Not long after the St. Louis Blues raised their Stanley Cup banner and the Colorado Avalanche got rolling on a season of high expectations each team has a significant obstacle to overcome.
The Blues will be without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko for five months, basically the rest of the regular season. The Avalanche — already missing injured winger Mikko Rantanen — ruled out captain Gabriel Landeskog indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Those injuries to top-line players on two Central Division powerhouses could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference for months.
“It shakes things up big time,” said retired forward Patrick Sharp, who spent 12½ of his 15 NHL seasons playing in the Central. “It’s going to test the depth of these two teams.”
Tarasenko underwent right shoulder surgery Tuesday. The Russian winger scored 11 goals and added 15 assists on the Blues’ Cup run and is difficult to replace.
St. Louis will try to compensate but not by leaning too hard on playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly and fellow stars Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz. The onus is on the likes of Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais, Robert Thomas and Robby Fabbri to step up.
“Our team is built as the sum of all the parts,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “We’re going to have to have a strength in numbers (approach), and I believe that we can get it done.”
Sharp, who played 65 games against the Blues and watched their Cup triumph as an NBC Sports analyst, doesn’t doubt that. Because of Tarasenko’s production 5-on-5 and on the power play, he said losing him will test their offensive depth. He is looking specifically to Thomas to fill the void.
“The numbers didn’t really reflect the kind of playoffs that he had, but it seemed like every big game that the Blues had, Robert Thomas was one of the best forwards on the team,” Sharp said. “If he can kind of recapture that playoff magic and show it in the next five, six months of the regular season, the Blues will be in good shape.”
Colorado opened the season 8-2-1 but will need to tread water until Rantanen and Landeskog return. First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is a one-man playmaker who no doubt benefits from having Rantanen and Landeskog and will have to be at his best — and try to stay healthy.
Much like the Blues, though, the Avalanche can’t put the pressure on one player.
“We have a significant amount of players that want more and feel like they’re playing real well,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I’m hoping they strive in situations like this and prove that they can take on a bigger role. … Having everyone dig in and try to step up their game, and make up for the guys that are out of the lineup is an important piece to winning especially if you’re going to try and sustain it over the course of the season.”
Knowing Colorado couldn’t be a one-line team and contend for the Cup, GM Joe Sakic traded for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signed Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to bolster his forward depth.
“These injuries to top players, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about the landscape of an eight-month season for Colorado,” Sharp said. “If they have aspirations of going deep in the playoffs, they’re going to need big contributions from everybody. So a little adversity at the start of the year doesn’t hurt anybody.”
It might help the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars in the stacked Central Division. Predators center Matt Duchene on Tuesday night returned from a brief absence with a lower-body injury.
Colorado’s captain isn’t the only injured Landeskog. The horse by the same name was scratched from the upcoming $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
“Horse always comes first,” Avalanche defenseman and racehorse part-owner Erik Johnson tweeted. “Bad day for Landeskog human and equine.”
Told of Landeskog’s human namesake also being hurt, trainer Doug O’Neill said, “Maybe it’s twin pain.”
Roman Josi’s eight-year extension with the Predators worth $9.1 million a season will have a ripple effect on other top pending free agent defensemen like Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo and Boston’s Torey Krug.
Since all three were full-time NHL players beginning in 2013, Josi has 327 points and averaged 25:30 of ice time, Pietrangelo has 284 points and averaged 25:19 and Krug has 294 points and averaged 25:30.
“Every contract is relative when you’re talking about comparable players,” said agent Mark Guy, who represents Pietrangelo. “Obviously whenever you go through and you sit down and negotiate with a team, players and teams have comparables that they shoot towards, and Josi and Alex are obviously in most people’s minds comparable players.”
NHL MOURNS GREGORY
The league on Wednesday mourned the death of longtime executive and Hockey Hall of Famer Jim Gregory at age 83.
“It is impossible to express the extent to which the National Hockey League family adored Jim Gregory and the loss we feel as a result of his passing,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Off to another strong start, the Buffalo Sabres visit the Washington Capitals on Friday.
LEADERS (through Tuesday)
Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 12; Assists: John Carlson (Washington) and Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 16; Points: Pastrnak, 24; Ice time: Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), 26:34; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 8; Goals-against average: Tuukka Rask (Boston), 1.41; Save percentage: Rask, .951.
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and freelance reporter David Solomon in St. Louis contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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