The Blues’ Spetsnaz Line attacking the league
I am a big fan of the 1980s and 90′ techno-thriller books and movies. In many of these books and films, the Russian Spetsnaz, or special forces, were the antagonist. They were an offensive force that caused chaos and havoc for the protagonist. Vladimir Tarasenko and his newly formed linemates, Ivan Barbashev and Pavel Buchnevich, are doing the same thing, only now we consider them the good guys.
Many in the fan bases of the St. Louis Blues did not see this coming, but not to toot my own horn, Toot Toot, this writer did. We will get to that just a bit later, but how we got to this place is an exciting story, filled with trades, trade talk, free agents, a pandemic, and a split fan base. While the Spetsnaz line, also referred to as the “Russian Three” and the “VIP line,” have scored 33 points since December 2 going 4-2-2.
Tarasenko was just named the second star of the week for the week ending December 19th, not a bad belated 30th birthday gift. He scored four goals along with two assists for six points. His four goals were second this week behind the first star Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings five tallies.
Tarasenko still a Blue? Impossible.
Just a few short months ago, none of this seemed possible. Blues beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford of theathletic.com reported on July 7th that Tarasenko had requested a trade. This was the biggest news of the off-season for St. Louis. The St. Louis Fan report has written no less than six articles about this trade request. But here we are six months later and Tarasenko is the first Blue to be named a star of the week and his linemates are tearing up the league.
Shortly after the news of the trade request broke, Blues GM Doug “Army” Armstrong was faced with some tough decisions. The expansion draft, entry draft, and free agency were all looming. The Tarasenko news split the fan base like a piece of firewood. Half wanted him gone, no matter what the return and the other half could not believe it and wanted him to stay.
Further cementing the belief of an impending divorce, Armstrong left Tarasenko unprotected during the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. A move that hit the fan base like a Mike Tyson punch two minutes into the first round of a championship fight. In hindsight, this may have been a very calculated strategy by Army.
Turns out the Kraken was going a different direction than the Vegas Golden Knights went a few years earlier. The Knights needed to get a non-hockey market in the desert excited about a new team and the sport. They drafted higher price talent and called them the misfits. This strategy worked as vegas became the second expansion team in the league’s history to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year.
The Kraken, on the other hand, went for younger NHL or NHL-ready players in the expansion draft. Leaving Tarasenko unprotected, allowed the Blues to protect Barbashev. The 26-year-old Moscow native is becoming a solid center and set-up man. By protecting the Russian forward, the Kraken was more or less forced to take defensesman Vince Dunn.
The Sanford Dilemma
Step one is completed. Now, on to step two. Fan whipping boy Zach Sanford was in the good graces of the Blues’ head coach Craig Berube, but not anyone else. Sanford’s play last year was lackluster and many of his defensive lapses ended up in the back of St. Louis’ net. While the fan base wanted his head on a platter, the coaching staff praised him. The Sandford dilemma needed a fix.
Enter free agency. The Blues had two high-profile free agents in Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman. Schwartz the Blues 2010 first-round 14th overall draft picks days were numbered. The writing was on the wall when he did not want to negotiate a contract extension during the 2021 season. Hoffman, who had signed a one-year “bet on myself” contract with the Blues in 2021, had stated he would like to stay with the Blues.
On the opening day of free agency this season, Hoffman signed a three-year, 13.5 million dollar contract with the Montreal Canadiens. Free-agent after free agent singing was announced before the Blues picked up Brandon Saad from the rival Colorado Avalanche on July 29.
It was a move made on July 23rd that got some people to sit up and take notice. Armstrong made a deal with the New York Rangers for Buchnevich in exchange for Sammy Blais and a third-round draft pick. Now almost all the pieces were in place for the Spetsnaz to covertly assault the league. Just one piece left hanging out there, Standford.
Enter the Ottawa Senators and home-grown product Logan Brown. Brown, the son of Blues alumni defenseman, Jeff Brown was one of St. Louis’ five taken in the first round of the 2016 draft. His time in Ottawa was not what he had hoped it would be and the Sens are not known for making beneficial trades were willing to trade Brown and a third-round pick for Sanford.
The pieces were in place, but the wrong places.
Tarasenko started on a line with Robert Thomas, centering him and Buchnevich. Barbashev started the season, bouncing back from the first and second line. The line combination appeared to be working as the Note rattled off a franchise-record five straight wins. But as in any season, the good times don’t always last.
Injuries and positive Covid test started adding up. While in Tampa Bay, it hit the Blues hard when both Jordan Binnington and Justin Faulk tested positive and were removed from the lineup. Forced to play with the Emergency Back-Up Goalie (E-BUG), the Spetsnaz line first appeared in-game. Injuries mounted, and the benched shortened until the coaches put together the line for a full game.
The result was explosive. 11 goals lead by Tarasenko’s five and 22 assists led by Buchnevich’s nine, this line will keep firing pucks on nets and cycling the puck like only they can do. Lubos Bartecko in an interview on the BlueNote Fan Report talked about his line with Pavol Demitra and Michal Handzus called the popular “Slovak line.”
“We fed off of each other and we could talk our language on the ice. It gave us an advantage,” Bartecko told them. The Russians are doing just that. Through all the turmoil and strife, these three offensive-minded players will continue to frustrate defensives and assault the netminders in the NHL. It should be a fun ride.
I say let us enjoy the assault.
Till next time hockey fans,
Guy “Hawaii Hockey Fan” Bensing