IF YOU are searching for a sign to underline the progress St Kilda has made in 2022, this is it.

It would have been a complete disaster for Jack Steele to go down this time last year, but that’s not the case right now. 

While it is far from ideal to lose a player who has won two Trevor Barker Awards and All-Australian selection in each of the past two seasons, Brett Ratten has a much better midfield and greater depth at his disposal heading into the winter.

Steele underwent shoulder surgery this week and is expected to miss at least the next six weeks – and potentially the next two months – following an incident in Saturday night's win over Geelong at Marvel Stadium.

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Courageous captain plays through pain barrier

Matthew Lloyd and Damian Barrett highlight Jack Steele's brave effort to play out the game against the Cats on Access All Areas

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The skipper has been imposing again in 2022, but you could argue the case that a few others have been even better across the first nine rounds.

Brad Crouch has returned to his 2019 best and fairest winning best, averaging 28 disposals and six clearances to show why St Kilda went and pinched him from Adelaide in 2020. Seb Ross has recaptured the form that won him two best and fairests. Jack Sinclair has been a force in the midfield, backing up his form last year that saw him finish runner-up in the Trevor Barker. And the return of Jade Gresham from a ruptured Achilles has provided the club with even more spark than many inside RSEA Park hoped it would. 

But when it comes to who outside the 22 will come in to help fill the void left by Steele, there is a hope in the football department it will be Hunter Clark over the next two months 

The former first-round pick returned from a similar injury to Steele in the VFL a fortnight ago, but isn’t expected to be picked for the trip to Adelaide Oval given Sandringham had the bye on the weekend.

Clark had no trouble finding the ball – he finished with 28 disposals against the Northern Bullants – in his return game on May 7, but the Saints want him to have a greater impact before they recall him for his first senior game in 2022. That stance hasn’t changed, despite the injury to Steele.

Hunter Clark at St Kilda training on May 5, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Mitch Owens couldn’t have done much more to earn another opportunity after being a surprise debutant in round one and is understood to be favoured to return against the Crows.

The 18-year-old struggled against Collingwood under the bright lights of Friday night football and was only given 49 per cent game time, but since returning to the VFL, the inside midfielder has averaged 22.5 disposals and 5.2 clearances. He amassed 32 disposals and 10 clearances in his last outing and will be fresh coming off a weekend off. 

If there was a concern Owens was blooded too soon, the next generation academy product has quickly removed any doubt with six strong performances in the VFL that have kept his name in the conversation at match committee for most of the season. 

With Nasiah Wangaeneen-Milera expected to return this weekend, the Saints may be reluctant to expose too many teenagers at the same time, with Marcus Windhager already in the team, but it will only be a matter of time before Owen gets another chance.

Ryan Byrnes and Jack Bytel have also been knocking on the door for the past month and are two more experienced options to replace Steele. 

Ryan Byrnes in action for Sandringham against Frankston in round six of the VFL on May 1, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Both are in decent form at the lower level and have proven they can play at AFL level in the past. Byrnes played 16 games last year, the first two in 2022 and was the unused sub in rounds four and five, while Bytel played 13 times in 2021, activated as the sub on five occasions. 

Bytel collected 25 touches and seven clearances in his last appearance, while Byrnes kicked three goals from 25 disposals and six clearances his last time out. 

And they aren’t the only two in the hunt for a spot. 

Tall defenders Tom Highmore and Jarrod Lienert have proven they are above the VFL and are waiting for another crack in Ratten's side, but can't break into a defence that is settled around Dougal Howard, Cal Wilkie and Josh Battle. Former skipper Jarryn Geary is also waiting for an opening to reclaim his spot in St Kilda's back six before his time in the game is up. 

There hasn’t been pressure for spots like this since Ross Lyon was at the helm. Match committee was rarely a difficult prospect for Alan Richardson and Scott Watters. It is now an ordeal for Ratten. Not that he would be complaining.