The Blues are uber-deep and demand defensive responsibility. That’s what makes it so difficult for rookies to even crack the lineup, as Dmitrij Jaskin learned this week.
Dmitrij Jaskin wants to play in St. Louis. Blues GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock think he’s good enough to play in St. Louis. Alas, he’ll open 2014-15 with the team’s American League affiliate in Chicago. The Blues were just too deep, with too many players on one-way deals, so down went Jaskin, the team’s No. 1 prospect in Future Watch 2014.
In one sense, St. Louis is prospect heaven. The Blues are a well-coached Stanley Cup contender with plenty of great two-way players to learn from. In another sense, it’s prospect hell, or at least purgatory. It’s oh-so difficult just to make the team, as Jaskin learned, and even if you do, there’s still the matter of winning Hitchcock’s trust. Just ask Vladimir Tarasenko.
Talk to any scout, GM, media member or hockey pool guru about the most promising young goal scorers in the game today and, invariably, Tarasenko’s name pops up. There’s no denying what the kid can do with the puck on the stick. He has an Alexander Mogilny-like ceiling. He made that clear with five points in his first two NHL games two seasons ago.
That same year, Future Watch 2013 ranked Tarasenko the top prospect in the game. In an interview for that magazine, however, Hitchcock foresaw a bump in the road. ‘Hitch’ predicted an adjustment from lateral puck movement to linear. Sure enough, Tarasenko slumped badly in the second half of that season. Hitchcock, who preaches defensive responsibility and system play like few other coaches, entrusted his rookie sniper with just 13 minutes of ice time per game in 2012-13.
Between learning Hitchcock’s scheme and simply cracking one of the NHL’s densest, most talented depth charts, life is difficult for any Blues rookie. That’s why Jaskin has an uphill climb.
“It’s always hard to be a rookie, but especially here, when you get 12 of the best players in the NHL,” he said two weeks before being cut. “It’s way harder to get here faster and get more time. But that means you have to work for it harder than somewhere else.”
Jaskin, 21, is an imposing power forward at 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds. Scouts compare his game to Marian Hossa’s. Jaskin agrees, and says he’s heard it before, but feels he has a bit of Milan Lucic in him, too. Seven summers ago, however, he was a gangly kid enjoying his other love: tennis. Surprisingly, he didn’t have a big serve. “I was more just running around trying to stay in the game,” Jaskin said.
He got by on footwork then and, ironically, that’s the one thing holding him back today. Hitchcock thinks Jaskin can play in an NHL top six now but that adding a step would make him an elite top-six player.
“All in all, he’s going to be a good pro,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to have to work on his quickness, which comes with time, and his pace, to create more 1-on-1 space for himself.”
Jaskin put in his work this summer, skating with star Blues D-man Alex Pietrangelo multiple times a week.
“That was the biggest issue I had last year, staying faster for a little big longer, having more power,” Jaskin said. “We worked really well this year on it, and I feel great and ready.”
But Jaskin evidently wasn’t up to speed, or he was simply a casualty because of his two-way contract. The Chicago Wolves didn’t expect him back, but they certainly aren’t complaining. Jaskin contributed a solid 15 goals and 29 points in 42 games there last season before really blossoming in the playoffs, where he led the team in goals, assists and points. As long as he’s with the Wolves, he’ll be a vital component of a team expected to compete for a Calder Cup.
But Armstrong and Hitchcock could throw a wrench into the farm club’s plans if and when an NHL roster spot frees up, as Jaskin has one attractive advantage over Tarasenko at the same juncture: maturity.
Jaskin says he gets it because of a few important life decisions. One was leaving the Czech League to play major junior in 2012-13. Not only did he go bananas on the stat sheet, with 46 goals and 99 points in 51 games with Moncton, he learned the North American game. He bonded tightly with his billet family and picked up English to go along with his Czech and Russian. The other decision: accepting mentorship from his father, Alexej, a six-time Czech League champion.
“He gives me tips every day, so I just try and listen and do it,” Jaskin said. “He had an awesome career in the Czech Republic. He knew a lot of stuff, so I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Jaskin is the opposite of a typical rookie in that he lacks the speedy, toolsy elements but excels at the mental, “adult” aspects of the game. When asked if he’s relied on any vets to shepherd him along, Jaskin says he took Blues 2014 second-rounder Ivan Barbashev under his wing, speaking to him in Russian to help him through camp. Jaskin is a man-child not just physically, but between his ears.
“The thing you like about ‘Jask’ is that, because he played pro in the Czech Republic for two years before he went to junior, his play without the puck is really dependable,” Hitchcock said. “So while he’s growing into the offensive game and making the adjustments, you trust him on the ice, because he’s more than capable. In the positional part of the game, he’s way beyond his years. He’s like a 25- or 26-year-old even though he’s only 21.
“The offensive part of the game is growing. He’s including more people in it. He’s going to be a very strong down-low offensive player, but while he goes through that, you still can put him on the ice and trust him and get his minutes because he’s so good in reading the game defensively.”
Looks like the Hossa comparison is apt. So while Jaskin remains a work in progress, he’s doing all the right things to earn marks with Mr. Hitchcock and ensure rookie life won’t be so rocky once he sticks in St. Louis.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin