Once one of the more feared lines in the NHL, the Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko trio has run hot and cold since Tarasenko and Schwartz returned from lengthy injury-caused absences.
Lately, it’s been more cold than hot.
“I get it, it’s a results business and we need results from them,” coach Craig Berube said Friday, just before the team left for Arizona. “I think the work ethic’s there. I think they’re close to breaking out, I really do. I think if they keep getting chances like they are, they’re going to go in eventually.”
But the line wasn’t a factor Saturday in the Blues’ critical 3-2 loss to the Coyotes. Those players didn’t dent the scoresheet, registering no goals and no assists. And they combined for only four shots on goal.
Schenn is mired in a 16-game goal drought, the longest in his four seasons with the Blues. Schwartz had two goals in the Blues’ 9-1 rout of Minnesota on April 9, but those are his only goals in 14 games since returning from injury.
Tarasenko has played 19 games since returning from his latest shoulder surgery and has three goals and eight assists in those games. That’s about a 13-goal pace over a normal 82-game season, far below what the Blues are used to from someone who’s a perennial 30-goal scorer.
In Tarasenko’s case, it might simply be asking too much for him to regain his old form so quickly after playing only four games over the past year and half because of shoulder issues.
After Saturday’s disheartening loss, when the Blues jumped to a 2-0 first-period lead only to fade in the second and third periods, Berube was asked if he felt he should be getting more from his top forwards and top defensemen.
He didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“One hundred percent,” Berube said. “They gotta be a lot better than they are.”
As for why that’s the case, Berube said: “I think that confidence plays a big part of it. I think their confidence is not very high right now. Guys that produce and score and are supposed to make plays . . ., when things aren’t going well and you’re not scoring and you’re not producing, you lose your confidence.
“That’s probably part of it. For me, it’s simplifying things and making sure that your work ethic and your competitiveness is at an all-time high. And you’ll get out of stuff like that.”
No specific names were mentioned in this brief dialogue, but it seems pretty clear that if they were, Schwartz, Schenn and Tarasenko would be in the conversation.
Since being reunited March 19 in San Jose, the first game back for Schwartz, the line had no goals and three assists in five games. Berube then split up the line, putting Schwartz and Tarasenko on a line with Ryan O’Reilly (and Schenn on a line with David Perron) for three games.
Then he tried Tarasenko with fellow Russian Ivan Barbashev for a game; and Schwartz and Schenn with Jordan Kyrou. The results of all that were mixed, and the team was still in the midst of what became a seven-game winless streak (0-6-1).
So Berube reformed the Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko line for the April 7 game against Vegas. The line combined for one goal and one assist in a 3-1 victory. Then came two goals (by Schwartz) and two assists by the line in the 9-1 romp over Minnesota.
Happy days were here again, right?
Well, not for long. The line since has gone without a goal (and just two assists) in the next three games, two of which were losses. In normal times, maybe Berube could afford to slough it off and be patient. But these are not normal times.
The loss Saturday dropped the team out of fourth place — the final playoff spot— behind Arizona. With only 13 games remaining, the Blues are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.
Make no mistake, the Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko line isn’t the only group that’s slumping. Zach Sanford has one goal in his last 15 games. Jordan Kyrou, who missed Saturday’s game because of a stomach virus, has no goals in his last 11 games.
Defensemen obviously aren’t expected to score as much as forwards. But when you see Torey Krug with no goals in his last 38 games and just one all season, and Justin Faulk with only one goal is his last 29 contests, it catches your attention.
The Tyler Bozak line and the O’Reilly line have been performing reasonably well. But as Berube said, it’s not enough on a nightly basis.
So does he split up Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko in some fashion and risk messing with the chemistry of the O’Reilly and Bozak lines? Or does he ride it out and keep sending them out there?
No matter the combinations, Berube would like to see his shooters show less hesitancy.
“Sometimes you aim it too much and you don’t just get it off quicker,” Berube said. “It’s one of the things I talked to Vladi about (Friday) was just getting the puck off quicker. Don’t give the goalie time (to setup), don’t try to aim it and pick corners so much. Have that shot mentality and get it off quicker. It makes it tougher on the defending team and for the goalie.”
Just the slightest hesitancy in shooting can give the defense time to position itself, which might explain the plethora of blocked shots Blues shooters have been experiencing lately.
Arizona blocked 24 Blues shots Saturday, which tied a season high. Over the last three games, 65 Blues shots have been blocked, their second-highest total over a three-game span this season.
Something has to change, particularly from the team’s normal points producers. Or it will be a lost season.
“I think we all kind of feel it right now,” O’Reilly said. “It’s our job. Guys that are seeing the big minutes, we have to be driving the bus here. That’s the only way we’re gonna get into the playoffs.
“I think we’ll get it back. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will. But it’s gotta happen soon. It’s gotta happen next game.”
That’s on Thursday night, at home against Colorado.