Eight minutes into his first game back at Scottrade Center on Thursday night, Edmonton’s David Perron scored against his ex-teammates, which he figured was a good sign. “I thought we had them when we scored there,” he said. “Obviously I knew there was a lot of time (remaining), but I know they get the first goal most of the games.”
As it turned out, the Blues had plenty of time to respond to Perron’s career-best 25th goal of the season, toppling the Oilers 6-2. Vladimir Tarasenko put the club ahead 2-1 in the second period with his 20th goal of the season, and Jaden Schwartz had two of the team’s four third-period goals, Nos. 20-21 on the year.
The coincidence of Thursday’s output by Tarasenko and Schwartz, and the fact that they both reached the 20-goal plateau with Perron in town for the first time since last summer’s trade, is that the Blues made the move with the Oilers because they believed their two young players could replace Perron’s performance.
Perhaps forever linked as first-round selections just two picks apart in the 2010 NHL draft — Schwartz at No. 14 and Tarasenko at No. 16 — they have filled the bill and the net for the Blues. The two-goal night for Schwartz gave him 50 points, which ranks third on the roster, and Tarasenko’s goal and assist translated into 42 points, slotting him sixth on the team.
They have produced while receiving increased ice time in the absence of Perron, who played 18 minutes a game last season, including 2:28 on the power play. Schwartz has witnessed his playing time shoot up nearly five minutes a game to 17:20 overall and 1½ minutes to 1:47 on the man-advantage, while Tarasenko’s time has spiked nearly two minutes overall to 15:10.
“I think we expected this to happen,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose club will face the Nashville Predators tonight at Bridgestone Arena. “We needed for Schwartz and Tarasenko to take David’s minutes as wingers and then we wanted to get a player like Derek (Roy) who was a different position. We needed a playmaking center.
“So the risk we took was that the two kids could take David’s minutes and they’ve been able to do that. There’s always a chance that they can’t do what David does. But they’ve done what David has done.”
The risk taken by the Blues, a Stanley Cup contending team heading into the season, and the execution by both Tarasenko and Schwartz, both only 21 years old when the season began, cannot be overstated.
The club was in a bit of a forced position to trade a player such as Perron, who had a salary-cap hit of $3.8 million, to squeeze in the pending contract of Alex Pietrangelo. But in doing so, they were essentially dealing Perron’s 84 career goals and 198 points and replacing him with two players who had a combined 17 goals and 35 points.
“There’s expectations when you go in the first round to be able to perform,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “They’re both top half of the draft, first-round picks. We expect them to perform. They’re doing what’s expected of them. ... If you want to have young players grow, you’ve got to give them responsibility in the areas to grow in.”
Tarasenko, who has two goals and six assists in his last seven games, said that the team’s confidence in them has enabled the two to perform.
“It’s a good feeling when guys and coaches trust you,” Tarasenko said. “You stay more focused on your game when you have like 24, 25 guys behind you.”
Said Schwartz: “We both wanted to come in here and play a bigger role this year. You play more games and you get a little more comfortable and you get more confidence. It’s been fun. I think we’ve learned a lot as our short careers have gone on here. I think experience helps. I know he’s learned a lot and so have I, just trying to take that forward with us and learn to play the right way.
Hitchcock has witnessed it go “the other way” when high expectations have been placed on young players.
“One of the things that helps those kids is the atmosphere that they’re working under,” he said. “I don’t think either one of them lets success go to their head. I don’t think this is a group that’s going to allow them to do that stuff. They’ve both worked really hard and they both deserve everything they got. I think they’re a product of their own good play, but they’re also a product of the environment.”
Blues captain David Backes said the success of Tarasenko and Schwartz and that of the club go hand-in-hand.
“In the old days, it was rookie hazing and trying to make them feel uncomfortable,” Backes said. “Now I think that roles really changed for older guys to make those guys as comfortable as possible so they can produce and play their game the way they got to this level, and they’re going to help this team succeed going forward.”
• Blues forward Patrik Berglund, who left Thursday’s game in the third period with a lower-body injury, skated Friday and is considered questionable tonight.
• Forward Magnus Paajarvi suffered an upper-body injury in the game. He also skated Friday but will not play tonight.
• Ryan Miller will start in goal.