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Who needs the NHL trade deadline? Blues back on track with return of Schwartz

St. Louis' Jaden Schwartz has only recently returned from injury, but his impact on the lineup has made clear just how important he is to Blues' success down the stretch.

At the upcoming trade deadline, the Blues likely won’t be standing pat. Instead, as a member of the league’s toughest division, the Central, St Louis will likely dip into the pseudo-arms race that takes place ahead of every trade freeze and attempt to swing a deal or two that can improve their chances of getting by the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars or even Minnesota Wild, each of whom are at least in the conversation to fight for the division crown.

No matter who the Blues choose to bring aboard at the deadline, though, it's unlikely anyone will be able to have quite the impact on the offense that Jaden Schwartz has had in his return. In fact, no matter how the campaign ends for St. Louis there's a strong case to be made that Schwartz is the team’s most valuable player when healthy. That's not only because of what he has done on his own, but by his impact on the Blues’ overall ability to win games and tilt the ice in their favor.

That wasn’t always believed to be the case, however. When Schwartz initially fell injured this season, sustaining an ankle injury in a December contest against the Detroit Red Wings, the greatest concern wasn’t that St. Louis would be lost without him. Rather, it was what would become of what had been to that point in the season one of the best lines in the entire league. The Blues’ trio of Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko were near unstoppable in the early part of the campaign, dominating opposing defenses with regularity. The only units better — a distinction that is most certainly up for debate — were the Tampa Bay Lightning combo of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov or the Philadelphia Flyers' top line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek. 

However, while St. Louis’ first line had taken a knock, the prevailing belief was the depth of lineup would be enough to make up for Schwartz's absence. There was no reason not to believe that, of course. The Blues boast a forward core that also includes Alex Steen, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and had potential reinforcements in the likes of Tage Thompson and Sammy Blais, among others. But the reality of the situation, and what everyone soon came to realize, is that there was no replacing Schwartz, particularly not in a season where he looks primed to be one of the league’s breakout stars.

It’s easy enough to understand the impact losing Schwartz had on St. Louis simply by looking into their record with Schwartz the shelf. At the time of his injury, the Blues were the top team in the Central, pacing the division with an excellent 20-8-2 record and 42 points. But over the next 20 games, all of which were played with Schwartz on the injured reserve, St. Louis fell back to the pack, piecing together a meager 9-10-1 record. Wins and losses are one thing, though. Arguably the bigger concern was that the Blues’ offense had all but disappeared once Schwartz fell injured. Matter of fact, St. Louis attack wasn't just bad without Schwartz, it was the league’s worst. 

During the 20 games he missed, which spanned from Dec. 10 to Jan. 23, the Blues scored only 43 goals, an average of 2.15 per game. The next-worst rates over that span were the Columbus Blue Jackets (2.22), Montreal Canadiens (2.24) and Edmonton Oilers (2.32). But it wasn’t just that St. Louis wasn't scoring. It was that the processes that generally lead to on-ice results didn't suggest that the Blues were simply going through a run of bad puck luck without Schwartz. While these figures are at all-strengths, consider that St. Louis, during the length of Schwartz's absence, ranked 20th in the NHL in Corsi for percentage, 12th in shots for percentage, 19th in scoring chances for percentage, 26th in high-danger attempts for percentage and were dead-last in the league in shooting percentage. With underlying numbers like that, it's no surprise the Blues had such a difficult time generating offense.

The good news, of course, is that Schwartz is back and has been for the past several contests. His impact over that time has been obvious enough, too. In eight games, Schwartz has three goals, five points and before being held off the scoresheet Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was riding a three-game point streak. Also obvious is that St. Louis has managed to reverse the fortune in the standings since Schwartz reentered the lineup: the Blues are 5-3-0 over their past eight games. More impressive, however, is that St. Louis almost looks like an entirely different team since Schwartz returned. 

Their possession rate — again, at all strengths — heading into Sunday's game ranked just outside the top 10, their shots for rate was the ninth-best in the NHL, and the Blues were 10th and second, respectively, in scoring chances for percentage and high-danger attempts for percentage. Granted, an eight-game sample is hardly telling of a players overall impact. Luckily, if you combine St. Louis’ early-season play with Schwartz with their play from recent weeks since his return from injury, you get a clear picture of his effect on the Blues. 

Across the 36 games that Schwartz has been healthy this season, St. Louis is second in Corsi for percentage, third in shots for percentage, third in scoring chances for percentage, ninth in high danger attempts for percentage and ninth in shooting percentage. And for those who value results over process, the Blues are ninth in goals for percentage and third in victories with Schwartz healthy, so the results are undoubtedly there, as well. It has become evident that he is the key to unlocking offensive success in St. Louis.

So, while the Blues may venture into the trade market to solidify a position or two ahead of the playoffs, what St. Louis should desire most from here on out is for Schwartz to remain healthy. Because as long as he remains in the lineup, the Blues will have a chance to deliver a surprise in the Central.

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