As crazy as this sounds, the St. Louis Blues’ most pressing concern about Vladimir Tarasenko might not be that he could very well miss the rest of the playoffs because of another injury to his surgically repaired left shoulder. After all, the Blues were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season despite having Tarasenko for only 10 games and they’ve found new life by winning the past two games in their first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks without him. This is a team that has proved time and again that adversity means very little to it.
No, the concern for Tarasenko now has to be about the long-term future of the 28-year-old right winger who carries a cap hit of $7.5 million each of the next three seasons. Tarasenko left the NHL bubble to travel back to St. Louis to have his shoulder examined by team doctors. That’s the same shoulder that was surgically repaired three times in the space of 18 months, including the most recent one in November from which he had nine months to heal. Even if this turns out to be something that is not a major setback – and it sure doesn’t seem that way at the moment – there has to be concern that this is a chronic injury that could seriously affect Tarasenko for the rest of his career.
“It’s concerning, but we don’t know a lot yet, so I’m not going to jump to conclusions on anything,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “Listen, he’s not feeling right, so that’s why he’s going to get it looked at. I don’t know what to tell you, to be honest with you. It is concerning, but we’ve got to wait and see.”
That doesn’t sound terribly promising. And the problem here is that the Blues have been waiting and seeing on Tarasenko’s shoulder for some time now and the returns have not been good. After scoring 11 playoff goals, with that shoulder dislocated in the final, to help the Blues win their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019, Tarasenko was off to a great start with 10 points in the first 10 games of this season. But what looked like an innocuous exchange when he got tangled up with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Sean Walker on a partial breakaway, the shoulder was so badly injured that it required surgery that was supposed to keep him out of the lineup until March. Despite having four more months after that for his shoulder to heal, Tarasenko did not seem right from the beginning of the Blues’ second training camp. They sat him out of their second round-robin game and, most recently, their victories in Games 3 and 4 against Vancouver. He had zero points and 10 shots in the four post-season games he played.
Probably what is most disturbing about the injury is that it’s not happening as the result of hard checks or battles. As was the case in November, there was no one incident that resulted in an injury. “No signs, really,” Berube said. “He obviously wasn’t comfortable with the way it felt, so we’ve got to get it looked at.”
As we all know, the playoffs are the most physically demanding time of the season. Teams hit hard and often and almost every shift is a battle. And as it turns out, despite the surgery and all the time Tarasenko had to rehab from it, his shoulder was unable to endure the rigors of that kind of play for more than four games, two in the round-robin and the first two games against the Canucks. “During camp, I’m not saying there were problems, but when you get something done like that and you’re out nine months, you’re going to have some issues when you’re coming back,” Berube said. “But he felt good and he was ready to go. But when it gets ramped up in a real game, things change. The intensity level goes way up with the banging and things like that. I’m sure that had something to do with it. I’m not sure, nobody is. Even Vladdy’s not, so we’ll see what shows up here.”
The silver lining in this cloud is that the Blues have proven the can win without Tarasenko in the lineup, going 37-17-7 in the 61 games he missed during the regular season. They have some good depth at that position, with David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Sammy Blais on the right side of their top three lines. And they’ll likely have to keep doing it without Tarasenko if they have designs on successfully defending the Stanley Cup. Because he has left the bubble, even if Tarasenko does return, he’ll have to quarantine for four days before he rejoins the team.