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.

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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.