ST. LOUIS -- For the second year in a row, the Blues stood pat.
Well, not exactly, but they made no significant changes to their roster leading into the NHL trade deadline, which came and went on Monday at 2 p.m.
Last year, the Blues acquired defenseman Michael Del Zotto for depth on the blue line. This year, they made their deadline acquisition a week ago today when they brought in defenseman Marco Scandella from Montreal for two draft picks.
And with one more addition in waiting, the Blues (36-17-10), who host the Chicago Blackhawks (27-27-8) at 7 p.m. (NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM), hope Vladimir Tarasenko's return soon will be the key ingredient needed to help make another push to the finish.
"We’re excited about our positioning heading into the final stretch," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "The trade deadline has passed, this is our team, we’re excited about what they’ve accomplished thus far.
"... We had conversations with teams but nothing really transpired. We were excited about the group we had, obviously excited about Vladi coming back. We’ve been pushing the upper limits of the cap all year with being on LTI, basically since Vladi went and we’ll end the season in LTI with Jay Bouwmeester on it."
The Blues, who have won four in a row and outscored their opponents 13-2, have put together a run that basically told Armstrong that they like this group as is, and are glad the deadline is over and are glad to have the team kept in tact.
"It think we're confident. I think we know when we play our best hockey, we're as good as anyone in this League. It's nice to see the confidence in Army that we can do it, and we believe we can too, so it's a good thing.
"... At this time, new players can change up a lot of things. I think it's nice that, last year was the same kind of thing. We know it's got to come from everyone in this room that's pretty much been here all year. Everyone's got a good feel for each other and same thing for this year. It's nice that they know where everyone kind of sits. We know what's there, we know how hard we have to work and we know each other, and I think that's something big we know that's going down and it gives us that confidence."
Added forward Brayden Schenn, who was a proponent last week of keeping the group in tact.
"Yeah, perfect," Schenn said. "This is kind of the situation we were in last year and you add obviously a big piece with Scandella coming in and I think he's going to help us and obviously he's played extremely well so far, but other than that, stay put and guys are playing good hockey, guys are playing well for one another. There's a thing obviously about team chemistry too where you don't want to mess with it too much and we believe in this group and this locker room.
"You never know. There's hockey deals yesterday, and there's guys that get traded for picks and prospects. It works either way. There's trades out there where guys don't expect to be thrown in too. That's just the reality of the game, the business of the game. As players, it's never an easy day. You never know what's going to happen, but once it's all said and done, we're ready to go and play some hockey now."
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Getting Tarasenko back, and the confidence that it will at some point here become fruition, spearheaded the timeline of what the Blues were going to do, or in this case, not do.
Once he returns, Tarasenko's $7.5 million cap hit goes back on the books, and in this case, all but wipes out what the Blues had allocated left in terms of what they could use to spend elsewhere.
"We like our team. It’s been successful. We’re deep," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We got a lot of guys that have bought in here, playing here. Their roles, things like that. That’s important stuff. We added Scandella. He’s done a great job so far, I think he’s fit in really well. We’re not trying to incorporate new players and find roles for people and things like that. So on that side of things, it’s good.
"That’s like adding obviously a trade, a big-time trade [Tarasenko]. He’s a great player and he’s working hard. He feels good. So we’re excited when he can be back."
As are the players.
"If you look at a deadline decision like that and him coming back is a huge impact for us and makes us so much better," O'Reilly said. "With having that and bringing him back into the fold, it only strengthens us. It will be nice to have him back.
"When you see him on the ice, it's nice to be out there skating with him again. He's such a big piece to this team and such a threat. Just having him around and getting back into that routine with us again is very, very nice."
Tarasenko has played in 10 games this season (three goals, seven assists) but has been sidelined since dislocating his left shoulder Oct. 24 against the Los Angeles Kings. He had his surgery five days later and an original timeline of re-evaluation was five months.
"We haven't really practiced. He's been around for pregame skates and stuff like that," Schenn said of Tarasenko. "It's 10-15 minutes and he kind of does stuff on his own or wharever guys are out there, but I just think for this locker room, for him, to have him around, show that he's somewhat close to being ready to play and obviously he's a huge piece to our team moving forward, we want to get him some games here before the regular season's over and build his game going into the playoffs."
The key for Tarasenko will be when he's able to start getting banged around, taking hits in practice by his teammates. He can do all the cardio with his legs and lower body he wants, but until the upper body starts taking some contact, it's a moot point.
"I think that’s a day to day thing," Armstrong said. "The first step is get him out on the ice with the players. It’s going to be difficult the rest of the year. In today’s NHL, there’s not many practices. For the players that are playing, you’re trying to conserve their energy, lot of optionals on the day in between games and morning skates, and the morning skate, it’s get your legs and your heart going, there’s no physical play. The pushing and prodding is going to have to come from assistant coaches or black aces as it goes on. That’s something that’s documented by our training staff. Let’s do this, let’s go to that level. I can’t say next Tuesday we’re going to take him in a corner and do this drill with him. It’s something they feel as they’re going on when he can tolerate the next level of training."
How many games he'd like to see him play? Armstrong would like to see the run of them all, but that's not remotely possible, so as many as they can would be ideal.
"I would like to see him get in more than three or four," Armstrong said. "He affects so many different parts of our team, not only our five-on-five play but we have a power play that’s consistently in the top five. Vladi affects that. He affects how Craig and Marc Savard are going to use their players. We want to find a balance of maybe – I don’t want to coach the team – do they load up one unit or go to two more equal units. Our second unit, quite honestly, has been carrying a lot of that lately with Parayko on there. He’s producing offense. We’ve seen our second unit perform as well as our first unit lately. Vladi’s going to have an effect on all of that stuff. Also, where he plays in our five-on-five play. Ideally I’d like to see him get 20 games, that’s not going to happen, closer to 20 than three, I’d be happy."
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Before all was known about Tarasenko's status, the Blues were rumored as one of the destinations for New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider, who wound up resigning with the Blueshirts, getting a seven-year contract worth $6.5 million per season.
But once the Blues knew Tarasenko would be returning, that notion was squashed immediately.
"The interest level waned quite honestly when we knew Vladi was coming back," Armstrong said. "In a different world, if I was managing the St. Louis Blues in the late 90's, we would have been really interested because it’s only the owner’s money and I wouldn’t care about it. But there’s a salary cap situation that’s in place now. To bring Kreider in, knowing that Vladi’s coming back, we would have to remove 'X' amount of millions of dollars of contract to do that and we weren’t willing to go deep into our core group of upsetting the chemistry we had for a potential short term thing. Now, am I surprised he stayed as a Ranger? Not at all. Players every year are in a situation where they have to decide if they’re comfortable where they’re at or do they want to explore free agency .We saw that the young man that went to the Islanders from Ottawa, he had a contract with Ottawa, he wasn’t comfortable with that and he went to the Islanders. I’m sure Kreider had the same feeling, am I comfortable with the Rangers, do I like the city, do I enjoy the camaraderie with the team. I don’t want to speak for Kreider and the Rangers, I imagine he believes in what John Davidson and Jeff Gorton have going there, that the turnaround is going to come quicker, I’m not surprised he stayed."
Armstrong said for the Blues to alter the current roster, it would only likely be done through hockey trades, and although they were talked about, those are hard to make this time of year.
"We talked to different teams," Armstrong said. "Part of it is a hockey trade that makes you better is something you’re always looking to do. I think when you’re in a situation with ours, how we finished last season, how we’ve played this year, I think the chemistry comes into the equation a little bit more than if you’re fighting for that last playoff spot or you’re out or you’re in that quagmire at the bottom. You’re willing to disrupt chemistry to take a leap moving forward. We did talk hockey trades but I didn’t see anything that made us significantly better to jeopardize any chemistry issues that we had. That being said, change happens in hockey, there wasn’t anything that made us move to the level of “We want to disrupt our core group to make a change."
Forward Tyler Bozak will return after missing the past two games with a foot injury, one in which he blocked a shot in the 1-0 win against the Arizona Coyotes last Thursday.
Bozak skated Sunday in the morning skate at Minnesota but couldn't go; he skated this morning and feels good.
"It felt good this morning, but I just don't know how it will kind of react to the skating and stuff," Bozak said. "I haven't been on the ice much lately, so we'll see how that goes.
"Hopefully can go tonight. We'll see how it feels the rest of the day.
"Yeah, with what time of year it is and everything, I think it's best to kind of heal up as much as you can obviously for the late push of the season and we've got a ton of depth. So whenever guys go out, there's lots of guys that can step in and do the job."
With Bozak's return, Mackenzie MacEachern will be a healthy scratch.
Oskar Sundqvist, who has taken maintenance days the past number of morning skates but has played, was once again off the ice today but will play tonight.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Ryan O'Reilly-Brayden Schenn
Zach Sanford-Robert Thomas-David Perron
Alexander Steen-Oskar Sundqvist-Jordan Kyrou
Ivan Barbashev-Tyler Bozak-Sammy Blais
Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo
Marco Scandella-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Justin Faulk
Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Robert Bortuzzo, Jacob de la Rose, Mackenzie MacEachern and Troy Brouwer. Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder) and Jay Bouwmeester (cardiac episode) are out.
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The Blackhawks' projected lineup:
Dominik Kubalik-Jonathan Toews-Drake Caggiula
Brandon Saad-Ryan Carpenter-Patrick Kane
Alex DeBrincat-Kirby Dach-Dylan Strome
Matthew Highmore-David Kampf-Alex Nylander
Duncan Keith-Slater Koekkoek
Nick Seeler-Connor Murphy
Olli Maatta-Adam Boqvist
Corey Crawford will start in goal; Malcolm Subban will be the backup.
The healthy scratch will be Lucas Carlsson. Calvin de Haan (shoulder), Brent Seabrook (shoulder/hips), Andrew Shaw (concussion protocol) and Zack Smith (back) are out.