Deadline Dependent on Tarasenko – But Should it?

Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko (91) prepares for a faceoff. (Photo courtesy: Jeff Curry, USA TODAY Sports)

The Lowdown

The Blues are certainly meddling without their superstar. Since early December, Vladimir Tarasenko has been on the long road to recovery after dislocating his shoulder against the L.A. Kings. His shoulder damage has been there before, and Blues fans got lucky his first surgery happened during the 2018 offseason. This time, however, Tarasenko’s injury came straightaway, just 10 games in, and now he’s slated for a late March-early April return, optimistically.

Now, to some surprise, the Blues were okay without him for a while. They were 11th in goals-for leading up to the All-Star Game with a 3.22 goals/game average, David Perron has been lights-out, leading the team in goals (23), and everyone from Alex Pietrangelo (13-34-47) to Zach Sanford (13-13-26) and even AHL callups like Nathan Walker helped plug the holes. They coasted into the All-Star break with the best record in the Western Conference, comfortably ahead of Colorado and Dallas for the division lead.

This time around, St. Louis is singing a different tune. Post All-Star Game, St. Louis has dropped to 2.82 goals/game (17th), 25th in goals against average (3.45) and 29th in save percentage (.886). The 10-point lead has evaporated, with Dallas and St. Louis tied for 1st in the Central as I write this.

The trade deadline – 2pm CT on February 24th – is less than four days away and the floodgates finally opened this week. Since February 10, 14 different trades have occurred, including a myriad of defensemen like Marco Scandella, Andy Greene, Dylan DeMelo, Brendan Dillon and Alec Martinez.

The Blues had to bite on that first guy, Scandella, with the strange and terrifying events surrounding Jay Bouwmeester (who’s likely calling it a career, unfortunately). While the Blues defense might remain solvent with the addition, the talk ever since early January for the Blues has been a top 6 forward. The biggest fish was (and is) Chris Kreider, while rumors have linked the Blues to forwards like Tyler Toffoli, Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman, even Kyle Palmieri.

The Cap Situation

They’ve got room to do that, too – With Tarasenko and Bouwmeester on the Long-Term Injured Reserve, the Blues have under $8 million to play with before Monday – as long as Tarasenko stays out until the playoffs.

“We’re talking about this daily with doctors,” Doug Armstrong told stlouisblues.com on Tuesday. “If we get information that he’s not going to be available (in the regular season), then that changes everything.”

Interesting thought there, Army. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Tarasenko has been skating regularly with the Blues, most recently on the ice in the optional skate with newest Blue Marco Scandella. Even though he’s doing “positive”, the doctor’s prognosis of six months is six months, plain and simple.

“He looks great, but again, we have to get the doctors to sign off on these things,” Armstrong continued. “I don’t want to get the cart too in front of the horse. It’s not like you’re going to see him on Thursday or Sunday or anything like that. Just an update that he’s doing well and progressing and hopefully whether it’s early March, mid-March, end of March, early April, that will be our great acquisition for the forwards at the deadline.”

For Context – Blackhawks of 2015

Now, let’s get it all out there. Obviously there’s some recency bias involved with the morality of this story – Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane suffered a fractured collarbone in February 2015, moving his contract to LTIR. The Hawks proceeded to use his cap relief to acquire Antoine Vermette, Timo Timonen and Andrew Desjardins for the playoffs.

Here’s the loophole – Kane was ready to play come playoff time, where he lit up the Anaheim Ducks in the Conference Finals (3G, 4A). Some call it a loophole, some call it “cheating without cheating”, but the result was the same – The Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in five years.

What interests me is that Armstrong could have done the same thing that year – when Alex Steen (24-40-64 in 2015) suffered an upper-body injury at the same time as Kane. “To me, it was black and white because (Steen) wants to come back,” said Armstrong in a piece by Frank Seravalli. “We weren’t going to add a piece better than Alex Steen. If we’ve got eight or nine games left, and he can help us secure home-ice, I’ll take Alex Steen before anybody that got traded at that deadline.”

What humors me even more is the fact Armstrong took the high road on the loophole when taking Steen off LTIR, possibly more so than the final stretch of the regular season. “It seems to be a counterbalance that you work 82 nights with one financial equation, (and) then on Game 1, there are no financial concerns,” he said in the TSN interview. “I’m not sure what the proper answer is.”

One year, a morally gray area, the next, one of two options for Doug Armstrong? Interesting…

What to do, What to do…

We’re in the middle of one of the craziest stories of a sports organization cheating, possibly ever. Manchester City just got banned 2 years from the Champion’s League. The NHL considers publicly bashing refs a $20k fine while putting a stick through a guy’s chin $5k. Me personally, if the NHL sees no problem with the legality of the “Patrick Kane” loophole, neither do I, just to put that debate to bed.

Armstrong mentioned that if Tarasenko’s return during the regular season isn’t optimistic, that “changes everything”. Tarasenko undoubtedly moves the needle for you in terms of scoring, but he also said the doctors reported “at least” five months. That’s not a “maybe early or mid-March, maybe early April…”, that’s five months.

Tarasenko’s timeline shouldn’t be impacting Armstrong’s decision to play again. I understand the immediate amount of stress on the superstar forward jumping head-first from routine skating to playoff hockey, but I also see no reason to rush the guy. Tarasenko’s shoulder injuries are definitely alarming, and there’s a definite possibility that they aren’t over. If you look at his contract, he’s signed at $7.5 until 2022-23.

If you rush him now, you could have a Corey Perry situation on your hands – he’s had multiple knee and/or lower body injuries over the course of his career. As the backbone of the scoring machine for the St. Louis Blues not just this year but for the next few years, Tarasenko’s far too valuable to the franchise to risk re-injury. At worst, he becomes a shell of his former self, at best, he becomes much less efficient.

All big “if’s”, I understand. Of course, then Army drops this:

No interest in rentals, especially after Scandella’s trade. Now, that would remove any and all suspicion if Armstrong will pull the trigger on a Kyrou + 1st trade for Kreider or Hoffman. However, putting the hopes of the repeat on your franchise player with two shoulder surgeries within 18 months of each other… I’m not a huge fan of that one.

I’ve also heard from guys like Todd Panula or Hockey Guy that the Blues should be interested in defensemen. While I was surprised at first, I’m actually in agreement with this after some more thought. I think if you look at the New Jersey game, that defensive game – and just 17 shots allowed – was precisely what made the St. Louis Blues so successful in 2019.

Wrap-Up

The Scandella trade was a start (despite the overpay) to re-bolster the struggling defense; so what could be next? Does Minnesota even listen to offers on Carson Soucy? Do you pursue an injured Sami Vatanen as New Jersey burns down the house? What defensemen on expiring contracts are left after this week?

Whatever the move is, I’m basing it off Tarasenko only coming for the playoffs, because I have no desire to rush his return to St. Louis. If I’m looking at the playoff situation, I want Tarasenko 100% for the playoffs, not 85% for the final 10 games of the season, even if he gets a few real hip-checks and top shelf snipes in.

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