Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tarasenko, a player with 'crazy' potential

By Andrew Allsman| Posted: October 14th, 2012| Contact  |

When the St. Louis Blues decided to trade down to the 16th pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, they had their sights set on young, skilled, Russian forward, Vladimir Tarasenko. At the time, Tarasenko had spent two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), and had amassed 34 points. Picking Tarasenko was a no-brainer for a team that was looking to continue stocking up on young talent, and rebuilding a franchise that had spent its share of time in the bottom half of the league.

The Blues had Tarasenko rated as one of the best players in the 2010 draft, but Tarasenko had yet to be taken as the 15th pick was announced. Teams were too worried about his commitment to the KHL to see his outstanding potential.

“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?"

Tarasenko, 20, remained true to his word, and signed with the Blues this offseason, but an ongoing lockout that has delayed the start of the NHL season has forced Tarasenko to return to the KHL, along with many other NHL stars until the labor dispute is settled. Since his arrival, Tarasenko has played in five games with team SKA, and has accumulated eight points (five goals, three assists) despite averaging a minuscule 13 minutes of ice time per game.

“The fact that he is gaining as many points as he is with limited ice time is really impressive said Russian reporter, Pavel Lysenkov. He is playing, on average, only 13 minutes per game. Head coach Milos Riha did not trust Vladimir in last year's play-offs, but he registered 16 points (10 goals, six assists) in 15 games. In this case, he had 12 minutes on ice per game. He is a very effective player.”

It certainly helps that the 6-foot, 202-pound forward is playing on a line with elite NHL player, Ilya Kovalchuk. Lysenkov believes that this line, which consists of Ilya Kovalchuk, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Viktor Tikhonov is the best in the Kontinental Hockey League.

"Tarasenko looks amazing said Lysenkov. He plays on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov, and these three can now be called the best line in the KHL. Do not be surprised if this line is invited to the national team of Russia on the November stage of the Euro Tour.”

The European Tour is in preparation for the World Championships, and includes three other participating countries besides Russia (Czech Republic, Finland, and Sweden). Last season the Czech Republic team defeated Russia to finish on top of the tour's standings. If he is indeed chosen to represent Russia, it would be more great experience for Tarasenko to add to his resume that already includes the 2009 IIHF World U18 Championships, and the captaining of Russia's 2011 gold medal-winning World Junior Ice Hockey team.

Tarasenko has proven time and time again that he has immense hockey talent. He accumulated 47 points last season, and is off to a solid start this season. However, whether or not Tarasenko can adjust to the faster, more talented National Hockey League remains to be seen. Tarasenko did get a taste of North American hockey when he briefly practiced with his Blues' teammates in the offseason before heading back to his native country.

“(He is) a guy that could maybe put up 40 or 50 points. He has that kind of skill-set", said defenseman Ian Cole. "Having a guy like that, what’s the downfall of that? I don’t know enough about him defensively or his two-way game, but as far as his pure skill-set, you see it in the world championships and it’s unbelievable.”

Blues' forward, Andy McDonald added:

“He’s good size, he’s pretty stocky and that is a big factor in the NHL", said McDonald. “You have to be strong on your skates. You have to be fast. He is fast and he’s big so he is probably the complete package.”

Yet these players have not had the opportunity to really observe Tarasenko's play game after game. Pavel Lysenkov has.

“Tarasenko will easily get used to the NHL. He is not lost in the physical play, and is good with the puck. I don't think he makes his debut as Alexander Ovechkin did (106 points in the first season), but he could certainly put up 50-60 points (if the length of the season was 82 games). Plus for the Calder Trophy, he will be one of the top three candidates for sure. Tarasenko could potentially be a star in St. Louis."

That is a lot of points for a rookie forward to get, but both Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, and Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin's seasons in the KHL were similar to Tarasenko's. Both came to North America and dominated the NHL. So Lysenkov's predictions aren't unfounded. 

Many began to question Tarasenko's talent when he was kept off of Russia's World Cup roster last year, but Lysenkov cautions against looking too deeply into that, stating that it was actually his preparation for the NHL that was the reason for his exclusion. He considers Tarasenko's skill to be that of a star, and a first-line NHL player. Tarasenko has "crazy" potential he says. 

Whether or not Tarasenko is that offensive superstar that the Blues have been long awaiting remains to be seen. He certainly has potential, and is proud to use it to help the Blues win the Stanley Cup, the prized trophy that has evaded the team for 45 years.

“We think he is NHL-ready," said Armstrong. "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.”

The Blues finished the 2011-12 regular season 21st in the NHL in goals scored. If Tarasenko can live up to the hype that so many have bestowed upon him, he will add immediate relief to a team that lacks a consistent scoring threat.

While it's too early to label Tarasenko as a future star, you would have to search long and hard to find someone that doesn't see Tarasenko as a special player. He has people believing, and now he anxiously awaits the end of the lockout, and his chance to prove himself in front of a North American crowd.

Note: According to Lysenkov, SKA head coach Milos Riha told the press that Tarasenko has a concussion, and due to this he may not be able to participate in the European Tour with Russia in November.

Thanks to Pavel Lysenkov for allowing me to interview him. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @plysenkov