Joel Hofer “tries not to think too much” about being a 23-year-old goalie who’s now on a one-way contract in the NHL and projected to be on the St. Louis Blues’ opening-night roster this season.
But when the fourth-round draft pick from 2018 finds himself watching football in the homes of Robert Thomas and Kevin Hayes on Sundays, it’s an eye-opening reminder that he’s not in the American Hockey League anymore.
“It’s pretty surreal to hang out with those guys outside the rink,” Hofer says. “Everybody’s welcoming, and they’ve been great.”
Hofer would like to return the hospitality to his teammates. He and roommate Jake Neighbours want to invite everyone over to their place, but there’s one problem.
“Jakey and I got to get a couch first to fit everybody,” Hofer said. “We have one that’s good enough for the two of us, but if we’re going to have the guys over, they’re probably not going to be too happy with it. It’s not a recliner. So, we’ve got to look on Facebook Marketplace and find something cheap.”
It’s possible to find something with a lot of potential that’s pretty inexpensive. That’s the situation with the Blues and Hofer this season, as they turn to him as the backup to Jordan Binnington in the net.
After winning a World Junior Championship with Canada in 2020, Hofer captured just about every award possible in the AHL, which led the Blues to sign him to a two-year, $1.55 million contract for a league minimum $775,000 annual average value (AAV).
“They’ve had a lot of faith in me, and I’m so grateful for that,” Hofer said. “I want to do them proud and win as many hockey games as I can and win another Cup.”
That sounds good to the Blues, but as Hofer is finding out off the ice, too, it’s a big difference when making this jump.
“When you look at Joel, he’s done everything you can do to get to this point, but now he’s with the big boys,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “It’s not the American Hockey League. It’s not junior hockey. It’s not World Junior hockey. We believe in him, but belief is something that I have. It has to be proven on the ice.”
Thus far in the preseason, Hofer has been as solid as expected. He’s played parts of two games for the Blues and has allowed just one goal on 26 shots for a .962 save percentage.
“He’s been good,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Another summer of training, he’s just growing up a little bit more. He’s stronger, and he’s getting to that age where you’re a real pro. I’ve always said that ‘Hof’ has got a lot of swagger to him. He looks like a confident guy in the net, which is nice.”
Joel Hofer – midseason form pic.twitter.com/bfARRIEbu9
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) September 29, 2023
After going 3-1-1 with a .905 save percentage in six starts with the Blues last season, Hofer got more confidence playing for Canada at the IIHF World Championships last summer, when he went 1-1 with a .925 save percentage.
The Canadians won the gold medal, which was Hofer’s second with his country, including the WJC in 2020. This one was with Armstrong, who was the team’s GM and in charge of the selection process that put Hofer on the roster.
“I was blessed to be chosen,” he said. “You want to do your best for your teammates and the whole organization, everybody watching, so it was definitely good to be there.”
Following the tournament, Hofer (6-foot-5, 180 pounds) hit the gym and began working out five days a week in anticipation of training camp.
“I didn’t really change anything,” he said. “I’ve done the same thing for the past couple of years now, and it seemed to work, so I didn’t change much. I thought I came back in great shape.”
But Hofer did take one extra measure to help with his mindset as he embarks on what will be a different challenge in the NHL. He reached out to Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner, who was the Oilers’ third-round pick in 2017. The two played together in junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos in 2017-18 and have stayed in touch.
Skinner, 24, played 50 regular-season games with Edmonton last season, and after compiling a record of 29-14-5 with a .914 save percentage, he earned 12 starts in the postseason.
“I talked to him about how things have been for him and he was great,” Hofer said. “He was kind of in the same situation last year, taking their team to the playoffs. He told me, ‘Just enjoy it. It’s a huge blessing to be in the NHL, so go day-by-day and enjoy every second of it.’
“It’s a long season, so you have to have a short memory. Everybody wants to play great games every night, but the reality is you’re playing in the best league in the world, so guys are going to score. There’s going to be times where you don’t have your best night, but you learn from those mistakes and you get better from them.”
Hofer wants to focus on himself, and, in turn, push Binnington to be the best version of himself.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Hofer said. “He’s a good role model to me, and definitely somebody I look up to, on the ice and off the ice. I’m just getting to know him a little better and grow our relationship, but it’s been great so far. I want to play as much as I can, and I know he thinks the same thing, so it should be good competition, and we’re going to have fun doing it.”
But as witnessed at camp, that’s not the only competition within the Blues’ goaltending depth chart.
Malcolm Subban, 29, signed a one-year, two-way contract for the NHL minimum ($775,000), and he has looked sharp so far. He’s made two appearances and allowed four goals on 54 shots (.926 save percentage).
“He’s played well, and he’s got NHL experience, too, which is nice,” Berube said.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) September 24, 2023
Subban, the younger brother of former NHL defenseman P.K. Subban, has played 86 games in the league with Boston, Vegas, Chicago and Buffalo. His first career start was in St. Louis with the Bruins on Feb. 20, 2015, but it did not go well. He gave up three goals on six shots.
“It was cool to get into my first game, but I expect a lot out of myself, so that was a tough game,” Subban said.
In 2017, Boston placed Subban on waivers and he was picked up by Vegas; in 2020, he was traded to Chicago; and in 2021, he was dealt to Buffalo for future considerations. With those four clubs, he was a combined 36-33-9 with an .898 save percentage.
Subban spent the bulk of last season with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, where he was 20-14-5 with a .903 save percentage. In four appearances with the Sabres, he was 0-2-1 with an .871 save percentage.
This offseason, Subban’s only offers were from Buffalo, where he would have been the fourth goalie on the organization’s depth chart, and St. Louis, where he’d likely be No. 3 ahead of prospect Vadim Zherenko and have a chance to compete for the backup job.
Prior to the Blues’ offer, Subban had been discussing his future with a longtime friend: Binnington.
The two had met in the 10th grade at Premier Elite Athlete Collegiate (PEAC), a private school in suburban Toronto.
“We’d sit in class and design our pads for our (Ontario Hockey League) teams,” Subban said.
They stayed in touch over the years, even working out together in the summer, and so when it was time for Subban to make his decision, he continued consulting with Binnington before taking the deal with the Blues.
“We thought it would probably be my best option, just knowing I’m (in the NHL mix) if anything happens,” Subban said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in camp, but I’m ready when my name is called.”
As is Zherenko, the Blues’ seventh-round pick in 2019. The 22-year-old Russian played in AHL Springfield alongside Hofer last season and went 10-9-3 with a .913 save percentage.
“He’s a hockey player,” Berube said. “This guy loves hockey. He doesn’t leave the rink. He loves being around here. Great kid, great size, has some real raw talent. I don’t know what the future holds, but he’s got good upside.”
Zherenko was spectacular in a 5-1 win over Minnesota at the 2023 Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase earlier this month.
“I was very excited because it was my first game of the season, so maybe a little bit nervous,” he said. “It’s always very good when the team helps you, and, of course, you help the team. I think we played well and we deserved the results.”
BLUES WIN! Goaltender Vadim Zherenko put on a show as the Blues beat the Wild 5-1 in the opening game of the 2023 Prospect Showcase. #stlblues https://t.co/PGFLfxDT7U
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) September 16, 2023
Zherenko is expected to share the net with Subban in AHL Springfield, and said he’s looking forward to it.
“I don’t know him, but we talk a lot and he is a great guy,” Zherenko said. “It’s going to be good to play with him this season. He’s older than me, so it’s very good. I can learn something from him. My goal is one day play in the NHL. So, I work hard every day, try to show my best. That’s all that I can do right now.”
The Blues appear to have a lot of depth at the position, and a healthy competition, going into the season.
“It’s been good,” Berube said. “All the goalies have done a pretty good job in camp, performed well, and they’re working hard.”
(Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images))