St. Louis finally has an elite sniper in Vladimir Tarasenko. The transition wasn’t easy, but he’s taken to life in North America and has become one of the NHL’s elite snipers. But the question remains: can he be enough of a difference-maker to get the Blues over the Stanley Cup hump?
The 2010 draft turned out to be pretty fruitful overall, but on the first day of the actual selections, St. Louis went in with a specific plan of action: take Jaden Schwartz with the 14th pick overall and, if possible, trade for another selection to land Vladimir Tarasenko. The first part went off without a hitch. With the 15th pick, Los Angeles tabbed big blueliner Derek Forbort, paving the way for Blues GM Doug Armstrong to swing a trade with Ottawa that saw the Sens grab defenseman David Rundblad in exchange for pick No. 16, which Armstrong used to snap up Tarasenko. Had the Russian right winger been off the board, St. Louis would have kept Rundblad, forever altering history.
Armstrong admits Tarasenko was the riskier pick, due to the fact the KHL offered a perfectly decent career path for the Russian kid whose father coached him with Sibir Novosibirsk. But Tarasenko made his way over to North America after the 2012-13 lockout and has been endearing himself to the organization since. “He’s the type of kid who has a lot of respect for the guys on his team and he really wants to play well,” said goalie Brian Elliott. “Sometimes you don’t see that in young guys, but he’s a team guy to the max.”
Adjusting to life in North America wasn’t easy, but Tarasenko was willing to put in the work. Some NHL teams have softened the cultural blow for young Russians by bringing in a veteran from their homeland (it almost always seems to be Sergei Gonchar), but the closest St. Louis has come is Dmitrij Jaskin, who was born in Omsk but was raised in (and plays internationally for) the Czech Republic. The Blues did hire retired defenseman Sergei Zubov for a year to help facilitate coaching messages during practice, but otherwise it was adapt and survive. “It was basically, throw him in the deep end and let him figure it out,” Armstrong said. “He worked hard on his own, and he wanted to be part of the team.”
One factor working against the Blues was the latest collective bargaining agreement, which stipulated that only players on entry-level contracts had to share hotel rooms on the road – all others were now free to go solo. Luckily, St. Louis had a young Kevin Shattenkirk, who took Tarasenko under his wing that first season. “He doesn’t believe it, but his English is very good,” Shattenkirk said. “He was a little shy at first to use it, but now he has opened up. He knows how to order at restaurants, he goes to the grocery store and knows what to buy. All those things are so tough when you come over and we take it for granted.”
He may have had to ask his American buddy what beef carpaccio is, but, admittedly, most of us have to look that up. And it’s better than his original situation, which was simply ordering Caesar salads all the time because he knew what they were. “The first couple of years was really tough for me because it’s a different country and mentality,” Tarasenko said. “But the guys helped me a lot, especially Kevin. I feel really good right now.”
The stats bear that out. Tarasenko has been one of the top scorers in the entire NHL, giving other teams nightmare matchups, as his unit with Jori Lehtera and Schwartz is technically the third line in St. Louis. Lehtera has been one of the rare European skaters to thrive in the NHL as a rookie in his late 20s. He and Tarasenko had familiarity with each other from their KHL days with Novosibirsk. “Every game, every practice we were on the same line,” Tarasenko said. “He can pass the puck and he’s a smart player. That’s what I like. And he’s never jealous.”
That last part is actually relevant. When Tarasenko was an up-and-comer in the KHL, his dad, Andrei, coached Novosibirsk. Although his teammates likely didn’t know he was raised by his grandparents while his father was still playing professionally around Eurasia, there was a lot of pressure on him to quiet any talk of favoritism, real or imagined. “It was a tough time,” Tarasenko said. “He was always hard on me because if he wasn’t, everyone would say, ‘It’s because he’s the coach’s son and that’s why he’s playing here.’ It was a good experience for me, though. It taught me a lot.”
Tarasenko is still close to his grandfather, who put ‘Vladdy’ on skates for the first time as a five-year-old. He also holds a special place in his heart for Siberia, the region he grew up in that, over here at least, is synonymous with brain-melting cold and Soviet gulag stories. But listen to Tarasenko and you picture an almost wholesome, crisp environment. “It’s really cold, but there is always sun,” he said. “I played in St. Petersburg for a couple years and it was always grey skies, rainy and windy. St. Louis is kind of in the middle.”
It’s also where he has already begun to make his biggest impact. The Blues and Armstrong have been marching through the West for several years with a core of tough, two-way forwards led by David Backes and T.J. Oshie and an enviable collection of defenseman anchored by Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester (Zbynek Michalek was added at the deadline to bolster an already impressive top six). But Tarasenko is the game-breaker, maneuvering his tank-like frame around the ice and dazzling fans, opponents and teammates with his highlight-reel moves. “We feel like we’ve found our offensive superstar,” Shattenkirk said. “He’s emerging as one of those players in the league. And it takes time. You need confidence and you can see it this year. He has figured out the game and realized what he can and can’t do with his skill set, and there’s not much he can’t do. It’s great for us to know we have that threat. He has really come into his own.”
Tarasenko’s wizardry has even sent Shattenkirk spinning in practice. Shattenkirk recalled one particular incident when a Tarasenko cutback on an offensive zone drill twisted Shattenkirk up, sending him to the ice as fans ooh’d and ahh’d from the stands.
Now the mission is to parlay that skill into real post-season results. The Blues couldn’t have had worse playoff luck lately if a black cat on a ladder smacked them with a broken mirror. St. Louis has won just one series in its past three sorties, losing to Chicago and Los Angeles (twice) in early rounds. The Chicago loss was especially irksome since the Blues came in with home-ice advantage and even built a 2-0 series lead before withering. This season, they are once again on a crash course to face the Blackhawks in their opening series, albeit without Patrick Kane, who won’t likely be back from a fractured clavicle in time.
Not that there were excuses in the past, but the Blues now know how searing the spotlight can be. “Last year everybody was saying we had to win and that the St. Louis Blues were going to win the Stanley Cup and then we lost in the first round,” Tarasenko said. “After tough losses like that we’re not thinking about it. We’ll just go step by step and hopefully we make it.”
And if they do, you can bet that the team’s gifted young Russian will play a big role. “Last year he went about his season till the playoffs really anonymously,” said coach Ken Hitchcock. “This year because he’s got 30 goals and people notice him. They pay attention to him and they target him and he’s learned to play through that, which is a good sign.”
Can it lead straight to Stanley? That’s the hope in St. Louis.
This is feature appeared in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.