The St. Louis Blues announced on Sunday that their superstar winger, Vladimir Tarasenko, would miss at least 10 days with an upper-body injury. It’s a devastating loss for a team that is in the middle of a playoff push, as the Russian sniper is personally responsible for over 14 percent of the Blues’ goals. It is even more troubling that the team’s top line, one of the hottest in the league, is once again missing a member, just a few games after Brayden Schenn returned.
Obviously, no one can fully replace a player like Tarasenko, but he and his linemates average over 18 minutes per game, and someone needs to step up and fill that role. There are numerous options, but with Jaden Schwartz and Patrick Maroon having failed to seize past opportunities, the team may want to get creative in filling the void. Let’s take a look at a few of St. Louis’ more interesting options.
Just 56 games into his NHL career, it is clear that the Blues have a special player in 19-year-old Robert Thomas. The center has steadily improved over the course of the season, making good on the front office’s decision to pluck him out of juniors at such a tender age.
In the long run, the Blues will not want to move Thomas off of his natural position. He is a potential No. 1 at center, and they will want to develop him there; however, desperate times call for desperate measures. He has only averaged 12:38 per game this season, and as he continues to grow as a player, the team may jump at the opportunity to move him into a more prominent role.
Of course, moving Thomas to the first line doesn’t necessarily require moving him off of center. General manager Doug Armstrong suggested in the offseason that if he developed quickly enough, he might at some point center a line with Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly, even though the latter is also a center. O’Reilly occasionally played wing with Matt Duchene for the Colorado Avalanche. Might he reprise that role in a partnership with Thomas?
Whether on the wing or at center, Thomas is a logical player to move up the lineup. He’s played at both positions this season, and has seen significant power play time as well. Tarasenko’s injury isn’t a blessing, but it might offer the Blues an opportunity to see more of their young star.
Now we move to a very difficult case: Robby Fabbri. Once a young player every bit as highly-rated as Thomas now is, Fabbri has struggled to find any traction this season, after missing most of the two previous seasons with consecutive ACL injuries. He seems to be rated particularly low in the esteem of the team’s interim head coach, Craig Berube, as he has found himself a healthy scratch time and time again.
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It seems unlikely that he would move from being a healthy scratch to a top line player, but Fabbri clearly isn’t designed for a grinding, bottom-six role. The Blues need to find out whether he has a future with them, and the injury to Tarasenko provides an opportunity to get him playing time.
If Fabbri isn’t Tarasenko’s immediate replacement, hopefully it will open up a consistent role for him down the lineup. He desperately needs a chance to get back in form, and the team should try to give him that opening, if at all possible.
Here is another player that has struggled to find playing time: Zach Sanford. He was the immediate recipient of a large boost in minutes on Saturday, the first game that Tarasenko missed, though he did not replace him on the first line (that role went to Schwartz). Might the Blues see him as a possible fill in?
Weighing heavily in his favor is the fact that Sanford found his best run of form earlier in the season in a partnership with O’Reilly (as well as David Perron, who is currently injured). The team could look to recapture that magic by reuniting the two on the top line.
Sanford has had higher highs and lower lows than almost anyone on the team this season (which is not to mention the off-ice trauma of losing his father), but he has shown flashes of top-six ability in his peaks. This might be an opportunity whether those were merely flashes, or whether there is something more there with the 6-foot-4 winger.
Now, for the most exciting (but perhaps least likely) option: the Blues’ other top prospect, Jordan Kyrou. The speedy winger has been a point per game player at the AHL level this season, between various brief stretches in the NHL. He has yet to find his stride in the top league, but that seems to be largely due to a lack of consistent playing time, as he’s averaged under 10 minutes per game.
It doesn’t seem like Kyrou has a lot left to prove in the minor leagues, and there’s no question that his raw skill is capable of making him a top-six player. Would the Blues be willing to make a bold decision and call him up for an extended run in a vital role?
The team seems content to keep him in the AHL for the time being, but the call-up is a tantalizing possibility. As the playoffs approach, proven depth is a vital strength, and if Kyrou could prove that he’s a top-nine contributor, it would be a huge boon for the team. With St. Louis in possession of a six-point playoff cushion, now might be the time to take a risk and give their young prospect a chance.
Strength in Numbers
The reality is that no one of these players is likely to step into Tarasenko’s role and claim it until he returns. This will probably be a replacement-by-committee approach. Schwartz was obviously given the first crack, but both he and Maroon struggled when given a shot to replace Schenn, and replacing Tarasenko won’t be any easier.
Kyrou might be the most interesting option, but he isn’t especially likely. The team seems content to continue to let him develop until they clear a more permanent role for him. Klim Kostin, who is a fan favorite prospect, won’t be considered, as playing him in more than ten games this season would force the Blues to protect him in the impending Seattle expansion draft.
Fans who would like to see Oskar Sundqvist or Ivan Barbashev in a bigger role are also likely to be disappointed. Both are performing incredibly well in bottom-six roles, and are valuable contributors there and on the penalty kill. The team has plenty of other options for promotion without messing up the chemistry they’ve found there.
With all of this said, finding a temporary replacement for Tarasenko is not nearly as important as making sure he is back and healthy in time for the playoffs. The Blues will not go anywhere in those playoffs without him, so the team needs him to recover quickly, whether they find a tolerable stand in or not.
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.