After a disastrous start to 2018-19, the St. Louis Blues are 8-7-1 since Dec. 1, meaning they’re still highly mediocre. Even if they’ve stopped bleeding profusely, the damage is probably done for their season. They sit seven points out of the last Western Conference wildcard slot with six teams to pass to snatch it, albeit they do have games in hand on every one of them.
The odds still don’t favor St. Louis clawing back into the post-season, so the trade rumors persist. Captain Alex Pietrangelo has sparked plenty of chatter, as have hulking blueliner Colton Parayko and center Brayden Schenn. The Blues’ standings situation has gotten dire enough that we’re even getting Vladimir Tarasenko buzz now despite his four remaining years on his contract at a $7.5-million AAV.
In the four seasons preceding this one, Tarasenko scored more goals than every NHLer except Alex Ovechkin. Tarasenko’s 12 goals through 39 games this season tie him for 83rd in the league. Given he’s 27 and still in his prime, 2018-19 has to qualify as the worst, most disappointing season of his career to date.
Still, while a mid-season trade would prove difficult to execute, it would hardly be impossible, especially because, if you check under the hood, he’s still humming along like his usual talented self. He’s posted the lowest shooting percentage of his career at 8.3, but he’s actually averaging his second most shots per game at 3.69. He’s generating the most high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes of his career right now. He’s getting to the net often and shooting the puck from high-percentage spots, and it’s just not going in. He’s thus due for a huge positive regression in luck. A trade to a contender could provide him with some of his best linemates yet, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tarasenko’s numbers explode. It’s possible his off-season shoulder surgery has taken some mustard off his shot, but it’s not like Tarasenko is a rental whose value depends entirely on perfect health this season. Also, the four years remaining on his contract don’t qualify as an eternity, so it’s not inconceivable that the Blues eat a small amount of salary to a facilitate a trade. Hey, it may not feel fair given how valuable Tarasenko is, but the Toronto Maple Leafs did it with Phil Kessel.
It’s plausible Blues GM Doug Armstrong decides to hold the franchise’s most prolific goal-scorer since Brett Hull until the summer or beyond. But maybe someone makes Armstrong a Godfather offer. Which teams would make the most sense as Tarasenko suitors? Consider these five, and remember – Tarasenko has no restrictive clauses on his contract, meaning he can’t control where he’d go in any trade.
Two seemingly universal truths about the Hurricanes, regardless of ownership and GM: (a) they’ve never been overly aggressive in free agency, so they typically land their biggest fish through drafting and trading; and (b) they’re always looking for more goals. They sport the NHL’s 28th-ranked offense right now. As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman pointed out in November, the Canes were highly interested in Toronto Maple Leafs right winger William Nylander before he signed. Tarasenko’s price tag isn’t much higher than Nylander’s ended up being, Tarasenko plays the same position and, given he’s five years older, he might cost less to acquire than Nylander would have. The pieces involved would be quite different, of course. A Nylander trade likely would’ve required Hurricanes GM Don Waddell trading from his position of strength, dealing a veteran blueliner such as Justin Faulk or Brett Pesce. If the Blues move Tarasenko, they’re waving a white flag on their season and thus likely seeking picks and/or prospects. The Canes would never surrender Andrei Svechnikov, who profiles as a teenage Tarasenko and would have an ideal teammate mentor in Tarasenko, but it may take a high-end prospect such as 2017 first-rounder Martin Necas to make a Tarasenko package acceptable for St. Louis.
The Hurricanes have heated up lately and haven’t made the playoffs since 2009. Their fan base may be restless for an aggressive move. They still boast an elite D-corps and would become much more dangerous with Tarasenko in tow.
The Bruins continuously field The Best Line in Hockey when healthy but have searched for scoring-winger depth for several seasons. That’s why they traded for Rick Nash last season and have been linked to Ilya Kovalchuk before and since he signed with the Los Angeles Kings.
Landing Tarasenko would require some tricky salary cap tapdancing this summer given Boston has a slew of crucial RFAs to re-sign, including Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. But at least one member of that young core, maybe two, would likely have to go St. Louis’ way in a Tarasenko deal anyway. It would sting for Boston to lose one of them, or Jake DeBrusk, and/or any drafted prospects not yet in the NHL, such as Jakub Zboril, but think about Boston’s big-picture goals. The Bruins only have so many great years left from Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask, and they need more firepower to hang with Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division. Tarasenko would be a bold acquisition and, because he’s still in his prime, would keep Boston’s contention window open for plenty of years.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Owner Bill Foley and GM McPhee are a bold pair. They spent three draft picks to get Tomas Tatar at least year’s trade deadline and had no problem including Tatar plus one of their top prospects, Nick Suzuki, to land Max Pacioretty in September. The Golden Knights are willing to make gutsy decisions in the name of winning. Speaking of winning, they’ve been doing a lot of it lately, climbing all the way to ninth overall in points percentage. They’re suddenly in position to challenge the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division crown. Those two teams rank third and fourth, respectively, in goals per game. Vegas sits 14th and could really use a high-end shooter. The Golden Knights are deep, featuring four forwards with double-digit goal totals, but would look a lot deadlier with Tarasenko.
McPhee has 18 picks, including four second-rounders and four third-rounders, over the next two drafts, so the Golden Knights could dream up a package of futures to tempt St. Louis, but Vegas has already committed almost $73 million to 14 players for next season. A trade would thus likely have to send a sizable cap hit back to the Blues on top of giving them picks and at least one strong prospect.
This may simply be a fantasy for someone who enjoys must-see hockey TV. But arguably no team could do more with Tarasenko then the Oilers, who have yet to settle on a regular right winger for Connor McDavid unless it involves deploying a top-heavy lineup with Leon Draisaitl shifting away from his natural position of center.
Tarasenko and McDavid as linemates? They’d likely help each other produce career-best work. Speaking of which Tarasenko’s best seasons came with Ken Hitchcock as his coach, regardless of whether they clashed from time to time. And look who’s behind the bench in Edmonton?
The Oilers would be more challenged than the other teams on this list to prepare a suitable package for Tarasenko, as their farm system lacks depth. It wouldn’t be worth including elite blueline prospect Evan Bouchard, but perhaps something built around Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi or both would be a fair starting point. The Oilers have to start maximizing McDavid’s peak years, and Tarasenko would make a great trigger man through 2022-23.
I was tempted to put the New York Islanders in this space, but they’ve begun amassing a highly impressive prospect pool while winning ahead of schedule this season. The pragmatic Lou Lamoriello likely won’t dive into contender mode after one promising half-season. The splashiest mid-season deal he made while guiding the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rebuild was acquiring Brian Boyle.
So let’s look at a team arguably further along in the rebuild – or at least expected to be further along. The Sabres surged toward the top of the NHL standings in November, spiking their fan base’s expectations, but have slumped considerably since. They’ve received tremendous production from their usual first line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart but haven’t gotten enough scoring from their depth lines, especially with prospect Casey Mittelstadt’s offense developing slower than many predicted. Tarasenko would change the team’s dynamic and give Buffalo more than one must-stop line, which is something virtually every major Cup contender has now. Most interestingly, the Sabres’ cap situation looks quite cushy this summer, with no high-impact RFA to sign, so they could fit Tarasenko under the cap and still comfortably re-sign UFA Skinner. And when a rebuilding team first comes of age, possessing tradable assets is never a problem, as that team has typically spent the past few years loading up on picks and prospects. Buffalo is no exception.