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Blues’ stars stepping up to fill injury void during hot start

St. Louis hasn’t stumbled despite losing key players to injury.

St Louis Blues v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The St. Louis Blues weren’t supposed to be this good to open the 2017-18 season. The team didn’t have Robby Fabbri, Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester, or Alex Steen on opening day. Two weeks later, Steen is the only player who’s played. Fabbri is already out for the season with another devastating knee injury.

There are a lot of teams that would unwind from losses of that magnitude, but not the Blues. Eight games into the season, they’re first in the Central Division with a 6-2-0 record. Other than a losing trip through Florida, St. Louis has looked like one of the league’s best teams this season.

The Blues can thank their star players — Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Alex Pietrangelo — for that. We already knew those three were good, but early on this season, they’re shouldering an even bigger load for an undermanned team that needs all the help it can get.

Through eight games, all three players are averaging at least a point per game. Schwartz is third in the NHL in points (12) and tied for third in goals (six). Pietrangelo and Tarasenko aren’t far behind him. You could make an argument they’ve been the best threesome of any team in the league so far.

Only the Lightning’s trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov has recorded more points this season.

Combined with solid goaltending from Jake Allen and Carter Hutton, the Blues have found a winning mix, even though their 5-on-5 Corsi is just 46 percent, good for 27th in the league. Yes, that’s also a red flag that this team may have issues in the near future, but part of the hope is presumably that the return of Steen now, then Berglund in December, will help fill out the team’s depth.

In the meantime, it appears the Blues have one of the best three-man cores in the league. Tarasenko is a premier scorer — only Alex Ovechkin has scored more goals over the past three seasons — and now he may finally have a proper Robin to his Batman in Schwartz.

Schwartz showed flashes earlier in his career, including three 55-point seasons, but he’s been at another level this season. Even if his high shooting percentage (28.6 percent) regresses, his 5-on-5 shot rate is up from 6.9 shots per 60 minutes to 11.8 shots per 60 this season. That’s a huge increase, and should push Schwartz toward 25-plus goals even if his puck luck takes a step back.

But more than anything, the superb performance of Pietrangelo has been a game-changer so far. The Blues’ No. 1 defenseman has been at another level to open this season, and could be playing his way into the Norris Trophy discussion at this pace.

Having 10 points in eight games as a defenseman is obviously impressive, but even more so, he’s turned into a shot machine. With 34 shots on goal so far, he’s currently first among defensemen (by far) and tied for fourth in the entire league. Only Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, and Evander Kane have put more pucks on net this season.

That’s the kind of offensive impact usually limited for the likes of Brent Burns and his ilk. No other defenseman has more shots on goal than Kris Letang’s 26 this season. Only 15 of them have topped 20.

The Blues still have a lot to work on, including middling special teams, the negative shot distribution, and depth issues, but stars can carry you pretty far in the NHL. If Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Pietrangelo keep playing at this level, St. Louis should be in the Central Division mix all season.