St. Louis Blues: What Will the Lineup Look Like with Jaden Schwartz Back?

Apr 11, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz (17) skates with the puck as he is defended by Minnesota Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold (33) during the first period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz (17) skates with the puck as he is defended by Minnesota Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold (33) during the first period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports /

The return of Jaden Schwartz should give the St. Louis Blues a big lift, but what changes will it cause in the lineup?

With the NHL’s week-long All-Star break now begun, the St. Louis Blues have arguably overcome the biggest obstacle to their 2015-16 season. The team could get a major lift to the lineup as soon as they restart the schedule on February 2 at Nashville. Forward Jaden Schwartz, a dynamic two-way presence who finished third on the team with 63 points in 2014-15 but has missed the Blues’ past 45 games with a fractured ankle, has been skating in recent weeks and has a good chance to make his return against the Predators. The Blues, who have kept their heads above water in Schwartz’s absence, sitting in third place in the Central with 64 points in 52 games, should be a much more balanced team with the 23-year-old forward back in the fold.

Seeing as Schwartz hasn’t played in a game since October 20 and has watched six new forwards utilized in the lineup during his absence, it will be a bit of a mystery as to where he’ll fit upon his return. The Blues want to utilize the talented young forward as efficiently as possible, but at the same time they must be conscientious of his limitations following his injury and avoid overexposing him.

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From the standpoint of maximizing productivity, it would make the most sense to stick Schwartz back with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko, his linemates for the majority of the 2014-15 season, who have joined back together in recent weeks after being broken up to start 2015-16. This way, Schwartz would have the opportunity to contribute against the opponent’s top talents without having too much pressure to carry a line, like he might if he was grouped with, for example, David Backes and Patrik Berglund.

The biggest issue with putting the “STL line” back together is that rookie Robby Fabbri has been so good recently when grouped with Lehtera and Tarasenko. Since he joined forces with the Blues’ top scorer and his favored setup man on January 4 against Ottawa, Fabbri has two goals and three assists with a plus-1 rating in 11 games. With that said, the Blues do want to limit the 20-year-old’s workload in his first professional season, so it might be more beneficial to drop him to a lower line. That way, the Blues would be able to utilize him in areas where he’d likely excel, like the power play and in 3-on-3 overtime, that they’ve kept him out of recently to limit his minutes.

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Ken Hitchcock seemed to be ready to shake things up as the Blues struggled in Chicago on Sunday, though. With the team failing to score through two periods, he made adjustments on all four lines. That’s a typical desperation strategy from Hitchcock, one that has gone on to result in both major lineup adjustments and no adjustments at all, but with Schwartz seemingly ready to return, it’s probably a sign that there will be rather significant line adjustments after the break.

Here’s a quick guess at how the forward groups could look when Schwartz returns to the lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko

Alexander Steen-Paul StastnyTroy Brouwer

Robby Fabbri-David Backes-Patrik Berglund

Dmitrij JaskinKyle BrodziakRyan Reaves

That would leave Magnus Paajarvi and Scottie Upshall out of the picture on most nights, which is a little bit disappointing considering that both have made surprisingly strong impacts on the lineup at times this season. However, those two could rotate in for anyone on the fourth line as needed, since Upshall and Paajarvi seem to both be comfortable playing both wings, while Jaskin can play all three forward positions.

Hitchcock again displayed his newfound respect for matchup-based lineup decisions on Sunday, when he used Upshall and Jaskin as the fourth-line wingers and sat Ryan Reaves against the speedy, finesse Blackhawks lineup, so Paajarvi and Upshall could be utilized in those types of situations–and provide depth when injuries inevitably occur–as the season winds down.

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While Ty Rattie has had his most productive NHL stint to date since being recalled on January 12, scoring three goals in six games and proving himself as a legitimate NHL contributor, it’s highly unlikely that Ken Hitchcock will be able to find a spot for him in the lineup upon Schwartz’s return. With that in mind, Rattie is the most logical player to be returned to Chicago, because the 22-year-old still has somewhat of an opportunity for growth in the minors, and it doesn’t make much sense for him to get sporadic ice time in the NHL and spend most of his time as a healthy scratch. If the Blues truly feel that Rattie is going to be at least a situational asset down the stretch, they can always bring him back up once rosters expand following the February 29 trade deadline.