Vladimir Tarasenko's arrival is perhaps the highlight of the summer for Blues fans. A summer that has been unexciting in many ways, and disappointing due to the potential threat of yet another National Hockey League lockout, presented some hype last Thursday when it was announced by Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the Blues' 2010 first round draft pick, Vladimir Tarasenko, would be arriving in St. Louis on Friday to begin preparing for training camp (which is scheduled to start on Sept. 21.).
The Russian forward, nicknamed 'The Tank' by St. Louis Blues fans sat down with Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong on Thursday to discuss his plans and give his thoughts on his new team. He was sporting his new No. 91 Blues jersey, and was delighted to be a part of the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues.
The first order of business was his new nickname, one he says he has never heard until he arrived in St. Louis.
“In Russia all the players and friends call me ‘Vova’ and ‘Vladi’. I heard ‘Tank’ here for the first time.”
No matter what his nickname is, Blues fans don't care. They are excited just to see the 215-pound Russian forward wearing their favorite team's colors. After all, they were uncertain if they would ever see him in North America until he arrived last Friday.
The Blues are just as happy he is here. After drafting him in 2010, his future in the NHL was uncertain. Whether he would ever choose to come to the NHL was a legitimate question, and a concern, especially after the Blues traded down to get Tarasenko with the 16th overall pick. The risk paid off and the Blues are happy Tarasenko has joined them.
“He was rated in the top two or three in the 2010 draft in terms of skill", said General Manager Doug Armstrong. "He was a ‘Russian-factor’; was he going to come or not come? He said all of the right things, like everyone, but he followed through. He was true to his word that he would come when he was ready, and he feels he’s ready. We are glad he is here for the right reasons.”
Added Tarasenko: “I’m very excited to be in St. Louis playing for the Blues and I am happy to help the team win the Stanley Cup this year.”
The six-foot, 202-pound forward is assured that he will be on the NHL roster, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact he will have. The 20-year old impressed in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, but the Blues are anxious if it will translate in the NHL, where conditions are slightly different.
The Blues are being careful in where they set their expectations for the young forward, but it's hard not to be excited about a players that has all the makings of a good NHL player.
“We think he is NHL-ready now. There is NHL-ready and being a dominant player in the NHL and we are going to have to find out where he is at on that second part. He’s strong, he has a hockey body. He has big hips and strong legs. Good puck-protecting skill and the ability to drive to the net. I think his physical play comes from his strength and desire to get to hard areas, more than running people over and fighting players. He’s a physically-strong offensive player. He is similar to Oshie or Backes.”
A team that often struggled to score goals in the 2011-12 season, the Blues are looking to Tarasenko to bring some of his skill into the mix and provide a boost, however small it may be, to the Blues offense. However, Armstrong cautions against having unreasonable expectations.
“We’re a 109-point, Central Division championship team, so we are just looking for him to come in and be a small piece of a very big team. One thing we don’t want to do is put unreal expectations on a 20-year old. We want to be respectful to the players that are coming back this year. They have put the hard work in and deserve support. I think ‘Vladi’ can provide that support. Obviously we have visions of what we want him to do and be, but I don’t think it is fair to ‘Vladi’ or his teammates to expect him to be more than a 20-goal player.”
Tarasenko is coming off his fourth season in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), a league that is considered to be the second-best in the world, inferior only to the National Hockey League (NHL). Tarasenko put up 47 points last season (23 goals, 24 assists) in 54 games and can't wait to play with 'the best players in the world'.
“I have had good experience in the KHL and I am ready to play for the best league in the world. I have seen my (Blues) teammates play on television and now I have an opportunity to play with them an learn from them. My ambition is to do the best I can do to help the team and prove to myself I am capable of playing with the best players in the world.
However, due to the threat of a lockout, set to go into effect on Sept. 15 unless an agreement is reached, the Blues and Tarasenko are already thinking about alternate plans for the 20-year old. The Russian forward has two choices: He can play with the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate team, the Peoria Rivermen, or he can return to his home country and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Doug Armstrong will discuss the options with Tarasenko and they will make a decision based on what they agree is best for his development.
“We’re going to talk about that", said Armstrong. "There are advantages to both really. There’s the advantage of staying in North America and playing with some of the players he may play with and if we don’t start on time some of those players may go down to Peoria. He also will learn the culture not only on the ice but off the ice as well. With going home, he has developed over there and has become a very good player over there so I think it is going to be a win-win. Whatever we jointly decide is best for him is the way we are going to go.”
No matter what happens with the labor negotiations, the Blues have to be feeling good about themselves. They now have their top prospect skating with their team, and he is excited to get started and help the team in any, and every way.
"My main ambition is to help the team in whatever it is that I do.”