With Vladimir Tarasenko Injured, The Blues Must Find New Ways To Score

The Blues’ otherwise successful 2-0-1 trip to California came with some bad news: Vladimir missed the final game, Saturday at San Jose, with an apparent elbow injury. And Tarasenko will be out for at least four more games.

Sure, the timing could be better.

David Perron (concussion) hasn’t played since Jan. 17. Unless Perron returns soon, and with Tarasenko away from the lineup, the Blues would be competing without two shooters that had combined to score 30.4 percent of the team’s goals by forwards through the first 46 games of this season.

Perron has been stuck at 17 goals and 18 assists since last playing on Jan. 17. The Blues have survived Perron’s lengthy absence of 22 games. But Tarasenko’s stick has been ablaze in recent weeks; through Sunday he’d ranked tied for second in the NHL in goals (12) and tied for fourth in points (27) since Jan. 23. And his excellence was reflected in the Blues’ 15-3-2 record over the last 20 games.

Based on the lines constructed for Monday’s practice, Blues coach Craig Berube will move rookie Robert Thomas to the No. 1 line as Tarasenko’s replacement for Tuesday’s home game against Arizona. Unless something changes Thomas, 19, will join Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly.

Jaden Schwartz took Tarasenko’s spot on the top line at San Jose but will be moved back to the No. 2 line (which includes Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon) for the game with Arizona.

Before that, Schwartz was assigned top-line duty for all but one contest when Schenn missed six games with a concussion. In 15 minutes of five-on-five action the Schenn, O’Reilly and Schwartz line struggled to generate offense, producing an awful Corsi-for possession rating of 37.5 percent. (Frame of reference: 50% is considered average.)

Clearly Berube thought it was time to try a different combination.

I like the move.

Thomas has earned this opportunity; he’s playing extremely well. Since Jan. 23, when the Blues began rolling, Thomas has played in all 20 games. And among Blues forwards at five-on-five play Thomas ranks first in three notable categories: Corsi rating percentage (55.45), scoring-chances percentage (58.67) and high-danger chances (67.92%.)

“I really like the way he’s playing,” Berube said, when speaking of his decision on Thomas. “As a kid coming into the league, it takes a while to get adjusted and how fast it is and how competitive you have to be and just the all-around game. It’s a lot different than junior hockey. He’s a smart guy, a hard-working guy and the coaching staff’s done a real good job with him bringing him along. Otter and these guys have done a real good job of working with him. He’s really picked up the speed part of it. He’s skating really well, getting into open ice and making plays. A lot of stuff like that, he’s really good at it.

“He’s a good kid and he’s got a good attitude. That’s the biggest thing. He didn’t expect that, I don’t think. Not that he didn’t want it; I’m sure he did, but he didn’t expect it. But he worked hard and learned the game as he went along. He’s getting better and better and as that happens, his minutes go up.”

Not that Thomas should be counted on to fill the gap in production created by Tarasenko’s injury. That wouldn’t be fair to the kid.

Here’s a reminder of what the Blues will be missing with Tarasenko spectating:

Over the last five seasons, including this one, Tarasenko has 177 total goals, second in the NHL to Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

Tarasenko’s 131 even-strength goals are only six behind league-leader Ovechkin over the last five seasons.

Tarasenko’s 346 points over the last five seasons ranks 15th among NHL forwards.

Tarasenko is an enduring presence. Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, he’s only one of 31 NHL forwards that have played in at least 385 regular-season games. Among league forwards Tarasenko has played in only 12 fewer games than Phil Kessel, who leads the NHL with 397 games over that time.

Tarasenko doesn’t receive enough credit for his ability to go into hostile arenas and consistently score goals and manufacture all-around offense. Since the start of the 2014-2015 season Tarasenko is third in the NHL in overall road goals (86) and even-strength road goals (65.) And he ranks No. 8 among forwards with 175 road points.

This one sums it up: through Sunday, only two NHL forwards had at least 86 goals, 175 points and a plus-minus rating of 24 or better in road games: Tarasenko and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov.

Even as the Blues begin to confront their latest challenge — a shortage of manpower and firepower — let’s recognize the positives here. With 14 games remaining on the regular-season schedule the Blues are in strong position to lock down a playoff spot. According to MoneyPuck.com the Blues’ probability for qualifying for the 2019 postseason is 98.84 percent.

The Blues should benefit from a softer mash of schedule. In their 14 remaining games they’ll face only three teams that would be in the NHL postseason tournament as of today: at Pittsburgh, and home games against Tampa Bay and Las Vegas. The Blues’ other 11 opponents are ranked anywhere from 20th through 31st (last in the league) in points percentage. Six of the 11 were below .500.

And after this week’s schedule — a home game followed by three consecutive road games — the Blues will play seven of their final 10 in the friendly environment at Enterprise Center.

No question, this phase will test the Blues. Not because of the makeup of opponents. But we saw the Blues’ attack conk out when Schenn missed six consecutive games.

The Blues went 2-3-1 and couldn’t manage to score more than two goals in any of the six games.

A key missing piece from the top line caused the production to slow. And after getting Schenn back to restore the offense — the dynamic top line combined for four goals and seven assists last week in back-to-back road wins at Anaheim and Los Angeles — Tarasenko damaged his elbow.

After scoring nine goals at Anaheim and LA with Schenn, O’Reilly and Tarasenko fully restored the Blues settled for two goals at San Jose without Tarasenko.

Schwartz had three goals (playing on second or third line) during the recent 11-game winning streak but hasn’t scored in the last seven games the Blues have played when either Schenn or Tarasenko were out with injuries. And that’s a problem; Schwartz must score goals when the Blues need a lift.

In the last seven games the Blues have played without their top line being intact, they’ve gotten only four goals, total, from forwards not named O’Reilly, Schenn or Tarasenko — including only three at five-on-five play. Awful.

Secondary scoring is an issue, but perhaps the defensemen can make a difference. Their D-men been have made major contributions offensively this season. They were especially impactful during the recent 11-game winning streak, combining for 11 goals overall and eight during five-on-five play.

It would be swell to have Tarasenko — and Perron –back in place for the Blues’  final 10-game stretch.

But if that isn’t the case, then others have to bring more to the postseason push.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie