Vladimir Tarasenko couldn’t have started this season any hotter, busting out of the gate with two highlight-reel goals in the span of a week. Those goals were more than unbelievable tallies, though. They served to put the NHL on notice that this 23-year-old kid was about to become St. Louis’ next great scorer.
Tarasenko terrorizes opponents with finesse and skill, so much so he seems at times unstoppable with the puck on his stick. Hull had the shot, Tkachuk had the size and Federko the raw playmaking ability, but Tarasenko seems to be a combination of all the greatest attributes: gifted with the puck and equipped with a laser of a wrist shot, he also has the ability to make even the best defensemen miss.
“He’s an extremely lethal player,” said Blues center Alex Steen. “You give him a chance and it feels like nine out of ten, they’re in the back of the net.”
Steen is right, too, especially when it comes to the Blues. It’s been a long time since there has been anyone as lethal as him in St. Louis.
When Tarasenko finishes the regular season, he will have posted the highest scoring campaign by any individual Blue since 2002-03, when the late Pavol Demitra scored 36 goals and 93 points for St. Louis. He’ll also be the first player since Brad Boyes in 2007-08 to eclipse the 35-goal plateau. Add to it that Tarasenko is doing it in one of the lowest scoring NHL seasons in recent history and you start to get a picture of what exactly his future could hold.
There would be far less reason to believe in Tarasenko were, say, his shooting percentage so abnormally high that he was destined to come back down to earth next year. However, in his rookie campaign, he mustered 75 shots and scored on 10.5 percent of them. The following season, Tarasenko put 136 pucks on net with a 15.4 shooting percentage. Now, in his third season, he has unleashed 253 shots – the sixth most in the NHL – and found net with 13.8 percent. There’s no reason to believe this year is indicative of any aberration in Tarasenko’s shooting. He’s got the ability to consistently shoot in the 11 to 13 percent range.
And while Tarasenko may be one of the game’s brightest young goal scorers, there’s more to his game. In the newly minted era of analytics, Taranseko remains one of the Blues premier possession players. Though he gets a healthy dose of offensive zone starts, which can swing his numbers in a positive manner, he still outpossesses some of the better players in the game.
Consider that Tarasenko faces the sixth highest quality of competition on the Blues – tougher on-ice opponents than Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund. In those minutes, of which there have been more than 1,000 at 5-on-5 this season, he has posted a shot attempts for percentage of 54.5. He’s also been on the ice for 67.8 percent of 5-on-5 goals for this season. That’s the fourth highest percentage of all players in the league to play at least 500 minutes of even strength time.
He plays his big minutes not only because he has already adjusted to the North American game, but because it gives the Blues the option to free up their depth forwards for scoring opportunities against weaker competition. Being a premier scorer has that effect.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock knows what he has on his hands with Tarasenko, but what has impressed him most about the burgeoning star is the way he has adjusted off the ice. And with every day his ability with the language grows, the more his ability on the ice does, too, says Hitchcock.
“Before you had to be guarded in the way you spoke and your body language and now you just roll,” said Hitchcock. “He can understand everything that’s being said and how it’s being said.”
With a teacher like Hitchcock, someone who has won 700 games as a bench boss in the league, there’s no telling how much Tarasenko can still progress.
In his first season, Tarasenko had eight goals and 19 points in 38 games. He improved that to 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games last season. This year, he has 35 goals and 70 points in 73 games. He’s on the brink of becoming a point-per-game player, something the Blues haven’t had in the lineup for more than a decade.
“It’s fun watching a guy grow like this,” Hitchcock said.
Indeed, it is. And in all likelihood, he’s nowhere near done. With his speed, skill, shot and knack for the net, Tarasenko is more than just an NHL star to be. He’s the future of the St. Louis Blues.
- with files from Melissa Wronzberg and Jennifer King