If the Blues seemed a happier, sunnier group at practice on Friday, two days removed from their third loss in a row and fourth in five games, there was good reason.
The return of Vladimir Tarasenko seems imminent.
“Especially with where we’re at right now,” said forward Zach Sanford, “getting a player of his caliber back is good for the spirits and then hopefully helping us get going here and score some goals.”
Tarasenko took part in line rushes and a contact drill for the first time since his most recent shoulder surgery on Friday morning at Centene Community Ice Center. He’s not quite there yet on returning to action, but coach Craig Berube said there was a good chance Tarasenko would play at some point on the six-game trip that begins Saturday in San Jose and finishes there on March 8.
“He is getting close and I wanted him to go with a line and see how he looks,” Berube said. “He’s itching and ready to go. It’s been a while for him and a long road. He’s done a real good job of conditioning and doing what he had to do to be in shape and rehab everything. The credit goes to him and the training staff.
“He needs to be ready himself first and foremost. He’s got to be comfortable with everything. He’s got to get more involved out there and some drills with real body contact and competitiveness. Let’s get there first and then we’ll see.”
Tarasenko skated on a line with David Perron and Brayden Schenn, which also marks the first time this season that Perron has been separated from longtime linemate Ryan O’Reilly. O’Reilly centered Sanford and Jordan Kyrou.
Tarasenko started skating with the team in practice two weeks ago, but with no contact. That began after the morning skate on Wednesday, when he got some contact from the coaching staff.
The now apparently imminent return of Tarasenko could be the jolt of energy the Blues, with a stagnating offense and growing injury list, need, even if Tarasenko doesn’t figure to be at the top of his game for a while. The practice Friday was energetic.
“We’re excited to get bodies back,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said, “and a guy like Vladi just adds to that excitement and just the kind of enthusiasm he has to get back. He’s champing at the bit. You could tell he has that kind of fire going, which is awesome to see and I’m sure it’ll just kind of permeate through our squad to have him come back and have that energy. Anytime you can get a world class player back in your lineup, we get excited.”
It’s also the best news the Blues have gotten on the injury front in a while as players have consistently gone out and in many cases not come back.
The challenge that still lays ahead for Tarasenko is getting used to contact. He’s been skating and shooting, but readjusting to the physical nature of the game is the biggest challenge.
“That contact stuff is really important,” Berube said, “because you can skate all you want and your conditioning will be good, but it’s really the battling and the contact and all that stuff that wears on you when you’ve been out this long. The conditioning side of things, that’s hard to do in practice. When you’re in a game that’s totally different. So it’ll be important that we do a lot of that stuff with him before he plays.”
“That’s gonna be something he’s gonna have to work through in practices here and getting ready to go,” said Bortuzzo, one of the players who will likely be making contact with Tarasenko in practice. “He does seem extremely confident in how he feels physically. So I think the last step will just kind of be bumping into guys and, in a game, I’m sure there’s going to be a hit that he might take and he’s going to feel real good and real confident after and that’s all it will take from my experience in the past in coming back from things.”
Tarasenko had scored 30 or more goals in five straight seasons when he dislocated his left shoulder in a game with the Kings on Oct. 24, 2019, and required surgery. He was days away from returning to action when the NHL season was paused on March 12. He played in four games when the season resumed in the bubble in Edmonton, but it was quickly apparent that he wasn’t 100 percent. After the second game of the playoff series with Vancouver, on Aug. 14, he came out of the lineup and four days later, he left Edmonton and returned to St. Louis to have surgery.
Tarasenko has played just four games in the past 16 months, so the adjustment time of getting back to game speed may be long. It’s possible, if not likely, that his game won’t get to his usual level before this season, which is almost halfway over, comes to an end.
“I can’t give you expectations on that,” Berube said. “Vladi’s a great player, has been a great scorer in this league for a long time. He needs to just go out and work hard and compete and give us that and his skill and things will take over. I think that he still has a great shot. And he’s going to use this shot. But you know, he just needs to focus on how hard he’s working and how hard he’s competing out there. I hope he comes back and he gets hot right away and scores goals for us.”