By Patrick Kelly
The Blues have a slight problem as they prepare for the return of forward Vladimir Tarasenko. At the same time, it’s a situation every team wishes they were in. The Blues have to make some tough decisions regarding how they will control their top six moving forward. As it stands now, the Blues’ top line is Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn being centered by Ryan O’Reilly, The second line is Zach Sanford and David Perron being centered by Robert Thomas.
In the game when Tarasenko was injured, the top line was the classic Schenn, Schwartz, and Tarasenko with Alexander Steen, O’Reilly and Perron rounding out the second line. Since Tarasenko’s injury, the Blues have seen several players step up. The first one was expected. Thomas, the 2017 first-round pick, was entering his second season and was expected to take a bigger role with the team. Because of the injury to the Blues’ top scorer, Thomas got his chance and he already has surpassed his goals and assists totals from last year. The second person that stepped up big was Sanford. Although Sanford made the opening-night lineup and had a very impressive playoff run last year, he still needed to produce if he wanted to remain an every-day starter. Sanford has taken that torch and run with it as he has 15 goals, smashing his previous total of eight set last year, with six games to spare.
What is impressive about the Blues’ bottom six is that they can be moved around and tweaked to mold to any opponent the team faces. Each of the guys fighting for roster spots every night bring their own mix of physicality of skill that is needed.
One thing the Blues have found with Tarasenko being out is that Thomas is best used as a center, even if that may mean bumping his minutes a bit. The most realistic spot to start in is Schenn, Schwartz, Tarasenko with Schenn centering and then O’Reilly centering Perron and Sanford likely through most of the playoffs. If Thomas is put at center on the third line his linemates can be often mixed and matched, which is important to see who he still may fit best with. Although Tyler Bozak has remained a center all season as well as last season including having Thomas on his wing, that is something that can also be mixed and matched, especially since Bozak has nearly almost a 10-percent better faceoff percentage. Thomas also has a much smaller sample size for taking draws and it’s something that can definitely still be improved upon immensely.
Sanford appears to be the no-brainer choice to keep up on the top six, but we still may see the Blues play several more games before Tarasenko comes back and things could change. Regardless of how you look at the lineup, the Blues really can’t go wrong with who they pair up and you can be sure that head coach Craig Berube will always find the right choice.