General manager Doug Armstrong is being interviewed about the St. Louis Blues’ impressive 10-2-1 start, and it takes more than nine minutes for superstar Vladimir Tarasenko’s name to enter the conversation.
That’s the simplest explanation for the Blues’ early success.
The Blues’ list of players performing at an elite level is so long now that it is impossible to say who has been most important to the start. Is it defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, playing like a Norris Trophy defenseman? How about goalie Jake Allen who has stopped 85 of the last 90 shots he has faced going into Thursday’s game at home against Philadelphia? It could still be Tarasenko who remains a monstrous force with 14 points in 13 games.
Many would say it’s forward Jaden Schwartz, currently third in the NHL scoring race with 17 points in 13 games.
“We are not surprised that he’s producing at this level,” Armstrong told USA TODAY Sports. “He is just starting to enter the prime of his career.”
Schwartz, 25, was a 55-point scorer last season. It looks as if he’s figured out how to make all of his skills work together this season.
“We are going to see this level for a while,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said Schwartz reminds him of former NHL player Jere Lehtinen “because he just does everything well.”
“He’s a guy that (coach) Mike Yeo feels comfortable in any situation,” Armstrong said. “(Schwartz) is a guy you can put with any player to get them going or keep them going."
The Blues’ depth is central to the team’s masterful all-around play. They rank second in goals-against average (2.31) and third in goals-scored per game (3.31).
Pietrangelo (13 points in 13 games) leads one of the NHL’s best defensive corps. Even with highly respected Jay Bouwmeester on the injury list, the Blues’ defense has been exceptional.
“When we had Kevin Shattenkirk, he assumed the place on the right side on the first power play unit,” Armstrong said. “Now (Pietrangelo) is on the first power play and the first penalty killing, and he’s taken huge advantage of that opportunity.”
The Blues’ stellar play is a continuation of their weighty performance last season after Mike Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock behind the bench Feb. 1. Since then, the Blues are 32-10-3. No NHL team has owned a better record since Yeo gained command of the Blues.
“The time-tested (theory) that everyone is better at their second job than they were the first time around is true,” Armstrong said. “As a manager, I know I felt much more comfortable managing in my second job and I know Mike feels the same way.”
Yeo’s first NHL head coaching job was with the Minnesota Wild (2011-16), and he didn’t have the same success he has known in St. Louis.
“You learn through your first job, and you learn on the job,” Armstrong said. “He’s putting the things he had positive success with into play. He’s a good communicator, and there’s a trust with his players. He is a generational coach. He knows what makes this age group tick. He’s got a good mind for the game.”
Armstrong appreciates that Yeo is willing to learn even from his assistants. He supported the decision to bring in former NHL head coach Larry Robinson as an assistant. “He wanted strong people around him,” Armstrong said.
While Tarasenko may be sharing the spotlight, his game is just as impactful, if not more so, according to Armstrong.
“I see a different player shift-to-shift,” Armstrong said. “It seems like he has three really solid bodychecks every game.”
Armstrong said Tarasenko aspires to be a complete player. “It’s not just the bodychecking,” Armstrong said. “It’s the understanding of his leadership (role). You can always talk a good game, but he’s doing all of the things away from the puck. His frustration level is almost non-existent now. You see that with all the great players. They battle through to be complete players and he’s there now.”