ST. LOUIS — Questions about Jaden Schwartz’s return providing a boost are so familiar they’ve become something of a joke in the Blues’ locker room.
Linemate Jori Lehtera smiles when he says "everything is just because Schwartzy came (back), probably" and it’s hard to tell how much of it is a compliment and how much is just poking fun at the narrative. Everyone knows St. Louis has gone 7-0-1 with the talented forward in the lineup in January, compared with 1-5-1 while a broken foot kept him out for more than two weeks.
"It’s no coincidence," coach Ken Hitchcock says. "I think there’s a real good message there on how valuable he is to us because of the way he plays and also the impact he has on the people he plays with."
That’s high praise for the humble 22-year-old, who has done everything he can to counter the narrative in his interviews. He’ll be the first to point out St. Louis started turning things around without him in one-goal losses at Nashville and Anaheim, the Western Conference’s top two teams.
He’s not wrong when he says the transformation from losing to not just winning, but blowing away opponents doesn’t happen because of just one player. Schwartz hasn’t had a lot to do with the fact that the top line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen have combined for 18 goals and 19 assists while never posting a negative plus/minus in their last eight games.
"Just approach each game the same and make sure I’m ready to go and you win and lose as a team," says Schwartz, who scored the game-winner and assisted the first goal in the Blues’ 3-1 win over Colorado on Monday. "I don’t really look into that too much, but obviously when I’m in I want to be doing my job and playing my part."
No one would argue that he’s succeeded in that goal, and it goes well beyond his five goals and five assists since coming back from injury. Lehtera says his game works better with a winger like Schwartz, and Vladimir Tarasenko also appears to be re-energized after going through a mini-slump — by his elite standards — with two goals in 10 games.
Backes credits Schwartz for always working around the puck, and Hitchcock calls him the team’s "moral compass." The offensive numbers are there with 16 goals, 21 assists and a team-best 16.7 shot percentage, but Schwartz’s ability to play perfectly into the Blues’ system makes him special.
"He definitely brings a spark to our team," Oshie says. "He’s a great presence in front of the net for the guys on the power play. He turns so many pucks over, makes so many good decisions.
Schwartz showed his toughness by finishing a 5-2 win over Los Angeles with more than 18 minutes of ice time even after a hard shot broke his foot in the first period. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said he was especially impressed by how Schwartz got right back to his gritty style with no hesitation after a painful injury.
It’s no wonder St. Louis couldn’t find anything close to an adequate replacement, though Hitchcock tried multiple players alongside Lehtera and Tarasenko in Schwartz’s absence. Those changes may have had ripple effects throughout the entire lineup, including on special teams.
"I think he really offers a lot of stability in our lineup," Shattenkirk says. "You see how deep we are when we put him in. We have those two top lines that are constantly creating offense."
The Paul Stastny-led third line had been putting up numbers lately as well, making the Blues’ offense more dangerous than ever. Schwartz may not be the most valuable piece, but he’s a key part of the glue that holds it all together.
St. Louis heads into the All-Star break 11-0-1 with Schwartz on the ice since a loss to Nashville on Dec. 4, and 19-4 this season when he scores at least a point. The Blues have known his importance for quite some time, even if it took them until 12 days before the season started to sign him to a two-year, $4.7 million deal.