ST. LOUIS — Only half the players from the 2019 Stanley Cup championship run remain with the St. Louis Blues, a product of back-to-back first-round exits and the salary cap.
Turnover is part of the NHL, and the fact that Vladimir Tarasenko is still around is just as surprising as all the changes. He's back in a Blues uniform after asking for a trade during the offseason.
“As long as I play on the Blues, I will work hard and play for a win,” Tarasenko said. “I don't want to be a distraction in the room. I'm here to work. I'm healthy. I'm happy to play hockey again.”
With a blue line almost unrecognizable from the franchise's first title-winning group and more than a few new faces, St. Louis will need Tarasenko to produce to compete in the deep Central Division. A 30-goal scorer five years in a row, Tarasenko scored seven combined the past two seasons while battling shoulder injuries.
General manager Doug Armstrong has made a number of roster changes since hosting the Stanley Cup, most recently signing two-time champion Brandon Saad and trading depth forward Sammy Blais to the Rangers for high-scoring winger Pavel Buchnevich.
Cup-winners Jaden Schwartz and Vince Dunn went to Seattle, Zach Sanford was traded to Ottawa and now just 11 players who skated in the 2019 playoffs for the Blues remain. Ryan O'Reilly, who replaced Alex Pietrangelo as captain last year when the defenseman signed with Vegas, does not think cycling so many players is necessarily a bad thing.
“Shaking up the lineup gives us a bit of a different look, and I think it's great for us,” O'Reilly said. “I think we needed that change. I think last year when things kind of got tough, we weren’t the team we could have been. We didn’t rally behind each other and grow.”
Even with all the newcomers, the Blues will count on the same cast of characters to rally them this season. Coach Craig Berube leans on O'Reilly, Tarasenko, defenseman Colton Parayko and goaltender Jordan Binnington to be the key pieces.
Keeping some of the band together gives Tarasenko confidence that the Blues can make another deep playoff run.
“We won two years ago but it was behind, so I think it’s time to kind of forget about it,” he said. “We still have a lot of guys from that team, so we have winning mentality here.”
There's a good chance Binnington sets a career high for games played this year after starting 41 during the shortened 56-game season. No longer the goalie who came out of nowhere to become rookie of the year and backstop St. Louis to the Cup, Binnington is now making $6 million at the start of a new contract.
Armstrong also has a new, long-term contract as a reward for building a team that has made the playoffs nine times in the past 10 years. He was also chosen as Canada's Olympic GM, but for now Armstrong's focus is on sharpening the Blues roster.
“I do believe it’s the players’ game and Jordan Kyrou hasn’t won a Stanley Cup yet, Torey Krug hasn’t won a Stanley Cup yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that haven’t won a Stanley Cup, and I want to help them reach their ultimate goals."
Owner Tom Stillman believes Armstrong is on the right track, pointing to fast-paced practices as an indicator of how the Blues will play this season.
“I’m very encouraged by what we have,” Stillman said. “I think Doug has done a great job of adding some pieces, and we also have some young players who are hungry and are coming along.”
The trade of Sanford to the Senators brought St. Louis native Logan Brown back to his hometown team. The son of former Blues defenseman Jeff Brown is a 6-foot-6 forward who can play center and left wing and is a buy-low addition as part of a move necessitated by the salary cap.
“Everyone evolves and matures at a different time, and he needed a fresh start,” Armstrong said. “Ottawa felt he needed a fresh start, and we were the recipient of being able to do that right now.”
After barely playing on the power play with the Rangers, Buchnevich is expected to get an opportunity on the Blues' top unit. Even though he deferred to Berube about what his role would be, Buchnevich is looking forward to the chance he has not had in a while.
“I play a little in Europe,” he said. “Good to have some time on PP, have some opportunity to make some points, make some plays and have fun on the power play.”
Going back to the old four division alignment is not friendly to the Blues, Blackhawks, Jets, Wild, Predators and Stars — all potential playoff teams. A step back for St. Louis, or if Binnington struggles, could mean fighting for a spot in the final days of the season. The opener is Oct. 16 at Colorado.