Tarasenko continues to grow into larger role for Blues

News-DemocratJanuary 27, 2014 

— The importance of Vladimir Tarasenko to the St. Louis Blues began on the day he was drafted.

On June 25, 2010, the Blues had already drafted forward Jaden Schwartz two spots earlier with the 14th overall pick.

Tarasenko was still available and General Manager Doug Armstrong decided to pull the trigger, sending highly regarded former first-round pick David Rundblad to Ottawa to acquire the pick used to select the talented Russian winger.

With five goals and 10 points in 10 games this month on the heels of his selection to the Russian Olympic hockey team, the 22-year-old Tarasenko is riding a wave of success in his sophomore NHL season.

"He's like no player we've ever had since I've been here in St. Louis," Blues captain David Backes said of Tarasenko, who has six goals and 15 points in his last 14 games and 17 goals and 31 points overall. "His dynamic ability to shoot the puck and score and beat guys one-on-one...he's an anomaly, but a good one.

"For him to mature at the rate he has along with guys like Jaden Schwartz is impressive -- and really what's adding to our success. If the puck's on his stick inside the top of the circle, that's a great scoring chance for us."

Tarasenko scored two goals Saturday in the shootout win over the New York Islanders.

"Guys create chances for me and (I just) shot the puck like it was summer time," he said. "They were nothing special, I was a little bit lucky maybe."

On Monday, Tarasenko was asked about skating rapidly toward a return on the vast potential that made him such a high draft pick.

"It's like a new challenge for me, same as the Olympics," Tarasenko said. "You work hard to be better. Right now people know me and I have to work harder to play better."

Besides an innate ability to unleash shots quickly in tight spaces, Tarasenko has another quality that may be even more rare among forwards.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock compared Tarasenko's quick and lethal shot to that of Hall of Famer Brett Hull.

"It's a lot like Hull, same way," Hitchcock said. "It's heavy. It's fast. I think the biggest thing he has going is it's unpredictable. When you're shooting with your (stick) blade that square to the net, I don't think any goalie can tell you where it's going."

NHL goalies are trained to look for the slightest tendency that might tip off favorite shot habits of opposing forwards. Tarasenko has become quite adept at disguising his shots.

"Mark (Recchi) had the same thing where he squared up his blade, where you didn't know if it was going glove, stick, low, high, you had no idea," Hitchcock said, "and I don't think anybody can tell on Tarasenko. His hockey sense is through the roof."

Tarasenko has also learned that along with bigger, faster skaters, the NHL leaves little time for decisions. A year ago, teammates and coaches urged him to stop passing up shots trying to make plays.

That message has been received.

"Last year I was a little bit scared to shoot it and tried to make some other (plays)....people told me, my teammates, told me to shoot more," Tarasenko said. "I just had to do it.

"There more space in the bigger rinks (in Europe), you've got some time to make a decision. I like these (smaller NHL) rinks more. Sometimes it's hard to beat somebody if you don't have the space, but I think it's a big challenge for everybody."

Tarasenko credited his father, former Russian hockey star and 1994 Olympic hockey team member Andrei Tarasenko, for helping him refine and create a devastating wrist shot.

"That's what my father taught me," the younger Tarasenko said. "I didn't have a good slap shot, but we worked on my wrist shot every summer and spent a lot of time (on it)."

Culture shock

Tarasenko scored two goals in his NHL debut against Detroit in the 2012-13 season opener, then scored just six more goals in the next 37 games.

He also missed time with a concussion and played in only one playoff game.

In fairness, Tarasenko had been playing in larger European rinks in international competition as well as against other professionals in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Everything was new, from the language to lifestyle to assimilating complex game plans.

"The hardest for me was the change from big rinks to small rinks," Tarasenko said. "The game is different with more contact. It was tough last season, it was a new country, new everything...people were different too.

"I believe this year is a little bit easier for me."

Tarasenko is no longer a fresh-faced rookie in awe of his surroundings and situations. Now he's another wise-cracking member of the dressing room, friendly with everyone and still eager to learn both on and off the ice.

"It's helped me a lot. I don't need to worry about my life stuff," Tarasenko said. "I feel pretty good right now. I feel like I'm at home."

The Blues are reaping the rewards of Tarasenko's transition to North America and the NHL game.

"The comfort level's definitely playing into his success," Backes said. "His ability to get to know some of the guys...to know that he can be comfortable in his surroundings and be himself...even though with a little bit of a language barrier he's a great character and brings a smile every day to the rink.

"He's having fun and working hard. That helps us all be better."

Transition continues

Having a hockey-playing father helped, but Tarasenko was facing NHL-caliber talent when he was a teenager in the KHL.

"It helped me a lot," Tarasenko said. "I started playing when I was 16 and I played against some older and famous guys...(like Jaromir) Jagr. It helped me a lot, I wasn't nervous any more in the games."

Hitchcock stressed that Tarasenko's family background also weighs heavily into the equation.

"He's mature, he's sincere, he's unselfish," Hitchcock said. "I think that's family upbringing, I don't think that comes from the league you play in. He's a very respectful young man that really understands the concept of being a small part of a team, and that's really what's endeared him to our players.

"He's one of our most popular players on our team because he really embraces other people's success --and I think our players really love that in him."

Finding his way

Hitchcock said the newness of everything wore off long ago for Tarasenko, who now has focused on becoming a much larger weapon on both offense and defense.

"All the things that you saw flashes of last year you see on a very consistent basis," Hitchcock said. "He's more confident. I think he realizes that he's one of the bigger players in the league now. He's using his size and his leg strength to his advantages, he's holding off people."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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