ST. LOUIS — It wasn't easy, but rookie forward Vladimir Tarasenko made it onto the ice Friday for the St. Louis Blues' informal practice session.
In his native Russia, Tarasenko flew from St. Petersburg to Moscow and then on to New York earlier this week, before reaching his final destination of St. Louis.
The fact that the St. Louis Mills ice rink stands were packed with an overflow crowd Friday showed more than a few Blues fans seemed to know he was coming.
Especially the handful already wearing Tarasenko's No. 91 Blues jerseys.
"I'm very excited to be here," Tarasenko said without aid of an interpreter. "I was here in the summer for a few weeks. I know the city, I know the restaurants and the shops so it's easier."
Blues fans are hoping Tarasenko won't need a GPS to find the back of the net. He skated with new linemates Alex Steen and Andy McDonald on Friday, showing an elite-level shot and high-end offensive skills.
"It's still early, but it seems he's got a lot of speed and he's got good awareness on the ice, (a) very solid shot and he moves the puck well," McDonald said.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock can't participate in practice until the NHL Players Association ratifies the new collective bargaining agreement. He watched Tarasenko and the rest of the team intently from the bleachers.
"He's been playing, but this is a tough travel day for him," Hitchcock said. "It's nice to see him out here, nice to see him out here with a big smile on his face. He looks in tremendous shape, but he needs a couple days of rest to get his legs underneath him."
Tarasenko turned 21 on Dec. 13 and was the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. Playing with St. Petersburg SKA of the Russian KHL pro league during the lockout, Tarasenko piled up 14 goals and 31 points in 31 games.
Hitchcock was asked how those gaudy numbers will translate to the NHL.
"It doesn't, this is a whole different game here," Hitchcock said. "That's a game of puck possession, east-west, make plays, and we are a linear game, chips, skating to pucks, confrontation everywhere. It's a completely different game.
"There's a high skill level there. The ice is big, everybody can skate, but the game's played east-west. There's a lot of lateral plays that end up with a shot on goal. You can't make those lateral plays here, there's no room."
That being said, Hitchcock is excited about the tremendous upside for a player like Tarasenko, who has been competing against the best players in the KHL for five years.
With St. Petersburg this season, he helped form one of the best lines in the league with NHL star forward Ilya Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov.
"It was a really good line and I was so excited to play with those guys," Tarasenko said.
"He doesn't miss the net," said Hitchcock, who estimated he has seen Tarasenko play 20 to 25 games. "The puck's on the net, it comes fast, it's on his stick (and) gone. He can put pucks through people, he's a good offensive player.
"The rest of the game we're going to teach him and that's going to take long-term (time). But if he can do the things offensively that we think he's capable of, he's going to contribute to our hockey club and help us a lot."
All the attention seemed a bit daunting for Tarasenko, who dutifully fetched Gatorade drinks for his teammates after practice.
"In St. Petersburg where we played, we had 12,500 (fans)," he said. "Every game was a full house, there's nice fans there. It was really good experience because it was games, not just practice."
Blues winger David Perron recalled his own first day of practice with the team a few years back.
"I was a lot younger when I got here and I needed to learn probably more than he has to right now," said Blues winger David Perron, who was only 19 when he first made the NHL roster. "When you see him out there he looks like a pretty good player. For sure there's going to be some nervous time for him early on, but the coaching staff's going to do a good job getting him going in the system and all that."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.