The Blues — like plenty of teams in the NHL this season — have spent lots of time dealing with adversity, trying to keep their ship running smoothly while avoiding the multiple COVID icebergs that have popped up around them.
The team has managed this with no small amount of aplomb, sitting 11th in the league in points percentage going into Wednesday’s games. But for all they have gone through, the test the Blues face on Thursday against Seattle may be their toughest one yet.
Barring late-breaking negative COVID tests, the Blues will be without Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron, Brayden Schenn, Colton Parayko and Scott Perunovich. That’s three of their top offensive players, their defensive stalwart and the quarterback of one of their power-play units.
The first four have salaries totaling $23.5 million and make up 29% of the team’s salary cap. The Blues have had injuries and absences before but this might be the biggest concentration of talent to be out at the same time. The only comparable list would be for their game with Anaheim on Dec. 12, when they were without Perron, Jordan Binnington, Justin Faulk, Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas.
“It’s tough,” coach Craig Berube said. “Some real good players are obviously out. The next guy has to step in and do the job and we’ve just got to rely on our depth that we have in the organization and that’s what we have to do.”
“We’ve got some big shoes to fill here,” said forward Tyler Bozak. “Luckily the period of time they’re out is usually less now and we’ll get them back sooner rather than later, but while they’re out, we’re gonna all have to step up and play better.”
The shortening of the league’s COVID isolation from 10 days to five days if a player has the needed negative tests could make this a mere blip, a one-game occurrence. But there are no guarantees.
Tarasenko and Perunovich are eligible to come off the COVID protocol list, but hadn’t as of Wednesday. (Jake Walman, who went on the list at the same time as Tarasenko and Perunovich, skated with the team on Wednesday.) But technically, Tarasenko is a negative test away from returning to action.
“I guess there’s always hope,” Berube said, not sounding terribly hopeful.
The Blues have played some of their best hockey with a reduced lineup, defying logic by going 11-3-3 since Thanksgiving, around when their lineup entered chaos mode. Now, after one game with all their forwards healthy, it’s back to the drawing board — and the taxi squad.
“It’s one of those things every team’s dealing with, it seems,” Bozak said. “It seems like it comes in waves. It’s inevitable that once you get one, there’s going to be others that follow with just how much time we spend together and the close proximity we’re in. We’ve done a good job of dealing with it so far.”
“It’s just another challenge for us,” said forward Brandon Saad. “I think we’ve done a good job of battling adversity all year. It seems every time we kind of get over the hump, something else happens. Just another part of it. I think just playing a good team game, when you lose really good players, is something that helps everyone have success, so that’s what we’re looking to do.”
The Blues have preached the value of their depth and their team play throughout all this, and it looks this time around like they’ll need only three taxi squad players — forwards James Neal and Nathan Walker and defenseman Calle Rosen — to be pressed into service.
Neal hasn’t played since Nov. 22 and been on long-term injured reserve and passed unclaimed through waivers to be sent to the taxi squad. The Blues have the equivalent of a full power-play unit out, so Neal will go from being off the roster to the second power-play unit, an impressive jump.
“He’s been working hard,” Berube said. “He’s a good pro that’s been around and keeps himself in good shape and he’s practiced hard. He should be ready to go.”
This is the third call-up this season for Walker, who had a hat trick in his first game with the team this season, and the second for Rosen.
The Blues have had a couple instances of well-timed positive tests this season, like when Oskar Sundqvist got his the morning the team left for Canada, saving him a two-week quarantine there, or when Ivan Barbashev got one just after the league postponed two games in Canada, allowing him to spend his isolation in Florida rather than Canada.
This current batch could be another. This is one of the lighter stretches of the Blues' schedule, with three days since their most recent game. In the case of Schenn and Parayko, they might miss just one game if they are able to test out of the COVID protocol.
“No one wants to get a positive result,” said Bozak, who missed seven games over 15 days after he tested positive. “But I think for 'Schenner 'and Parayko and 'DP' it wasn’t a terrible time to get one. 'Schenner' and Parayko might only have to miss one game if they’re able to get a couple negative results before Saturday, so that’s obviously what we’re hoping for.”
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