The St. Louis Blues made the devastating announcement Monday morning that one of their star players, Vladimir Tarasenko, will require surgery on his left shoulder and will not return for at least five months. That generated speculation about how the Blues will replace the Russian sniper who has led the team in goals each of the past five seasons.
While there’s no “replacing” Tarasenko, who is third in the league in goals since 2015, the Blues do fortunately have internal options to share his workload. Let’s take a look at one player who will certainly benefit, and three others that may be called up to an NHL role.
Thomas to the Top Line
In the short term, no one is a more clear “beneficiary,” if one can use that term, of Tarasenko’s injury than the Blues’ talented sophomore, Robert Thomas. The former top prospect and first-round pick is guaranteed to see an expanded role in Tarasenko’s absence, and no one will be disappointed to see him get it, as he’s deserved more playing time for quite a while.
Thomas struggled to get his skates under him in the early going last season, but after he began to establish momentum, he became one of the Blues’ most important players. He finished the regular season with 33 points in 70 games. Then, during the postseason, his line with Patrick Maroon and Tyler Bozak became a centerpiece of the Blues’ offense, especially in the second round. It was Thomas’ fantastic play that set up Maroon’s iconic Game 7 winner, and late in that series, head coach Craig Berube was giving Thomas double shifts.
Thomas missed the end of the postseason and part of the start of the 2019-20 regular season recovering from a wrist injury, but now he’s back. In the game and a half that the Blues have already played after Tarasenko’s injury, Thomas has moved up to his spot on the top line.
Going forward, he remains the most obvious person to hold that spot. His skill and hockey-IQ are off the charts, but Blues fans have yet to see what he can do with top-level linemates. Still, if Thomas moves to the top unit, it leaves a vacancy on the team’s critical third line. Who could potentially step up and fill that role?
Who Could Get the Call?
If the Blues want to play it safe, they could do worse than calling up Nathan Walker. The first Australian player in the history of the NHL signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Blues in the offseason. Since arriving with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League, he has been red hot. He currently has 12 points in eight games and just took home AHL Player of the Week honors.
Walker isn’t the most exciting player the Blues could utilize, but he may be the most NHL-ready. He’s played 12 career games and helped the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018. He likely isn’t a longterm solution for the Blues, but he’s red-hot and knows what the top level of NHL play requires. Right now, that might be the perfect replacement for the Blues’ roster.
Now we move to the arguable fan favorite: 2017 first-round pick Klim Kostin. The talented prospect has struggled to establish himself in the AHL at times, but after a strong training camp prior to the 2019-20 season, many fans called for him to make his NHL debut.
Kostin has five points (one goal, four assists) in eight games with the Rampage so far this season. That puts him well ahead of his 24 point pace (in 66 games) last season. But the Blues have been patient with their prospects in the past.
Kostin will need more than eight games to prove himself at the AHL level; however, he is also a Russian player, and there is a lingering fear that if he does not get his NHL opportunity, he might return to the KHL in his native country. But that fear is likely unfounded, and the Blues cannot plan their future based on urban legends. If general manager Doug Armstrong believes that an immediate NHL callup is what’s best for Kostin, then it will happen. But it’s more likely he remains in the AHL for the time being.
The Blues just sent Jordan Kyrou, their top prospect, down to San Antonio for what will presumably be a conditioning stint. He is in the final stages of recovery from a knee injury suffered late last season. But before that, he’d finished the campaign as an almost point per game player, with 43 points in 47 AHL games.
Ironically, Kyrou actually has the most NHL experience of any of these three players, as he played 16 games last season, compared with the 12 Walker has played across his career. If Kyrou had started the season in good health, he might well have started in the NHL.
The former member of the Sarnia Sting and OHL top scorer and AHL all-star is the Blues top prospect. He needs a place to play in the long term, and the Tarasenko injury, though problematic, might just have opened one for him.
Misfortune and Opportunity
There’s no question that the Blues will struggle to cope with the loss of such a central player. No one player can replace Tarasenko’s 30-plus goals nor his team leadership. But the team has plenty of internal options to help share his load without rushing to the trade market in a panic.
In reality, the most likely solution will be some combination of Thomas and Kyrou. Those are the two players most ready for regular NHL opportunities, and two of the more dynamic options in all of the Blues system. But at the end of the day, it will be on the entire team, not any one player or prospect, to fill the void Tarasenko vacated.