Ivan Barbashev

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WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at St. Louis Blues

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PROJECTED LINES

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyBryan Rust

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel

Zachary Aston-Reese — Riley SheahanConor Sheary

Dominik SimonCarter RowneyRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Ian ColeJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

St. Louis Blues

Alexander SteenPaul StastnyVladimir Tarasenko

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennPatrik Berglund

Dmitrij JaskinVladimir SobotkaIvan Barbashev

Scottie UpshallKyle BrodziakChris Thorburn

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo

Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko

Robert BortuzzoVince Dunn

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

WATCH LIVE: Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues

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[Click here for the Live Stream]

Projected Lineups and starting goalies

Minnesota Wild

Forwards

Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
Nino NiederreiterEric StaalTyler Ennis
Zach PariseMatt CullenCharlie Coyle
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkDaniel Winnik

Defense

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Gustav OlofssonNate Prosser

Starting Goalie: Devan Dubnyk

[NHL On NBCSN: Wild Look To Put Road Struggles Behind Them In St. Louis]

St. Louis Blues

Forwards

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko
Vladimir SobotkaPaul StastnyAlexander Steen
Ivan BarbashevPatrik BerglundDmitrij Jaskin
Scottie UpshallKyle Brodziak

Defense

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Joel EdmundsonVince Dunn
Robert Bortuzzo

Starting Goalie: Carter Hutton

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

St. Louis Blues getting healthier at crucial time

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At one point during this season, it looked like the St. Louis Blues might run away with the Central Division. Failing that, it seemed like they would at least silence doubts about injuries submarining their campaign.

Then Jaden Schwartz got hurt.

OK, that’s a mild exaggeration. The accumulation of injuries was about more than Schwartz, and to some extent, the Blues’ stumbles come down to depth issues and Jake Allen‘s struggles.

To the credit of Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, they’ve both been quite productive even with Schwartz out since Dec. 9. Either way, St. Louis has been losing ground, and you get the impression that attrition is at least part of the problem.

Monday brings some fantastic news, then, even if the gratification is delayed: Schwartz has been medically cleared to return. Early indications are that Schwartz will come back on Thursday instead of Tuesday, according to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford and others, but either way that’s great news for a Blues team that could use a boost.

It will be intriguing to see how Mike Yeo handles the infusion of high-end talent.

On one hand, he may be tempted to put Schwartz right back with Schenn and Tarasenko to reunite one of the deadliest lines of 2017-18. On the other, the Blues have been quite top-heavy at times lately. Yeo’s actually already been experimenting with Schenn and Tarasenko on different lines (see this Left Wing Lock study of their last 10 games), so it’s a puzzle he’s already trying to solve.

Getting Schwartz back means players who were maybe straining while being “promoted to a level of incompetence” could then go back to more appropriate spots. Ivan Barbashev and Kyle Brodziak are two players more suited for depth roles, as just two examples.

With Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester healing up as well, the Blues might get back on track after some mild stumbling.

Not a moment too soon

As of this writing, the Blues are ranked third in the Central Division, but their standing (59 points) is inflated by the number of games they’ve played (49 games). Consider some of the most pressing threats to the Blues, and you’ll realize that a playoff spot is by no means guaranteed.

First, consider how close their Central Division rivals are to pushing the Blues into the wild card fray:

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Stars: 27-17-4, 58 points, 48 GP
Avalanche: 26-16-3, 55 points, 45 GP
Wild: 25-17-5, 55 points, 47 GP
Blackhawks: 22-18-6, 50 points, 46 GP

Chicago doesn’t pose the largest threat, yet the Blackhawks could make things a lot more interesting if they win those three games in hand. And that’s the team that’s probably the least of the Blues worries, Central-wise.

You’d think that the Central Division has a strong chance to land five of the eight West playoff spots, but St. Louis can’t disregard some Pacific hopefuls.

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Kings: 25-17-5, 55 points in 47 GP
Ducks: 22-17-9, 53 points in 48 GP

As you can see, Los Angeles could tie the Blues in points by winning those two games in hand. St. Louis would still have more wins in that scenario (28 to 27, Kings currently at 25), but the point is that the temperature could rise quickly.

***

The Blues began a four-game homestand on Saturday, and they play five of their next seven in St. Louis. While there’s a tough stretch here and there (late February to early March stands out), nothing on the schedule screams “meltdown.”

We may look back at this week as a turning point for the Blues, as Schwartz’s important return spotlights a larger trend of improved health.

They must hope that rust isn’t too much of a factor, as their margin of error is a lot slimmer than it was when the underrated winger got injured.

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.

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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

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.