In 2010, the St. Louis Blues selected two wingers — Jaden Schwartz (14th overall) and Vladimir Tarasenko (16th) — that became cornerstone players. Tarasenko has been the offensive leader on the Blues ever since 2014. Both helped the team win its first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019. Now, Tarasenko’s career could be in jeopardy after some serious shoulder injuries.
What do the Blues do if Tarasenko is Out Long Term?
Another Shoulder Surgery
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong announced earlier that star winger Vladimir Tarasenko will require a third shoulder surgery. Tarasenko’s first came in April 2018 and he had one during the 2019-20 season after ten games. This is his third surgery in just 18 months. Tarasenko looked timid and largely ineffective in his play during the Blues’ time in the bubble. It was announced he would be re-evaluated in five months. However, Blues fans must wonder, is this the end for Tarasenko?
It seems the Blues did just fine without him this season, placing first in the Western Conference. However, the underlying numbers certainly signified otherwise. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Blues were 17th in xGF% (49.92 percent). They ranked 27th in xGF/60 (2.15). The Blues were also 27th in generating high danger scoring chances (HDCF/60 of 9.47). The teams HDCF% was 48.63 percent (21st league-wide). If a team is not generating enough scoring opportunities, the team will eventually regress. The best way to score is to generate high-danger chances (HDCF). Natural Stat Trick tracks the data for high danger chances for teams and players.
So What Impact Would Tarasenko Have?
From 2016 to 2019, Tarasenko ranked 25th in xGF% (55.05 percent) among all forwards with 1000 minutes played. His 2.59 xGF/60 ranked 39th. Only Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly ranked higher on the Blues. His HDCF/60 (11.25) was 3rd among Blues forwards. In his short 2019-20 campaign, his 9.8 HDCF/60 was the best among the aforementioned forwards. Furthermore, his HDCF% (56.76 percent) was first among Blues forwards. Although this is obvious, he’s eclipsed at least 30 goals and 65 points in five consecutive seasons. His impact would have helped this team immensely in generating offence.
Will the Blues Survive Without Him?
Subtracting Tarasenko from the roster with no notable addition is eventually going to hurt. The team was riding an unsustainable formula for success. If the team continues to lack in creating high-danger opportunities the scoring will dry up. The Blues only ranked 15th in GF/60 (2.57) despite ranking 27th in xGF/60 (2.15). It’s n offence that performed middle-of-the-pack but the numbers indicate should’ve ranked significantly lower. The team’s xGF/60 would rise if they generated more high-danger chances. The key will be looking for low-cost players who generate those high-danger chances and have good expected goal rates.
So What’s Next?
The team is in a position nobody envies. They only have slightly over $2M in cap space to sign two key blueliners in Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn. Adding in the uncertainty of Vladimir Tarasenko only makes the situation more complex. Even if he returns to play, will he be the player he was before? Recovering from back to back shoulder surgeries is no easy task. So how do the Blues replace Tarasenko’s impact?
The Blues will be looking to shed salary this off-season, so it is unlikely they bring in someone expensive. The key will be looking into low-cost players who may thrive given a bigger role. The Blues may even stick to internal prospects hoping they add a spark.
Nino Niederreiter, RW/LW, Carolina Hurricanes
Nino Niederreiter makes for an intriguing target. He fell out of favour in Carolina, being scratched at points during the regular season and post-season. He has two seasons left at $5.25M. With Carolina having some big time contracts expiring soon, they may want to get rid of him. Now why would the Blues take him? From 2017-2020, Niederreiter ranks 17th in xGF% (55.48 percent), 46th in xGF/60 (2.62) and 36th in HDCF/60 (12.72) among forwards. He still ranked within the top 80 for every respective category last season. He’ll be 28 when next season starts and can return to his 20-goal and 50-point self. Now, how can the Blues afford him? Nino has term, whereas some players on the Blues don’t. Swapping some player(s) with one year left could be attractive for Carolina given their cap outlook.
Kevin Labanc, RW/LW, San Jose Sharks
Kevin Labanc certainly had a down year, dropping from 56 to 33 points. However, he is still 24 and is a bounce back candidate. Despite his points dropping, his on-ice results remained strong. His xGF% ranked 65th among all forwards and his xGF/60 ranked 19th. Labanc’s HDCF/60 ranked 29th. From 2017-2020 Labanc ranks 93rd, 51st and 66th in each category. While Labanc was in San Jose’s top six, they may be looking to shake up their group. Furthermore his defensive shortcomings can be mitigated by playing with Ryan O’Reilly. He is a skilled winger and would add some offence to this group. His contract is projected at $2.9M for 2 years (via Evolving-Wild) which is manageable.
Adding either Niederreiter or Labanc won’t replace Vladimir Tarasenko perfectly. What the Blues would hope for is bringing in an effective top six winger. Ideally, a player that is eclipsing 50 points and creating scoring chances. After all, if the team isn’t creating enough scoring chances, that makes it harder to score. Both players bring some risk, especially Niederreiter. Since Tyler Bozak may end up a cap casualty, there are two open spots in the top nine.
Betting on Youth?
The Blues may put their faith in young wingers Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin. Kyrou, despite playing less than 30 games, had the highest xGF% on the team (52.07 percent). However his HDCF% was just 46.94 percent and his defensive deficiencies are cause for concern. He was impressive enough to compete in four playoff games this August. Kyrou’s blazing speed and hands add a unique element to the team. His shot and physicality are concerning. Kostin is an interesting case. His sample size consists of just four matches but he was impressive. However, before the book is written on him, he needs to play more games. Looking at any stats for four games is useless. Kostin brings a good skillset. He’s big, skilled, and fast. He has an edge and plays hard, but his weakness comes in utilizing his teammates and his hockey sense.
Regardless of if the Blues bring in someone or don’t, the expectations matter. Will they be as lethal as Vladimir Tarasenko? That is highly unlikely. Bringing in an established superstar will cost a fortune the Blues don’t have. This is a team with championship ambition. The core plays are all approaching or over 30. With a flat cap and some key players expiring, cap flexibility isn’t there. Time is short on this group and finding a viable replacement for Tarasenko is a must. With two top nine spots open, do the Blues bet on Kostin and Kyrou to fill both? It seems Kyrou has garnered enough trust in the organization, but has Kostin? These are questions that will be answered by the Blues this offseason.
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