Under normal circumstances, a four-game stretch of play would be far too brief to harshly evaluate any player or line. Unfortunately, within the NHL’s bubble, time is extraordinarily valuable, and ice time is hard to come by. For the defending Stanley Cup champions, that ice time has been limited to just four games, including three in the round robin.
The Blues did not look particularly good in any of the four games, and ultimately lost them all. But three players were especially notable by their absence: Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Vladimir Tarasenko, the team’s top line. While Tarasenko is just returning from injury, time is of the essence. A first-round series with the Vancouver Canucks looms this evening, and if this trio is not prepared to perform, it may end not long after that.
Immediate Success in St. Louis
When the Blues acquired Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017, the team seemed committed to playing him at center, a position at which they lacked depth at the time. But it wasn’t immediately obvious that Schenn — — who had struggled to find a consistent role in Philadelphia, despite surpassing 50 points in back to back seasons — was up to the task. The Blues gave him every shot to succeed, though, pairing him with the team’s two best wingers in Schwartz and Tarasenko.
The trio worked wonders, and Schenn hit a career high in points, scoring 28 goals and adding 42 assists for 70 points overall. Schwartz tallied 59 points in just 62 games that season, and Tarasenko notched 33 goals and 33 assists with his new linemates. They were a formidable unit, who looked at times like one of the best in the NHL.
Though the Blues would go on to acquire Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres and develop Robert Thomas, the team believed they’d seen enough from the trio of Schenn, Schwartz, and Tarasenko to keep the unit together for the foreseeable future. But that task wouldn’t be as easy as they’d planned.
Stops and Starts for Schwartz, Tarasenko
The Blues’ top line would have difficulty replicating that success again in the following two seasons. Schwartz’s 2018-19 season was the stuff of nightmares: he missed 13 games (not a high total for a player who has been injured frequently in his career) but he missed the net even more. Schwartz shot an abysmal six percent, and despite metrics that suggested he was fine, he never found his groove during the regular season.
Schwartz’s struggles might have been even more noticeable had they not been a microcosm of the entire team’s performance. The Blues were dreadful before their Jordan Binninton-led turnaround in the second half, and none of their stars, save the incoming O’Reilly, seemed to have the same ability as they had in previous seasons. Schenn dropped 10 games played and 16 points from the previous season. Tarasenko, for his part, added two assists to his total in four fewer games. But as a whole, the unit looked worse.
Primed to return after a Stanley Cup victory in which all played pivotal roles at times but Schenn struggled to shine consistently, disaster struck for Tarasenko and cost him most of the regular season. Now, five months later, the three are trying to find a rhythm again but are not yet having much success.
Bubble Playoff Disappointment
So far, each of these players has had the opportunity to play three official games in these playoffs. The Blues were held scoreless in an exhibition against the Chicago Blackhawks, though, which has given fans four opportunities to see the team in action. In those games, Schenn, Schwartz, and Tarasenko have combined for just two points, both assists by Schenn. And they are collectively a minus-five.
Tarasenko has looked healthy, which is a plus, though he did get one of the round robin games off for maintenance. Still, he hasn’t found the net, and if he doesn’t, the team is in serious trouble. Schwartz and Schenn have both seemed lagging at times, almost as if they are unsure of what to do now that they are reunited with their superstar winger.
The Blues will need this line to deliver in a big way to advance in the playoffs. Though they are a deep team, they have few elite scoring threats, and if the scoring dries up from these three, they’ll be hard-pressed to replace it. On the other hand, if Schenn, Schwartz, and Tarasenko can find their rhythm, they could carry the Blues deep into the playoffs.
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.