St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko will be cover athlete of EA Sports NHL 17, the company announced Wednesday evening at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas. The 24-year-old Russian is the winner of the fan-selected vote over San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski after scoring a career-high 40 goals in the regular season and a team-high nine goals in the postseason to help St. Louis advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Shortly before the announcement, Tarasenko spoke with SI.com about being on the game’s cover, the state of the Blues, NHL expansion to Vegas and the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.
SI.com: Congratulations for winning the cover vote for NHL 17. What was your reaction when you won?
Vladimir Tarasenko: Thank you. I was really happy to get all the support from Blues fans. It makes me want to be more responsible for myself and my game because I want to make sure I don’t disappoint.
SI.com: Do you play video games yourself?
VT: Not a lot, not like I used to, but sometimes I play NHL or FIFA. We’ll all usually play in the playoffs when we have a couple of days in between games. We’ll have a couple of battles too, but that’s pretty much it.
SI.com: So who’s the best NHL player on the Blues right now?
VT: Probably (Alex) Pietrangelo. He said he’s never played before but he played pretty good.
SI.com: Is there any Blues player you just hate playing against?
VT: I don’t know about any Blues player, but a lot of my friends know every button on the controller so it’s pretty hard to play against them.
SI.com: You are currently in Las Vegas for the NHL Awards. How do you feel about the NHL expanding to Vegas?
VT: I’m excited. This is a special city and every time you have a new place to go to play hockey, it’s always exciting, so I’m looking forward to games here. I just saw the hockey rink yesterday and it’s beautiful.
SI.com: St. Louis made a deep postseason run this year, going to the Western Conference Finals but falling in six games to the San Jose Sharks. What did you learn from that run?
VT: I think the main thing I learned was how to handle your emotions, especially when you go deep into the conference finals. I had never been there before, and it’s a special time. I know now and the team knows now what it takes to get there and we still didn’t make our goal, but now we have the experience from this season. Now we’re looking forward to next season and going further to reach our goal and win the Cup.
SI.com: St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock recently announced that he will retire after next season. How has he impacted your game?
VT: He’s taught me a lot about hockey, and he has a lot of experience with the Olympics and team tournaments, and balancing with the NHL schedule that he’s talked to me about. He was in the league for a long, long time, so it’s an honor for me to play under him in his last season.
SI.com: Does his last season add any extra pressure to win the Stanley Cup?
VT: I think every season is different, and every new season it comes with its own high expectations. After getting to the conference finals last year, I don’t think pressure is the right word, but we have more responsibility for staying at the same level.
SI.com: Ken Hitchcock is known for being one of the tougher coaches in the league. Would you agree? What’s it like playing for him?
VT: Every coach is different. If you ask 100 random hockey players who would be their ideal coach, you wouldn’t get the same answers. Some guys like the coach, some guys don’t like the coach. But just like every player is different, every coach is different. He has a lot of experience, so we all believe in him. If we didn’t, we would have no hope of achieving our goals. You play for your coach, and so we’re looking forward to playing for him in his last year and hopefully getting him one more Cup (he coached the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999.)
SI.com: The Blues hired former Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo recently to be Hitchcock’s successor. What are your thoughts about Yeo?
VT: I remember facing him in the playoffs when he beat us last year and it seems like he likes a straight game. It’s always interesting when new guys come in, whether it’s players or coaches because we’re looking forward to working with him and seeing what his mindset and style is. For myself, I like working with as many coaches as possible, so I’m looking forward to it.
SI.com: You’re one of the stars on Team Russia for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. What does it mean to you to represent your country in this tournament?
VT: I’m always ready to put a Russian national team jersey on my shoulders. I’m looking forward to playing against the best players in the world, especially in Canada, and this will be something new that we’ve never done before so it should be a great time.
SI.com: Do you think it have any chance of topping the magnitude of the Olympics?
VT: All of the international tournaments are different, so it’s hard to compare. The only similar thing is that you’re wearing your country’s sweater and you try to beat the other countries. But you’re in different shape for Olympics, world championships, World Cup.
SI.com: Once the World Cup of Hockey ends, you’ll be right back in the Lou. What are your thoughts on next season’s Blues squad? Can you go further next year?
VT: Before every season, you need to believe in your group. Your coaches, your management and your teammates. I think that if you don’t believe 100 percent, if you don’t buy in 100 percent, then there’s no way you can reach your goal. So yes, I believe in the Blues, I believe in every person that works for the Blues, and I really hope we can reach our goal of winning the Cup.