being focused,” he said. “It’s more of a mental game than anything. We’ve all been playing the same game since we were 5 years old. Nothing really changes on the ice. I show up at the rink and put my equipment on the same way. Nothing really changes that way. It’s more staying composed in your own head. Taking everything for what it is, not getting too high, not getting too low. We’ve got to find a way to compete for all 60 minutes when maybe we weren’t doing that during the year. We’ve got to be able win games that mean the most.”
Dunn will have a long offseason to get ready, and he’ll get his first chance to play at the international level for Canada when he’ll be one of five Blues on that country’s roster for the world championships starting May 4 in Denmark. Yeo will be on the staff as the associate head coach. It’s the first time Dunn has represented Canada at any level. He hadn’t even made regional teams when he was younger.
“That’s exciting,” Dunn said. “That’s obviously going to take a toll on my body. After that, I’ll see how I feel. I’ll obviously need some rest. That’s quite a grind for a tournament. This summer should be a little different and I’ll probably try to listen to my body more than anything. Next year, I think we all want to come in in a better way than we came in this year.”
A better year by Dunn is just what the Blues want.