As things stand, the NHL is planning to have games resume at some point over the coming weeks. Assuming the regular season continues, there will be plenty of things to watch for over the stretch run. Over the coming weeks, PHR will examine the top stretch run storylines for each team. First up is a look at the Central Division, beginning with St. Louis.
The Blues had a bit of a sluggish start to their season with just three wins in their first eight games, but since then, they have been the top team in the Western Conference. As a result, they sit atop the division as well as the Western Conference. That has the defending Stanley Cup Champions sitting in good shape whenever play resumes, even more so considering one of their top players will return, which highlights their top storylines to watch for.
Shoulder injuries have plagued winger Vladimir Tarasenko for a while now, and another one suffered in his 10th game of the season has caused him to miss most of the year. However, at the time he underwent surgery, the projected timeline for his return was late March or early April, which made GM Doug Armstrong decide not to use LTIR relief to acquire a replacement, a move that seems particularly prescient now. If the Blues had acquired someone using LTIR, they wouldn’t be able to activate Tarasenko until they found a way to get in cap compliance, and with the trade deadline now long passed, that would be next to impossible.
Barring any unexpected setbacks, Tarasenko should be able to return to the lineup whenever play resumes, which will give a team that already has hovered around the top 10 in scoring this season its top scoring threat back. There is bound to be some rust; although, some of that will be offset by this extended layoff for everyone. Getting his timing back before the postseason gets underway would be a big boost to a team that’s certainly going to be capable for another long playoff run.
The contracts given to Erik Karlsson ($11.5M) and Drew Doughty ($11M) have helped place the spotlight on defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who is now pegged to get a significant raise on his current $6.5M AAV. Heading into the year, some had suggested a deal in the $9M range could be his target, but that may very well be on the low side.
Very quietly, the captain has put up a career year offensively. He already has a new top mark in goals (16), while his assists per game and points per game are also the best of his career. If the NHL resumes with some regular-season action, he will almost certainly set new highs in those categories as well. After having a bit of a quieter year offensively in 2018-19, he has rebounded quite nicely, and that’s only going to help his value.
As things stand, the Blues can’t afford to re-sign him and fill out the rest of their roster even if the Upper Limit of the salary cap goes up slightly. (And with everything that’s happening, that’s not as likely as it was just a few weeks ago.) As a result, it is a distinct possibility that Pietrangelo is playing out his final days in St. Louis.
The battle for the top spot in the division should be tightly contested, as the Colorado Avalanche are only two spots behind them, and this layoff gives them a chance to get some of their players healthy as well. But there is another race that is certainly intriguing, the battle to lead the team in points.
While the Blues don't have anyone near the point-per-game mark, they have four players within four points of each other for the team lead in Ryan O’Reilly (61), David Perron (60), Brayden Schenn (58) and Jaden Schwartz (57). Four points isn’t a big gap, so it’s quite possible that this particular race could go down to the wire.
O’Reilly and Perron are signed for two more years after this one, while Schenn signed an eight-year extension back in October that kicks in for 2020-21. But Schwartz will be entering the final season of his deal this summer, which makes him eligible for a contract extension. A strong finish to his campaign will certainly bolster his bargaining power. If he can get that team lead, it’ll be even stronger.