To no one’s surprise, the NHL returned January 19 with a bang. There has been plenty to talk about over the first week and a half of the season, from player signings to goal celebrations. For any of the questions that may have been answered, countless more have been asked. One of the biggest questions I keep getting this young season is, “who is this Vladimir Tarasenko guy?”
This isn’t to say that the young forward came into the St. Louis Blues training camp as an unknown. In the Lou, Tarasenko was perhaps their most-hyped prospect since Erik Johnson. Outside of The Show Me State, his name may also ring familiar to anyone who watched the Gold Medal Game in the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, NY.
Russia’s captain, drafted 16th overall a few months earlier by St. Louis, left the game in the second period with a shoulder injury brought about by the skate of Canada’s Marcus Foligno. When he returned in the third period, his squad trailed Canada 3-0 in a hostile environment that must have felt like a home game for the Canadians. Those outside of the dressing room can argue how much his return to the ice rallied his troops, but they cannot argue the fact that Tarasenko would score the tying goal after setting up another, en route to a 5-3 Russian victory.
Tarasenko finished the tournament with four goals and seven assists in seven games. It would be easy to say that with that performance, his legend was born. Really, the legend had already begun.
“The Russian Tank” played his first Kontinental Hockey League game at the tender age of 16. Then standing 5’11” and 220 pounds, Tank was lauded for his hockey sense, needle-work passing, and an exceptional wrist shot. After playing 3+ seasons for his hometown Novosibirsk Siber in the KHL, the right winger joined SKA-St. Petersburg. Playing during the lockout amongst a talented group that included Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Prucha, and linemate Ilya Kovalchuk, Tarasenko put up 14 goals and 31 points in 31 games to go along with a +16 rating.
Arriving in St. Louis after the lockout was lifted, really the only question was whether or not The Russian Tank would need time to adjust to the North American game. Now an even 6’ tall and down to 200 pounds, the 21-year-old broke camp with the big club. In addition to his obvious skill set, General Manager Doug Armstrong applauds Tank for his work ethic, while Head Coach Ken Hitchcock speaks highly of Tarasenko for being a responsible player in all three zones. “You can just tell he’s a coach’s son,” says Hitch. “He’s a very respectful young man who is humble and has no sense of entitlement.”
Following the shortest NHL training camp on record, Tarasenko wasted no time making his mark in the greatest league in the world. In just his first game, Tarasenko made sure to introduce himself to the Central Division rival Detroit Red Wings with two goals in St. Louis’ dominant 6-0 win on home ice. As fellow Blues forward T.J. Oshie put it, “he’s a great player. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he wants to score and you can tell every time he gets the puck he’s looking for a way to put the puck in the net… I haven’t seen anyone who wants to put the puck in the net like he does.”
Tarasenko wasn’t done putting the puck into the net after that first game. In fact, the rookie popped four goals in his first four games. If he was at all unknown before, the Scottrade Center chanting his last name made sure that would change.
With 4-4—8 totals through 6 games, Tarasenko currently leads all rookies in goals, points, and shots on goal. He sits tied at 9th in the overall points standings, trailing veterans who routinely play 4 to 5 more minutes a night than he does. To Coach Hitch’s point, #91 stands alone at the top of all rookies with a +5 rating.
Knowing Tarasenko was no stranger to playing with older, more experienced players, Hitchcock has been skating him on a line with veteran forwards Andy McDonald and Alex Steen. Hitch remarked, “he’s a throwback to the way the players were in the ‘70s and ‘80s [with his] respect of [the veteran players], respect for the game, respect for playing the game the right way. I think that is going to help him career-wise.”
It certainly can’t hurt The Russian Tank’s adjustment. Having already transitioned from NHL prospect to NHL rookie to early Calder Trophy favorite, Tarasenko’s next transition will be to household name. That transition may already be under way, as St. Louis Cardinals third baseman and World Series MVP David Freese tweeted on Thursday night, “The dude is something else! #91”