The St. Louis Blues might have the deepest forward contingent in the NHL. Most other high-end competitors have a hole somewhere in the lineup. That doesn’t seem to be an issue in Missouri though.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock has a variety of options as his disposal, but his trios have remained more or less static since October. David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen form an outstanding top line that is formidable in all three zones. The Blues’ captain is one of the more dynamic two-way forwards in the game, while Oshie brings a ton of hustle and Steen can finish from just about anywhere inside the slot.
The team’s second and third lines are more or less interchangeable, with Hitchcock rolling them out differently depending on the situation. Paul Stastny, Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund have a bit more of a defensive capability, while the STL line can score with the best of them.
That’s where you’ll find Jaden Schwartz, lining up alongside Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko. If the trio has a rock star at this juncture, it’s the human highlight reel, Tarasenko. He’s notched 33 goals this season, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares in that stat.
Lehtera receives a lot of attention too due to his back story. He was playing in the KHL last year and had a chance run in with St. Louis’ brass in Sochi during the Winter Olympics. The team expressed an interest in bringing the former third-round pick over to the NHL, and Lehtera spent some of his own money to buy his way out of his KHL contract.
It’s not exactly a teenage baseball player defecting for a chance to play in the MLB, but it’s more interesting than your average road to the NHL story.
Then there is Schwartz. Listed at 5’10” and weighing in at 190 pounds, the word diminutive came up in his scouting reports frequently. When the Blues took him with the 14th-overall pick in 2010, some pundits were worried that the IQ was there, but the size issue would hold him back.
So much for that.
Schwartz is third on the team in scoring, outpacing the likes of Backes, Oshie and Stastny considerably. Over the summer we wrote in this space that it wouldn’t be Stastny that put St. Louis into Stanley Cup contention. Instead, it would be Tarasenko and Schwartz. So far that prediction has been spot on, and this is probably the most dangerous Blues team since Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis simultaneously patrolled the blue line in the 90s.
When St. Louis traded David Perron to the Edmonton Oilers in July of 2013, it was namely to open up roster space for some of the younger up and coming forwards that were coming down the pipe. It took Tarasenko some time to settle in at the NHL level (and to recover from a pretty nasty hit to the head), but now he’s emerged as a bona fide star. He’s cast quite the shadow over his linemates, but don’t overlook Schwartz’s importance to this hockey team.
If his value isn’t apparent yet, it will be once the playoffs start.
Over the last few seasons, the biggest knock against the Blues as a postseason team has been the lack of high-end offensive difference makers. The top forwards on the team had more of a two-way slant, and they had a hard time providing offense while trying to prevent it. When the Chicago Blackhawks won four consecutive games in the first round last year, offensive firepower was a major reason why.
You could see the Blues trying to answer when Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa found the back of the net.
St. Louis just didn’t have the horses, and it showed. That shouldn’t be an issue this time around. The road out of the Western Conference almost certainly leads through Chicago, and that’s a matchup the Blues are much more prepared for now that Schwartz and Tarasenko have evolved into one of the most effective scoring duos in the NHL.
The Blues can not only match lines with the ‘Hawks, but might be able to cause them some headaches as well. On the surface it looked like the Blackhawks swung a deal for Antoine Vermette to replace Kane, but that’s not the way things have shaken out so far. Now Chicago has a third line of Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards and Patrick Sharp—a group that appears to be constructed with maintaining a deep top-nine in mind.
Stanley Cup winning teams typically have a few things in common. Style of play varies, but championship squads need to have young players outperforming their cap hits. Look no father than last season’s Cup winners, the L.A. Kings. That team probably doesn’t win four tough playoff rounds without Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson cashing in from the third line along with Jeff Carter. The trio had a fancy nickname, so most folks assumed they were the team’s top line. They weren’t.
Schwartz and Tarasenko need to play similar roles for the Blues if the Stanley Cup is going to arrive in St. Louis this season.