Monday, January 21, 2013

Tarasenko Learning the NHL Ways Fast

By Larry Wigge

Ken Hitchcock wasn't a part of the Blues organization on the night of June 26, 2010, when St. Louis made a bold move and traded up in the first round to get Russian right wing Vladimir Tarasenko.

But the veteran coach and reigning NHL Coach of the Year is no fool. He could see the handwriting on the wall that the young phenom from Yaroslavl was something special.

And something that GM Doug Armstrong did was a clue to him that this 21-year-old prospect wasn't like any other.

"The thing that is impressive to me is that when Army wanted to meet him he took a 12-hour train ride this spring to try and sign him," said Hitchcock of Armstrong's trek to Russia in June to get Tarasenko signed.

You don't get a potential 30- or 40-goal scorer -- another Brett Hull or Sergei Federov and Alex Ovechkin. 

But Tarasenko wowed the Blues fans with a pair of goals in a 6-0 victory over the rival Detroit Red Wings. He gave St. Louis the lead on a perfect lead pass from Ian Cole, beating a defender and going in alone on goalie Jimmy Howard and roofing a shot at the six-minute mark of the first period. Another highlight-reel goal came just 29 seconds into the second period, when he converted a Kevin Shattenkirk pass and worked his way around another Detroit defender and broke in free on Howard -- going from his backhand to his forehand and lifting the puck into the net.

Two goals on two shots. What an NHL debut.

"It was like dreaming," Tarasenko said, speaking without an interpreter.

The sellout crowd that gave Tarasenko a thunderous welcome during pre-game introductions and the went bonkers when he scored ... and scored again.

"It was exciting," the 5-11, 202-pounder from Russia said. "I was a little nervous before the game. But now I'm happy to be here ... and I want to do well."

Tarasenko made it three goals in four periods, when the Blues played in Nashville in their second game -- a 4-3 victory two nights later. He beat the Predators goaltender tough Pekka Rinne on a pretty 35-foot screened drive. Vladdie added a couple of assists on a power-play goal by McDonald later in the first period and helped the team tie the contest 3-3 with a setup for an Alex Pietrangelo late in the third period.

Hitchcock has seen his share of can't-miss prospects -- he had Russian winger Nikolai Zherdev in Columbus -- who couldn't, or wouldn't, do what it takes consistently to make a go in the big leagues ... and he fizzled out. So, he could pick out a phony.

The St. Louis coach started by planning for Tarasenko to play on a line with veterans Alex Steen and Andy McDonald. He wanted Tarasenko to player with skill. And the intelligence of the two veterans could easily matriculate the youngster into the NHL.

"They skated three times together before the lockout when Tarasenko came over," said Hitch. "They were trying to work out things with Vladdie. They worked hard on those things before he went back to the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) to play during the lockout." 

That wasn't the only thing that Hitchcock did. Not by a long shot. Not a veteran like Hitch, who was convinced this kid could make it.

Forget the stats that included 18 goals and 20 assists in just 39 games for Sibir Novoibirsk and another five goals and four assists in 15 games while playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL last season. Hitchcock watched tapes of Tarasenko in the KHL playing on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov during the early days of the lockout -- trying to get a better idea of what kind of player the Blues were about to inherit.

"I had a guy who e-mailed a package of his Vladdie shifts in each game the next day," he said. "I'd get up in the morning -- about 8 o'clock -- and watch 25 games of his shifts."  

With breakfast or not, it was like Tarasenko time for Hitchcock. Hitchcock, by the way, has got a GUY everywhere that counts.
"What I saw was a guy who has patience, when most kids his age are nervous," observed Hitch. "He always gets through to get his shot through."

But Hitch also reminded to caution about Tarasenko's emergence in the NHL. Russians have a language problem and living in North America isn't so easy for everyone. Banking. Eating. Getting around. Not to mention getting used to the smaller ice surfaces in the NHL and the NHL style of play.

Said Hitchcock, "He's going to have a big adjustment here -- the adjustment is looking looking to make an east-west play ... and it aint there on most nights."

On the power play, he plays much like Andy McDonald, says Hitchcock. He's not going to be able to rely on his talents all the time.

But that's what they call breaking into the NHL.

"This is a kid that really want to learn to be an effective player," said Hitchcock. "He's a really good kid who is sincere about wanting to learn -- and he's humble about his talent.

"He does all the things that you love in a player from a sincerity standpoint."

Tarasenko was NHL Central Scouting's top-rated Russian skater in its preliminary rankings for the 2010 Entry Draft. The Blues had Vlad rated fifth or sixth on their draft board. But he was behind Jaden Schwartz, whom St. Louis took with their 14th pick overall. With the Russian still available, Armstrong was urged by the Blues scouts to pursue acquiring another first-round pick. They talked to the Ottawa Senators, who decided to trade the 16th pick to the Blues for defenseman David Rundblad -- a player St. Louis took in the first round of the 2009 draft.

Jaro Kekalainen, the outgoing director of scouting, wanted to leave a big imprint on the 2010 draft for the Blues. If this season's first two games is any indication, the Blues may have two can't-miss kids in Schwartz and Tarasenko.

"If his name was Walt Smith, he would have been long gone before 16," said Kekalainen on draft day. "If he wasn't Russian, we wouldn't have had any chance to get him at 16. We would have never seen him there. We were aware of him and we accepted the risk."

Walt Smith? Well, you get the idea that many Russians opt to stay in their native country and play professional hockey for the KHL league. Some never see the light of the NHL. Thus the risk.

"Once we got Schwartz, our scouts urged me to make an attempt to get another first-round pick," said Armstrong. "I hadn't seen him play before, but I went ahead a made the trade with Ottawa.

"When we interviewed him at the draft we could not be happier. His personality was much like T.J. Oshie. Always smiling. He tried to engage us ... without an interpreter ... and told his dream and desire is to get to the NHL and be an NHL player." 

But Armstrong was singing a different song after he saw Tarasenko in person for the first time, playing for the Russia World Juniors. He was the captain of the gold medal-winning junior team play at Buffalo on year later.

"Oh yeah," continued Armstrong. "He pulled me out of my seat at the World Juniors. When they won the gold medal, he was phenomenal. I said to myself, 'Let's get him signed and get him over here as soon as possible.' "

Tarasenko was just competing a two-year contract in the KHL, so Armstrong had to wait.

Vladimir Tarasenko is clearly a finisher. Despite the language barrier, he has tremendous hockey instincts. He is especially effective around the net. Great skill and even better vision on the ice. He is a strong skater, extremely mobile. He is not only a sniper, but also a good passer and playmaker. 

His favorite player growing up?

Tarasenko answered that quickly, saying that his father Andrei was his favorite player.

Well ... wait a minute. When the interview seemed to be surprised at the answer.

"I know," he said. "I'm supposed to say Sergei Fedorov or Pavel Datsyuk. But, to me, my father was just as good. If you're looking for another answer, I like the Russian Five of the Detroit Red Wings. They were my favorites -- outside of my dad."

Andrei Tarasenko, was a right wing for 21 seasons in Russia. He led the Russian Hockey League in scoring with 60 points in 46 games in 1996-97, and represented Russia at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, scoring 2 goals in eight games. His father was a bit smaller at 5-10, 178 pounds.

"I learned quite a lot from my father," Tarasenko said, knowing all of his father's stats, but he doesn't compare himself to his dad -- yet.

But he is getting closer. 

"My father played at a time when hockey had a different style," said Tarasenko. "Large ice surface. Different game."

Life in the NHL is a whole different level. Travel. New cities. Getting settled in St. Louis. To most of the Blues ... to a man everyone will help him along.

With his skill ... why not.

"He's the complete package," said teammate T.J. Oshie. "You see him in practice and you see how badly a guy wants to score goals. The way he moves without the puck, the way he hounds the puck. He wants to put the puck in the back of the net every shift. He wants to score, you can tell."

Chris Stewart said, "You look at Tarasenko and he did some special things. You can tell he's going to be a special player in this league for a long time."

That, my friends, is the legend of Vladimir Tarasenko ... the early days.

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