Not long after the St. Louis Blues raised their Stanley Cup banner and the Colorado Avalanche got rolling on a season of high expectations each team has a significant obstacle to overcome.
The Blues will be without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko for five months, basically the rest of the regular season. The Avalanche — already missing injured winger Mikko Rantanen — ruled out captain Gabriel Landeskog indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Those injuries to top-line players on two Central Division powerhouses could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference for months.
“It shakes things up big time,” said retired forward Patrick Sharp, who spent 12 1/2 of his 15 NHL seasons playing in the Central. “It’s going to test the depth of these two teams.”
Tarasenko underwent right shoulder surgery Tuesday. The Russian winger scored 11 goals and added six assists in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run and is difficult to replace.
St. Louis will try to compensate but not by leaning too hard on playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly and fellow stars Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz. The onus is on the likes of Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais, Robert Thomas and Robby Fabbri to step up.
“Our team is built as the sum of all the parts,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “We’re going to have to have a strength in numbers (approach), and I believe that we can get it done.”
Sharp, who played 65 games against the Blues and watched their Cup triumph as an NBC Sports analyst, doesn’t doubt that. Because of Tarasenko’s production 5-on-5 and on the power play, he said losing him will test their offensive depth. He is looking specifically to Thomas to fill the void.
“The numbers didn’t really reflect the kind of playoffs that he had, but it seemed like every big game that the Blues had, Robert Thomas was one of the best forwards on the team,” Sharp said. “If he can kind of recapture that playoff magic and show it in the next five, six months of the regular season, the Blues will be in good shape.”
Colorado opened the season 8-2-1 but will need to tread water until Rantanen and Landeskog return. First-line centre Nathan MacKinnon is a catalyst who no doubt benefits from having Rantanen and Landeskog and will have to be at his best — and try to stay healthy.
Much like the Blues, though, the Avalanche can’t put the pressure on one player.
“We have a significant amount of players that want more and feel like they’re playing real well,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I’m hoping they strive in situations like this and prove that they can take on a bigger role. … Having everyone dig in and try to step up their game, and make up for the guys that are out of the lineup is an important piece to winning especially if you’re going to try and sustain it over the course of the season.”
Knowing Colorado couldn’t be a one-line team and contend for the Cup, GM Joe Sakic traded for Nazem Kadri and André Burakovsky and signed Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to bolster his forward depth.
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“These injuries to top players, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about the landscape of an eight-month season for Colorado,” Sharp said. “If they have aspirations of going deep in the playoffs, they’re going to need big contributions from everybody. So a little adversity at the start of the year doesn’t hurt anybody.”
It might help the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars in the stacked Central Division. Predators centre Matt Duchene on Tuesday night returned from a brief absence with a lower-body injury.