Even during a global pandemic, there are a few things which supersede the importance of the NHL Playoffs for professional hockey players, and being at the birth of your first child is certainly one. Ivan Barbashev and his wife, Ksenia, are expecting their first child in the coming days, so the St. Louis Blues’ utility forward will be leaving the playoff bubble in Edmonton, Alberta.
The Barbashevs’ joyous occasion comes at a time when the team is floundering a bit, and they will need to find a replacement for their valuable bottom-six forward quickly. But it’s an important procedure for the team to go through, because it will help them prepare for a much bigger potential departure that might follow.
The Process for Barbashev
There’s no question that Barbashev is doing the right thing to be with his wife at the birth of their child. But the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic make the process more difficult than it would be in a normal postseason. Leaving is easy: Barbashev merely boards a flight from Edmonton to return home to St. Louis, where his wife is currently. But the return will be somewhat tumultuous.
Once the baby has arrived and it’s time for the father to return, he’ll have to go through a rigorous procedure. First, he will have to quarantine in his Edmonton hotel room for a minimum of four days. Then, he’ll need to be approved by four negative COVID-19 tests in order to leave the hotel and return to the ice with his team for practice or games. But Barbashev is eager to do it.
We didn’t even talk about it, (whether) to opt out or not. It was actually really simple. I’m still 24, I have a full career ahead of me. After winning (the Cup) last year, I want to do it all over again. That feeling has been stuck in me for a long time and you just get even more hungry after winning.Ivan Barbashev, speaking with NHL.com (linked above)
The extensive safety protocols are part of what has helped the NHL have such a successful return to play so far. Ideally, players will not leave the bubble once they arrive, but obviously, the birth of a child is an exceptional circumstance. We wish the Barbashevs all the best and hope the baby arrives absolutely healthy. As for the Blues, for the time being, they have a hole to fill.
MacEachern to Replace Barbashev
Make no mistake: Barbashev is a very valuable forward for the Blues. He played 25 of 26 games during last season’s playoffs, missing one due to a suspension. He averaged 12:28 per game, and scored three goals and three assists. He played a critical role on a potent fourth line alongside Oskar Sundqvist and Alex Steen.
Now, it appears MacKenzie MacEachern will step into Barbashev’s skates for the time being. The 2012 third round pick had a long road to the NHL, but he finally made it last season, playing in 29 games. That performance earned him a two-year contract extension. This season, he’s become a valued rotation player on head coach Craig Berube’s squad, adding 51 more appearances. But the 26-year-old did not get a chance to make his playoff debut on the Blues’ road to the Stanley Cup in 2019.
Both Berube and the Blues’ fanbase value hardscrabble players like MacEachern. His grit and determination are a huge plus for the team. But he will have to find quick chemistry with a very established fourth line. Though he’s excited for the opportunity, he knows just how significant the unit he’s stepping into is:
‘They’re very tenacious,’ MacEachern said. ‘They shut down the top lines in our (defensive) zone, and when they get on the other side of the red line, they are hounds on the puck and they hold on to pucks down low. They had a lot of big goals for us in that playoff run. They did just about everything, whether it was win a big faceoff, block a big shot or be physical and score. I don’t think there’s one thing they didn’t do.’From “‘Is that a typo?’: MacKenzie MacEachern will relish an unexpected chance to play,” The Athletic NHL, July 31, 2020
MacEachern knows his teammates well and will find a groove, but he needs to do it quickly. Though the Blues are not in games of utmost significance yet, they have looked poor in two appearances so far, scoring one goal total. Though his line’s role won’t be to score goals, MacEachern, Steen, and Sundqvist will be critical in bringing energy back to the team. But there’s another important role for the newcomer to play: a test balloon for replacing an even bigger player in a few weeks.
Baby Pietrangelo Coming in September
Team captain Alex Pietrangelo is expecting his fourth child, after wife Jayne gave birth to triplets just over two years ago. Though their family may have much more experience than the Barbashevs in welcoming children to the world, it is no less significant an occasion. As the baby is due in late September, Pietrangelo would need to leave the bubble sometime around the conference final, should the team make it that far.
Right now, that seems far from a guarantee, but the defending Stanley Cup Champions should certainly expect to get that far, and should be prepared for the event should it arise. MacEachern’s departure will help the team prepare for replacing a player leaving the bubble.
While neither player’s departure is ideal, and advancing to a Stanley Cup Final without your captain and most critical defender is a tall order, it could be a blessing in disguise in another way. the Blues may be looking at a future without Pietrangelo in the offseason, as he is a pending free agent. If they can replace him in a conference final and thrive, it could be a sign that they can afford to let him leave. But if he departs the bubble and the team falls apart, it will be a grim preview of what a reality without Pietrangelo might look like.
What’s Next for the Blues?
The Blues will finish the round robin by playing the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday at 5:30 CT and the Dallas Stars on Sunday (time TBD). After that, they will advance to the official first round in a seven game series against a yet-unknown team. Their performance in the final two games of the round robin will determine their seeding, and teams will be reseeded between rounds. The Blues are expecting that Barbashev will return for the tail end of the first round. They are hopeful that they’ll have a lot of hockey yet to play at that point.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.