(HockeySTL)-- If there was any one bright spot in the Blues’ 2013-14 campaign, it was the emergence of young players. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, both of whom were drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft, adhered themselves to the Blues and made a name for themselves around the NHL. They became invaluable.
Tarasenko and Schwartz had phenomenal seasons for the Blues. Both were among the top 7 scorers on the Blues’ roster. Schwartz was third on the Blues in goals (25), and fourth in points (56). Tarasenko, who missed the last month of the season with a fractured thumb, was tied for fourth on the team in goals (21) and was seventh on the team in points (43). He would also lead the Blues with four playoff goals and was arguably the best player for the Note in their first-round series against the Blackhawks.
The statistics show that Tarasenko and Schwartz were both instrumental in the Blues’ 111-point season. When general manager Doug Armstrong traded away scoring forward David Perron last offseason, he did so believing the two youngsters could fill the void. And they did that and more.
“We put two guys that were just learning the game last year, Schwartz and Tarasenko, they're significant players for us,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “There's a lot of really great pieces here that have really emerged as good players now.”
Schwartz is a free agent this summer, but there is no doubt that he will be back with St. Louis next year. Armstrong expects him and Tarasenko, who is one season away from free agency, to keep improving their game.
“I think they can take a deeper and bigger role,” Armstrong said. “I thought ‘Vladi’ showed his skillset. He was double-circled as the player that they had to stop. It’s his first time through. He will be better, he will be stronger. I think Jaden Schwartz will also learn from it. It’s difficult, but we are going to need those guys to get going. There are some good building blocks, but we need that killer instinct.”
But Tarasenko and Schwartz are just two of the young players the Blues expect to be better next season.
Since they started rebuilding their team through the draft from around seven seasons ago, the Blues have immersed their organization in talent. Due to the depth of their roster this past season, some of that young talent was kept in the American Hockey League in order to more fully mature. However, the Blues plan to give several of their prospects a legitimate shot at making the team and contributing next season.
Following the season, the Blues’ coaches were expected to sit down with the team’s Vice President of Hockey Operations, Dave Taylor, and discuss the future. In the meantime, Armstrong headed to Chicago this past week to take a look at some of the players who may be on the pro club’s roster next season.
“The coaches are going to meet with Al MacInnis and Dave to get their thoughts,” said Armstrong. “I am going to head to Chicago to watch some of our American Hockey League players and see how close they are to helping out in next season.”
Of the players he will be taking a look at, forwards Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie, and goaltender Jake Allen will top his list. All three players have seen NHL playing time already in the early stages of their careers. Allen is a lock for the Blues’ roster next year, while Jaskin is in a good position to take one of the 12 forward slots. Rattie is not guaranteed a spot, but he’s certainly captured Armstrong’s attention.
“Dmitrij Jaskin is going to have a job to lose,” said Armstrong. “It’s not for him to gain. I don’t know if I told the coach that, but you can tell him. He has a job on this roster and it’s his job to take that and expand it. Ty Rattie is another player I want to go watch. He had 30 goals in the AHL and I want to see how he performs in the playoffs.”
With several of their forwards who were on one-year deals likely cutting ties with the team this offseason, the space will be made for the young players to come up and contribute. But if they aren’t ready, the Blues are not going to be impatient.
“One thing I want to guard against as an organization is not putting players in a position to succeed,” said Armstrong. “That’s not good for the development. That’s not good for the franchise. Patience is something you have to show but we have to give them the opportunity. We aren’t going to try to jam a square peg into a round hole, saying look at our average age, it’s younger. That’s losing hockey in my opinion.”
It has certainly been Armstrong’s philosophy over the past few seasons to bring in proven veterans over inexperienced talent. The general manager did it last season when he chose to sign Brenden Morrow to add a known entity to the roster, rather than a player with less of a resume. Armstrong said the move to bring in Morrow was a decision he felt he needed to make, but it affected young players who had to share playing time or watch from the press box.
Armstrong said that Magnus Paajarvi, who was acquired from the Oilers in the Perron trade, was perhaps the player most affected by the Morrow signing. However, he hopes Paajarvi and the other young forwards rise to the challenge and better their positions over the summer in order to earn a spot in the fall.
“I made the decision to bring Brenden Morrow in,” Armstrong said. “I made the decision to push younger players back for experience. It affected Paajarvi, probably more than anyone. He’s going to get the opportunity to come in and create space for himself. Now Magnus has a lot to do this summer. He’s got to get stronger, he has to get bigger, he has to commit to becoming the player we want. If he does that, the ice time will be here. If he doesn’t, someone else is going to take that ice time.”
Knowing the skill the Blues have tucked away, Hitchcock is fine with whatever decisions Armstrong makes this offseason. He’s also okay with the roster staying as-is, but it’s not likely to as the Blues look to take this season’s disappointment and use it as fire. But they might look to young players to provide the spark when the puck drops on the next season.
“I know Doug wants to bring in a couple more, which is great with us,” Hitchcock said. “If they think they're ready, then it's our job to get them playing and up and running just like we did with Schwartz and Tarasenko. But there's already real high level of commitment here by the fans and by the players.”