Who will be in, and who will be out of playoffs in the West?
Teammates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are 1-2 in the NHL scoring race. With Vladislav Namestnikov rounding out the trio, Tampa Bay's top line is the primary reason the Lightning are perched at the top of the league standings.
Just below the Lightning sit the St. Louis Blues, a Western Conference powerhouse with a similar story of three men seemingly born to play together.
Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko occupy three of the top 10 spots in NHL scoring, Schwartz and Schenn enter the weekend ranked fourth and fifth with 30 points each, while Tarasenko is eighth with 26 points. As deep as the Blues appear to be, this line is driving St. Louis in its quest to win the Stanley Cup.
Schenn arrived late to the party, acquired through trade during the NHL draft last June in Chicago. Blues GM Doug Armstrong says he didn't start talking to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall until a few days before the deal was made. Schenn fit what St. Louis needed: a gritty, strong, two-way forward with underrated offensive ability.
"I played maybe 15 games a season at centre in Philly and here, just staying in one position and getting into a groove and rhythm and playing, I guess my natural position, has made it easier,” Schenn told the Dreger Report. “Obviously I have to be responsible in both ends of the ice and I think as a young guy in Philly it takes time to learn that. I just tried to keep growing as a player and I think just being in the middle of the ice and playing with really good players has helped me a lot. It just kind of feels natural."
Just prior to training camp, Blues head coach Mike Yeo informed Schenn he would play centre full-time and wanted to see how he looked between highly skilled wingers Schwartz and Tarasenko on the top line. Schenn knew this was a tremendous opportunity and felt comfortable with the challenge based on a long-standing relationship with Schwartz.
"I've known him for a long time, but you don't realize how good he actually is until you see first-hand. He's hard on pucks, good at both ends of the ice, has great vision...very underrated player. Then you add Tarasenko, who's a shooter and is able to find open areas, and he has one of the best releases in the game."
Schenn's scouting report on Tarasenko comes from recent experience and getting to know the talented Russian star on and off the ice. But there was no mystery to Schwartz's game or background as he and Schenn crossed paths many times while growing up in Saskatchewan.
"His older brother, Rylan, was born in 1990, I'm a ‘91 and Schwartz is a ‘92, so I was always caught in the middle,” Schenn said. “At the under-17 camp as a young guy I was with his brother and then the next year I would be the older guy and play with Jaden, so we were childhood friends and would see each other around the rinks since we were like 10 years old and played a lot against him. I think it was when I was with the Brandon Wheat Kings, we actually tried to trade for Rylan during the Memorial Cup year.
"I've known the family for a long time, so it's nice to finally play with him on a line."
As easy as the transition from Philadelphia to St. Louis appears to have been, Schenn says he was shocked when he got the call he had been traded. His name was often thrown around in trade speculation, so the trade itself wasn't surprising as the destination. With depth up front, Schenn knew the Flyers would have to do something. He had seen and heard the chatter and knew he was vulnerable.
"You guys always had me on the TSN Trade Bait board...pretty much every year, but I think I was more shocked I was going to St. Louis,” Schenn said. “Did I have a feeling I was going to get traded? Maybe a little bit, but once they got Nolan Patrick with the second pick overall, another forward on a team with a lot of forwards, I thought since they had missed the playoffs last year they would be looking to make a change or two. I just happened to be the guy. So shocked to get traded out of Philly? Probably not. But more surprised to end up coming here."
Adjusting to the move wasn't an issue, Schwartz was there to help ease the transition and help Schenn settle in. Plus, the experience of having been traded before gave him an understanding of the process. He was a key piece of an NHL blockbuster in 2011 that moved Schenn and Wayne Simmonds from the Los Angeles Kings to the Flyers as part of a package for Mike Richards.
Still, the 26-year-old admits there were times it was difficult to be a constant target on the TSN Trade Bait list.
"Early on, you see your name on that board and up in Canada people pay attention to it and it’s a big thing,” he said. “For me personally, early in my career maybe I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh maybe I will get traded.’ But after four or five or six years of being targeted, I stopped letting it bug me and just focused on going out there, doing my thing and thought, ‘It is what it is.’"
There will be no Brayden Schenn trade rumours this season and the only board we will be watching with his name on it shows the list of the NHL scoring leaders. He knows he's in a great spot and intends on making the most of his opportunity, while staying grounded and well aware of where a good portion of his individual success comes from.
"Just playing with those guys helps big time, but coming here, they play a team game...I don't consider it a flashy game, but guys come to rink everyday ready to work hard, play a team game and get the job done."
For the St Louis Blues, the job won't be complete before winning the Stanley Cup.