Even the most bullish offseason prognosticators never expected the St. Louis Blues to explode out to a 5-0 start and a 6-1 record at the end of their first month of play. It has been an extraordinary start for the team tied for the best goal differential in the Western Conference, and one behind the lead on points (with a game in hand on the first-place Calgary Flames). Of course, a lot of things must be going right for a team with just one loss in three weeks, but in this article, we’ll look at the most positive elements (aside from the wins) of the team’s first seven games.
1) Tarasenko is Soaring
There can be no argument: the biggest positive from the early part of the Blues’ season has to be Vladimir Tarasenko’s explosive start. The Russian sniper, who will turn 30 in December, has points in every game this season but the first, and now has four goals and five assists in the first seven contests. That stretch includes three multi-point games. He leads the team in shots — a sign that he’s healthy and confident — and has found consistency with Robert Thomas as his linemate.
As Blues fans know well, Tarasenko very publicly requested a trade in the offseason, in what would have seemed a borderline inconceivable turn of events several years ago. Drafted in the first round of the 2010 Draft, he’s been a mainstay with the Blues ever since, and has waxed poetic about his love for St. Louis in the past. He was a major factor in the team’s Stanley Cup run, and it seemed he would be a fixture for the franchise for many years to come. But a series of shoulder surgeries and a falling out with the team’s medical staff left Tarasenko longing for a new hockey home. Despite his wishes, he had played just 34 games in the last two seasons and looked like a shell of his former self, and with a $7.5 million average annual value (AAV) on his contract, trade partners were few and far between. Now, thanks to the red hot start, those concerns are significantly ameliorated.
Make no mistake: the latest report suggests that Tarasenko still wants to leave the Blues. But his scoring streak is a boon for all parties. He must be feeling better about himself and his health now, as well as he’s played. And the team is reaping the rewards on the ice while monitoring the situation off the ice. It’s hard to imagine that the last month hasn’t significantly improved Tarasenko’s trade value around the league. General manager Doug Armstrong likely won’t make a move when the team is humming; in fact, he might not make a move at all this season. But it’s a win-win for St. Louis: if Tarsaenko is here and playing this well, the team benefits, and when they do ultimately trade him, the return will likely be better than anyone imagined in the offseason. And while fans shouldn’t get their hopes up about a cessation of hostilities or Tarasenko revoking his trade request, winning cures a lot of ills, and nothing is impossible at this rate.
2) Parayko is Healthy
Last season was undoubtedly the hardest of Colton Parayko’s career. The titanic defenseman struggled in the aftermath of Alex Pietrangelo’s departure, and a back injury plagued him throughout the season. He ultimately played in just 32 games in the shortened season, finishing with 12 points and at a minus-2. After such a difficult campaign, the Blues’ decision to sign Parayko to an eight-year, $52 million contract extension came as something of a surprise.
It’s just seven games, of course, but so far, Armstrong’s decision to strike early on the extension looks brilliant. Parayko has played in all seven games and already has a goal (off his laser slap shot) and two assists. He is plus-six and leads the team with 19 blocks, indicating that he is confident in his health. Most importantly, he’s leading all Blues skaters in average time on ice (ATOI) by over three minutes, at 25:29. During an offseason where right-handed defensemen signed costly extensions left and right, Armstrong gambled on a potential discount by extending Parayko without having full confidence in his health. If the season progresses as it has so far, that gamble will pay off in spades.
3) The Blues’ Sneaky Youth Movement
Armstrong didn’t advertise it, but in hindsight, it’s clear that the Blues intentionally moved for a younger roster this season. They allowed longtime mainstay Jaden Schwartz to depart in free agency, made minimal effort to re-sign Mike Hoffman, and traded bottom-six fixtures like Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford. In turn, they gave more time to Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, kept Klim Kostin up for a turn in the NHL, and even surprised everyone by giving a roster spot to 19-year-old Jake Neighbours.
So far, the youth movement is making the Blues’ future look incredibly bright. Kyrou brings an element of dynamism that the Blues have not had in ages. He’s tied for the team lead in points with nine. Thomas has formed a close partnership with Tarasenko and has six assists in seven games. He’s a plus-five and has been playing 17:29 on average. Kostin has played six games and has three points, and though he’s minus-1, he leads the team in hits, using his body exactly as head coach Craig Berube requested. Neighbours hasn’t looked out of step at all. The former Edmonton Oil Kings forward may be a hidden gem draft pick for the Blues, and most expect he’ll stay up in the NHL beyond his nine-game trial. And don’t look now, but former Hobey Baker Trophy winner Scott Perunovich, who did not make the team out of camp, had nine points in his first five games with the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League (AHL), winning the league’s player of the week honors. No one should expect him to stay down there for very long.
The Blues looked to be an aging team coming out of their Stanley Cup success, but the arrival and early success of key young players is a huge bright spot even on a successful team. And we haven’t even accounted for new arrival Pavel Buchnevich, 26, and Ivan Barbashev, 26, who, though he’s been with the team for many seasons, looks like an evolved player with six points in seven games. No team can remain relevant for long in the NHL without infusions of young talent. And it looks like Armstrong has sneakily given the Blues just the shot in the arm they needed.
Keep the Momentum Going
The Blues are 6-1-0 at present, but the offense has slowed somewhat in the last two games, with captain Ryan O’Reilly on the COVID list and unavailable (along with Brandon Saad). These players who have already had such a hot start can continue the momentum and carry the team until the roster is replenished. They head back to work with the first back-to-back of the season in California on Wednesday and Thursday, with late-night games against the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. Strong showings there could continue to prove that the Blues are the real deal in the Western Conference.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.