Ivan Barbashev

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Blues get Alexander Steen back against Blackhawks

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Give the St. Louis Blues a lot of credit. Lesser teams might have buckled after a disturbing run of training camp/summer injuries. Instead, St. Louis won four straight to start the season, with three of those games coming on the road.

Maybe the Blues were starting to buckle under the pressure a bit lately, though, as they dropped two straight games to fall to 4-2-0.

The bad news is that there might not be many reinforcements coming anytime soon. The good news is that one key guy is returning against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight, as Alexander Steen has been activated from IR.

Steen, 33, broke his hand during training camp. It’s been a tough haul lately for the two-way forward in general, really, as he had suffered through a broken foot during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Even if he’s not quite 100 percent yet, the Blues welcome back a 50+ point player who isn’t that far removed from two 60+ point seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

MORE: A preview of tonight’s two NBCSN games, including Blues vs. Blackhawks

At the moment, it sounds like Steen might be part of quite the loaded top line with Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko:

That’s pretty fun, although it makes for a bottom-six that is … a bit lacking (via Left Wing Lock):

Magnus PaajarviIvan BarbashevDmitrij Jaskin

Scottie Upshall – Oskar SundqvistKyle Brodziak

Woof. Lines like those serve as a reminder that Robby Fabbri‘s presence is sorely missed, and the same could be said for Patrik Berglund and even Zach Sanford.

Perhaps head coach Mike Yeo could spread the wealth at least enough to convert that top-heavy top-six to a fairly well-rounded top-nine?

The Blues are also missing a big minutes muncher on the blueline, as Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains a little murky after fracturing his ankle during that nightmare training camp for St. Louis:

The other bit of tough news is that the Blues will have to hang tough for another week and change:

Wed, Oct 18 vs Chicago
Thu, Oct 19 @ Colorado
Sat, Oct 21 @ Vegas
Wed, Oct 25 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Carolina

They’ll get a reward starting on Oct. 28: four games in a row and six of seven at home.

Even by the end of October, it’s unclear how many players the Blues will get back from injury. They’ll just need to savor the breaks that do go their way, and in this case of Steen, this is a pretty nice one.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Under Pressure: Paul Stastny

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

On the opening day of free agency in 2014, the Blues signed free agent center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract. It instantly made him the highest-paid forward on the team — since surpassed by Vladimir Tarasenko — and, in announcing the deal, GM Doug Armstrong raved about Stastny’s hockey IQ and how he “thinks the game strong.”

It was expected the gifted playmaker would become St. Louis’ top-line center.

But things haven’t exactly gone to plan.

The Stastny era is now three years old, and the major theme throughout has been health — specifically, his lack thereof. He’s missed 42 contests over that time, and failed to crack the 70 games-played plateau in each of the last two seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has tailed off. After racking up 60 points in his final year in Colorado, he’s gone 46-49-40 with the Blues, and now heads into a contract year facing a number of major questions.

Among them:

Is Stastny a No. 1 center?

Blues head coach Mike Yeo certainly thinks so, describing the 31-year-old as such when Stastny got hurt back in February.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

The Blues certainly paid him like a 1C. At $7 million per, he’s making more annually than the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares and Jeff Carter. What’s more, the Blues don’t have much depth down the middle. Patrik Berglund has proven to be a decent, if unspectacular, option that scored 23 goals last year, but his ceiling is a 3C that can be pushed into the 2C role in a pinch.

Jori Lehtera, who underwhelmed last season, was flipped to Philly in the Brayden Schenn trade, but the Blues might have the same problem with Schenn that the Flyers did —  is he a center, or better suited on the wing?

Youngsters Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev can also play the middle, but aren’t yet considered full-time guys. Fabbri’s coming off a torn ACL.

So is Stastny a No. 1? Traditionally speaking, maybe not. In St. Louis, maybe so.

Do the Blues want to keep him?

Given what we just laid out, probably. But it would have to be at the right price.

Next July, Armstrong has some work to do and not a ton of cap space to do it with. The most pressing contracts will be for a pair of young RFAs — Fabbri, and d-man Joel Edmundson — while Stastny’s the lone UFA of note.

If Stastny’s willing to take a significant haircut, his return could happen. Signing with St. Louis back in ’14 was essentially a homecoming, as he grew up in the city and went to Chaminade College Prep School. Both his father and brother previously played with the Blues.

The real question, it would seem, is if Stastny fits with the direction of the club. Armstrong hasn’t been shy about turning his team over to the younger generation over the last few years, while cutting ties with veterans in a myriad of ways.

Just consider what happened to Stastny’s former running mates up front. Lehtera was traded Philly, T.J. Oshie was flipped to Washington, while David Backes and Troy Brouwer were allowed to walk in free agency.

Could this be another Kevin Shattenkirk situation?

Two years ago, Armstrong opted to keep Backes and Brouwer — both UFAs — past the deadline, and the Blues responded with a playoff run to the Western Conference Final. But that summer, both assets were lost for no return.

Last year, Armstrong took a different tact, opting to flip Shattenkirk, a pending UFA, at the deadline for a package that included promising forward Zach Sanford and a first-round pick (the Blues later used that pick to acquire Schenn).

“We are not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup,” Armstrong said at the time, per the Post-Dispatch. “This team now has to get in on its own. It’s going to be more difficult, but if we get in, you always have a chance to win.”

One wonders if last year’s experience might’ve changed Armstrong’s outlook.

All things considered, the Blues fared well following Shattenkirk’s departure. They finished third in the Central Division, and upended 106-point Minnesota in the opening playoff round before bowing out to the eventual conference champ, Nashville, in Round 2.

The big difference between Shattenkirk and Stastny, though, is the depth at their respective positions. Parting ways with Shattenkirk was made easier by the presences of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and the emergence of Edmundson and Colton Parayko.

At center, the Blues don’t have such options.

Blues owner gives Armstrong vote of confidence

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Given all the upheaval in St. Louis this season, it was fair to ask questions about GM Doug Armstrong’s job security.

So last week the Post-Dispatch did exactly that, posing the query to Blues owner Tom Stillman: Do you think Armstrong’s the right guy for the job?

“Yes, I do,” Stillman replied. “A lot of GMs, I think, are inclined to be focused on what’s going to keep my job next year and the year after. Some would perceive it as taking a risk to be looking farther down the road even though it might not lead to as many wins in the current year.

“That’s an important quality, looking long-term for the organization and not looking at your short-term survival. I think Doug knows that I am in tune with looking at things in that longer-term way.”

Speaking of term, Armstrong is heading into the last of a five-year deal signed back in 2013. At that time, the Blues were coming off an 109-point campaign and Armstrong was the reigning NHL GM of the Year.

In announcing the deal, Stillman was full of praise.

“First, [Armstrong’s] an outstanding general manager, so we want to make sure he’s with us for a longer period,” he said, per NHL.com. “And second, I think you have to give him time to do his work and develop the team he wants to develop.”

If he extends Armstrong, Stillman could probably use the same quote again.

Because the Blues are, again, sort of in a developmental phase.

First, there was the massive hockey operations overhaul. Over the last three months, Armstrong has given six coaches their walking papers: Ken Hitchcock, Jim Corsi, Ray Bennett, Steve Thomas, Rick Wilson and Ty Conklin.

Mike Yeo was inserted as the head coach, while Martin Brodeur temporarily added goalie coach to his assistant GM duties, before dropping the role at the end of the season.

(Brodeur will lead the charge to find a replacement, now that he’s back to being AGM and Conklin was let go.)

The coaching shakeup wasn’t the only significant change Armstrong oversaw.

The club’s younger prospects continued to push for bigger roles at the NHL level. At forward, the likes of Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford both worked their way into the mix, while Robby Fabbri was on pace for a career year before a season-ending ACL tear in early February.

The youth movement could continue into next season, too. Tage Thompson, the 6-foot-5 forward taken 26th overall last year, left Connecticut after his sophomore year to turn pro, and gained some valuable experience with AHL Chicago. Vince Dunn, a defenseman taken in the second round in 2015, had a great year with the Wolves and led all d-men in scoring.

So if there’s going to be an ongoing developmental phase in St. Louis, it makes sense that Stillman wants Armstrong to oversee it. He’s done a good job of it throughout his seven years on the job — he’s the NHL’s ninth longest-tenured active GM — and the club has been successful, with five consecutive playoff appearances.

It is worth noting, however, that “club policy” kept Stillman from talking about actually signing Armstrong to an extension.

After ‘bad’ season, Lehtera at crossroads in St. Louis

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Jori Lehtera‘s first NHL campaign was an unquestioned success. He scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games, and looked to have great chemistry with Vladimir Tarasenko.

Since then? Things have gone south.

Lehtera’s sophomore campaign was down slightly in terms of production — nine goals and 34 points in 79 games — though he had a decent playoff, scoring nine points as St. Louis advanced to the Western Conference final.

This year, though, was a major letdown.

Lehtera missed extensive time with an upper-body injury then, after recovering, was parked as a healthy scratch. The 29-year-old Finn then suffered a concussion in March, missed another 12 games, and was in and out of the Blues’ lineup during the playoffs.

Lehtera told the Post-Dispatch “it was a bad season for myself,” adding that he needed to come back next season and show “I can play much better hockey.”

But will he even get the chance?

Lehtera’s three-year extension — which GM Doug Armstrong gave him after the aforementioned first NHL campaign — kicked in this past season. He has two years left at $4.7 million per, a big price to pay for a forward that scored seven goals in 64 games.

More, from the Post-Dispatch:

The Blues might not be able to trade Lehtera, but he could be lost in the NHL expansion draft June 21, when the Vegas Golden Knights select their roster. The Blues will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, and Lehtera is likely to be left off the list.

“We’ll be talking to Vegas the first of June on what they want to do,” Armstrong said. “It’s not only what we’re going to protect, but what other teams are going to make available. I think there could be a flurry of activities.”

If there’s no traction at the expansion draft, Armstrong could move Lehtera simply to get some younger forwards in the mix, something fans in St. Louis have been clamoring for. Ivan Barbashev made strides this year, while ’15 first-rounder Tage Thompson turned pro, and gained valuable experience playing for AHL Chicago.

Speaking of the Wolves, will AHL leading scorer Kenny Agostino get a look? He captured league MVP honors on the strength of 83 points in 65 games, and is only 25 years old. In seven games with the Blues this year, he racked up three points.

Paajarvi out, Barbashev in as Blues look for ‘physical element’

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After losing Game 1 — and with it, home ice advantage — of their series against Nashville, the Blues are making a lineup change for Friday’s Game 2.

Ivan Barbashev, who’s been a healthy scratch the last three games, will draw in, replacing Magnus Paajarvi. Paajarvi sits despite being a fairly productive player recently, notching a goal and three points in his last five games.

This, of course, includes the game-winning, series-clinching OT goal against Minnesota on Saturday:

“We like to give players a chance to respond and a chance to get back in there when they’re coming out of the lineup,” Blues head coach Mike Yeo said, per NHL.com. “We saw what that did for (Jori Lehtera). It’s in no way anything against Magnus. We’re very grateful and appreciative of what he’s done and what he can do for us, but ‘Barby’ has been a good player for us for a long time, too.

“Having him in the lineup, he’ll be energized and bring a physical element… When he gets the puck of the offensive zone, he has a chance to create something. We’ll see how he does tonight.”

The hope is that Barbashev can rediscover some of the form shown during the regular season. The Russian rookie made an impact, scoring five goals and 12 points in 30 games.