A year ago, the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko was ready to make his NHL debut. The league, however, wasn’t ready, preparing to stage another lockout and delay the start of the 2012-13 season.
The development inconvenienced many, but for Tarasenko, the No. 16 overall pick in 2010, it was especially problematic.
The Russian right winger already had excited the Blues’ fan base by committing to play in North America, and he was in St. Louis practicing with his new teammates. The lockout pushed him to return home, to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he could make more money but also raise new concerns about his future being here.
Tarasenko re-affirmed his allegiance when the NHL returned to the ice in January, but suddenly he was faced with breaking into the league with a significantly scaled-back training camp and no exhibition games. Making the transition would be challenging enough in a normal season but for the offensively skilled prospect, then 20 years old, it put his adaptation skills to the test.
“It was a really difficult time,” said Tarasenko, who is in St. Louis three weeks before the Blues begin training camp on Sept. 12. “(This year) I know everybody here and everybody knows me, on our team and in our organization. It’s a little bit easier … much more.”
To say that Tarasenko seemed more comfortable in his surroundings Tuesday would be an understatement.
He practically invited conversation at his locker, in English, a language with which he’s more advanced 12 months later. He’s lighter at 219 pounds, down 10 from last year. And perhaps even more advantageous is that when the regular season begins Oct. 3, he has a working knowledge of the NHL’s style of play and opposing rinks.
“Vladi, he looks like he’s in much better shape, that’s step one,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “His ability to understand English has elevated a lot, that’s step two. And there’s nothing new. How we travel, where we go, what the arenas are like, what the opposition is like … all of this is going to take away the tension because he’s not going to have any distractions from competing.
“He’s not going to be surprised by anything, he’s going to be way more ready, so I think our hope is that you see a player more comfortable, more composed, more assured of himself and I think this year we’ll get a really good evaluation. In talking to him, he’s about as far away as you can get from sophomore jinx. He’s hungry, he’s focused. Now you get to see his natural ability on a daily basis.”
ups and downs
Overcoming the disadvantages in his first season, Tarasenko demonstrated that natural ability last season, posting five goals and 10 points in his first eight games and being named the NHL’s rookie of the month in January.
But the combination of a concussion, opponents learning to defend him and a longer-than-normal season for him contributed to a less-than-spectacular second half.
The concussion came Feb. 20 in Colorado, where Tarasenko had his head down and was clobbered by the Avalanche’s Mark Olver on a hit that many believed was illegal.
“It was my mistake … just hold my head down for a second,” Tarasenko said. “It will teach me, never do it again. If you’re not ready for hard game, don’t go on the ice. If you go on, be ready for everything.”
Said Hitchcock: “We’ll look back career-wise and think in one hockey game he learned a lot of lessons. The biggest lesson he learned, when you’re a good player, this league doesn’t allow you to be a good player. They just don’t leave you alone; they go after you.”
But even if the opposition isn’t always after the knockout hit, it keys on rookies who play as well as Tarasenko did early. Dekes that worked for the winger in the first month didn’t work as well later.
“That’s what I was talking about with my father (Andrei, a former scoring champion in Russia) and my grandfather,” Tarasenko said. “When I played in Russia, my first couple of years was OK but after that, people started (to know) my moves and my game. That’s why you need to improve your skill every day, every hour.”
Tarasenko, however, wore down as the season extended. The most games he had played in his KHL career was 42, mostly recently in 2010-11.
Between the KHL and NHL, he suited up for 69 games last season, including 38 with the Blues.
“I (felt) it last year, but this summer I’m working hard and trying to be ready for a long, long season,” Tarasenko said. “I worked like last year but a little bit harder, and a little bit more. I need more power than in the last season.”
The 2013-14 campaign hasn’t even started, and already the Blues have signaled their increased expectations for Tarasenko.
“One of the reasons that we (traded) David (Perron) was to create room for Vladi. … Vladi is a hungry-scoring player and we’ve got to put him in position both with how we play him five-on-five and on the power play,” said Hitchcock, who included Jaden Schwartz in that category. “We’re very confident that they can elevate their game and we’re going to give them every opportunity to excel — that’s our plan.
“Who they play with, how much they play, what lines they play on … they are a couple of guys with improved play that can really elevate our team game.”