Vladimir Tarasenko is going into the shop for shoulder repairs. The surgery will be followed by an estimated five-month reconditioning, and the Blues hope to get their primary scoring source back for a postseason roll-out.
Sure, we can slap on a few coats of paint, and apply plenty of polish, and discuss new accessories, and try to make the extensive damage look presentable.
But there’s no need to tiptoe around the obvious: this is a serious subtraction from the Blues’ roster. For the defending Stanley Cup champions, the mission of qualifying for the postseason becomes a bigger challenge now, though the Blues have enough talent, depth and a healthy team culture to get there.
Beyond that, I have no idea.
Because this season was never about repeating as champs.
This season was about the Blues positioning themselves to make the tournament and then go from there.
This season was always going to be about (A) dealing with the Cup-runneth-over hangover; (B) surviving the physical wear and mental fatigue; (C) handling the pressure of being the quarry for every ambitious, aspiring opponent that wants to take down the champion.
Those objectives instantly become harder to fulfill now.
We talk a lot about Tarasenko’s goal-scoring prowess, but there’s a helluva lot more to his game than red-light moments. Vladdy’s career profile is layered with other attributes.
But let’s start with the goals.
Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, Tarasenko ranks third in regular-season goals with 185. Only Alex Ovechkin (245) and John Tavares (186) have more.
At even strength, Tarasenko’s 137 goals are tied for second with Patrik Kane. Ovechkin leads with 146.
Over the last six postseasons, Tarasenko leads all NHL forwards with 22 even-strength goals, and is second to Ovechkin with 33 goals overall. Ovie has 34.
Other parts of Tarasenko’s game are generally overlooked. And I mention this only to put the proper emphasis on the magnitude of his absence.
Since the start of the 2014-2015 campaign, which covers five-plus seasons:
⇒ Tarasenko ranks 15th among NHL forwards in games played, and is 14th in on-ice minutes. He’s been a durable presence, and that’s where any evaluation of a player’s value begins. Does he go to the post? Can he put his skill on the ice more often than most players? Tarasenko has done that, and it’s one of the more underrated aspects of his career.
⇒ Tarasenko is third in the league with 1,449 shots on goal over this time. His goal count is impressive, yes. But there’s value in applying consistent pressure on opposing goaltenders. There’s value in frequently firing the puck to set up deflections and rebounds. There’s value in getting opponents out of position to block shots — or simply to account for his dangerous presence. That creates room for other Blues.
⇒ Tarasenko is 38th in assists among NHL forwards over the last five-plus seasons. But centers generally pile up more assists, right? Only 12 NHL wingers have more assists than Tarasenko over the last five-plus seasons.
⇒ Tarasenko ranks 15th among forwards with 366 points since the outset of the 2014-2015 campaign. But among pure wingers his 366 points are No. 9 on the list.
⇒ Tarasenko is a plus-54 at even strength over the last five-plus seasons; that rates 15th among forwards.
Pardon me for mixing sports here, but #91 isn’t a one-dimensional baseball player who hits plenty of home runs — but is a liability in other areas.
You don’t find many guys like Tarasenko.
At least the Blues can turn to viable players to see what they can do.
And that’s the way to look at this. When a regular player gets knocked out by a long-term injury problem — be it a superstar, grinder, or somewhere in between — it gives another athlete a chance to move up on the depth chart, and take a more prominent place in the team pyramid.
The Blues have a number of appealing candidates to tackle this challenge, and I look forward to seeing what they make of it. They can’t replace Tarasenko’s elite production, but that isn’t the point.
This is the classic sports cycle: talent out, talent in.
One career gets put on hold.
Another career takes hold.
We’ll see if Sammy Blais or Robert Thomas can thrive on the top line with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz. As Thomas moves up, perhaps the enigmatic Zach Sanford or the disappointing Robby Fabbri can establish consistency as a reliable top-nine forward. (Just a word of advice or perhaps a request: let’s try to avoid hyperventilating every time Berube changes his No. 1 line.)
We’ll see if talented prospects Klim Kostin and Jordan Kyrou — when Kyrou is physically ready — recover an opportunity to make the leap from the AHL.
And it’s always possible for hockey boss Doug Armstrong to add help via trade.
It’s also very possible for the Blues to rely on who they are.
And to fully invest in their positive team culture to make it even stronger.
Last season the Blues won the Stanley Cup by surviving a last-place standing — the bottom spot among 31 NHL teams — in early January.
They survived by digging deep. By committing to each other. By following the leadership of coach Craig Berube and the veteran players that took charge. By relying on the miraculous goaltending of Jordan Binnington. By tapping into their outstanding depth. By transforming themselves into a stout, relentless, controlling team at 5-on-5.
They survived early dysfunction, early goaltending holes, an early a coaching change, a blitz of injuries and the justified booing of dissatisfied fans at Enterprise Center. From Jan. 3 until the end of the regular season, the Blues went 30-10-5 and had the NHL’s second-best points percentage.
In the postseason the Blues survived two home-ice losses to Winnipeg in the first round. They survived a double-overtime Game 7 mind-bender with Dallas. They survived the absurd hand-pass debacle vs. San Jose in the Western Conference Final. They survived two hideous blow-out home losses inflicted by Boston during the Stanley Cup Finals. They survived the postseason crucible by having the character to win 10 of 13 on the road.
The Blues didn’t win the 2019 Stanley Cup because they had more talent than their opponents. The Blues captured the Cup because they had more heart, more determination and more resilience than their opponents.
They’ll need more of that now.
Thanks for reading.