The St. Louis Blues have terrific depth and lots of interchangeable parts. The team also has a few special components.
Vladimir Tarasenko was one of those components. He possesses the elusive “it” quality as a scorer. Week by week, he was gaining more confidence in his ability to exploit that ability at this level.
As the Blues got even better at transitioning from defense to offense to get odd-man rushes, he was becoming a greater force.
And now he is gone with a broken hand, unlikely to return until deep into this spring’s playoffs -- IF the Blues make it that far without him.
Injuries are inevitable factor in the NHL. Just ask the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, who are missing top-line forwards James Neal and Pascal Dupuis, key defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin and back-up goaltender Tomas Vokoun to an assortment of serious injuries and illness.
But Blues fans don’t want to hear about other teams. THIS team was shaping up as THE team they have been waiting for, the one capable to truly competing for the Stanley Cup.
Now Tarasenko has a broken hand. Surgical repairs are required and a two-month recovery and rehab period may be necessary.
Since the playoffs are a month away, this is a big, big problem for the Blues.
This team still has a lot of players who can score, but nobody with Tarasenko’s combination of skill, strength and desire to score. The Blues will still assemble three solid lines, but now everybody will have to do more to offset the loss of a 21-goal scorer just coming into his own.
The exit of Chris Stewart in the Steve Ott/Ryan Miller deal cost the Blues some scoring potential. Given Stewart’s maddening streakiness and Ott’s ability to chip in a dirty goal here and there, that tradeoff didn’t appear to be a big deal.
But now it is.
So how can the Blues survive this cruel blow? By getting more scoring out of everybody else.
Alexander Steen has enjoyed a breakout season, but scoring pace has slowed since his crazy start. He scored 20 goals in 25 games in October and November and 10 goals in the 31 games since then. He can expect the undivided attention from pesky checkers and top defensive pairings come playoff time. He will need to dig even deeper.
Patrik Berglund has come back to life lately – scoring six goals in his last eight games -- but he has been as streaky as Stewart in his career. The Blues can only hope he embarks on one of his scoring streaks come playoff time.
Jaden Schwartz has emerged Tarasenko-like this season, combining creativity and tenacity to become a Doug Gilmour-like asset. But like “Killer” from back in the day, he lacks Tarasenko bulldozing strength to get through heavy traffic.
Captain David Backes delivered an epic bounce-back season and he scores tough, playoff-style goals. He definitely can bulldoze through heavy traffic. But he lacks Tarasenko’s ability to beat defensemen and convert off the rush.
T.J. Oshie is peerless at shootouts, but the Blues need to him to finish better during the live action. He is trending the right way; after scoring six goals in 39 games in October, November and December, he has scored 11 times in his last 28 games. He must continue to focus on making more direct plays and fewer clever ones in right.
Vladimir Sobotka is back from his broken kneecap. He helps the Blues sustain offensive pressure with their fore-checking. Like Ott and fellow veteran Brenden Morrow, he will chip in timely goals here and there. But an offensive force he is not.
Derek Roy faded during the New Year, scoring just one goal in 26 games and zero points in his nine games since the Olympic break. He was a healthy scratch in Nashville Saturday. He is a playmaker, not a scorer, but now the Blues need him to become a stretch-run catalyst.
And then there is defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has had a predictably fine year as Jay Bouwmeester’s running mate. He recently scored his first two goals since Jan. 10. Come playoff time, defensemen who can step up into the play become especially important. They came become the X-factor, the extra forward stepping in to defeat clamp-down checking. Pietrangelo has that ability . . . but he needs to HIT THE NET WITH HIS SHOTS to become even more effective.
Magnus Paajarvi has a bit more to give, but the Blues can’t expect him to become a consistent factor in tough games at this early stage of his career. The same goes for Dmitrij Jaskin, who is back in the NHL, likely for good.
The Blues must use their remaining regular season games to reset the offense, find some new combinations that work and get several veterans playing at their highest possible level.
Then maybe, just maybe, fans will see Tarasenko play again this spring.