ST. LOUIS — Not long ago Vladimir Tarasenko was a boy in Novosibirsk, living with his grandfather while his father played hockey in another city in the Russian Superleague. His grandfather had a friend at an outdoor rink. They would take the bus 10 or 15 minutes, five stops, to take advantage of an open dressing room and endless ice.
They would skate for three or four hours in the subzero Siberian night – minus-20, minus-30, sometimes even minus-40 degrees Celsius. Yes, the temperature could plunge that low. They could skate, Tarasenko said, “forever.”
Now Tarasenko is a 22-year-old winger starring for the St. Louis Blues, ranking among the NHL leaders with nine goals and 19 points in 15 games. He has a wicked shot, deft passing touch, keen hockey sense, strong drive and humble attitude. He is a case study of nature and nurture, DNA and development, talent and commitment.
He often talks hockey with his father, now a KHL coach. He still speaks to his grandfather after every game, knowing his grandfather has risen early halfway around the world – at 7 a.m. in Novosibirsk for a 7 p.m. faceoff in St. Louis – to watch the Blues live.
Well, he speaks to his grandfather after almost every game.
“Sometimes when it’s bad game and I know he’ll be a little bit mad at me,” Tarasenko said with a smile, “I don’t call.”
The Blues don’t want to overhype Tarasenko. But when they talk about the future, they talk about living up to enormous potential. When they shy from comparisons, they kind of make them anyway.
“There’s very few players that score like this in our game,” said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. “Now his test is, can he do it over time? That’s what separates hot streaks from great players. … Can he do it over one year, three years, five years, 10 years? If he does this over 10 years, you know, we’re all going to look at him as one of the premier goal-scorers of this era.”
Darren Pang, the former NHL goaltender now working as a Blues TV analyst, brought up a couple of the premier goal-scorers of previous eras while talking about “that utter desire to score on every shift.” Brett Hull. Mike Bossy.
“I’m not comparing Tarasenko to those guys,” Pang said. “That’s not fair. But we watch him every day in practice. We watch him shoot pucks. We watch how hard it comes off his stick. Wow. It’s not a fluke. It’s something he’s worked hard at as a young kid, shooting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pucks until his hands were full of calluses and blisters. He’s one of the last guys off the ice. He’s always shooting.”
It’s in his blood.
“I still think it’s not enough,” Tarasenko said. “I have space to improve it. They’ll tell me, my grandpa and my father, if you stop, you’re done. You’re done with everything. You need to try to improve every day.”
* * * * *
First, the nature, the DNA. Look at Tarasenko’s genes. His grandfather, Vladimir, was a star soccer player and later became the director of a soccer school. His father, Andrei, was such a good hockey player he spent 21 seasons as a forward in the Russian Superleague – making the Olympic team in 1994 and winning the scoring title in 1996-97 – and could show off even after he became a coach in the KHL.
“When we did penalty shots, he scored every time – the coach,” said Blues center Jori Lehtera, who once played with Tarasenko under Tarasenko’s father in Novosibirsk. “We played scrimmages just for fun, and you can see how smart he is, how skilled. And he’s teaching that stuff to Vladdie.”
Lehtera looks at Tarasenko and sees a lot of Tarasenko’s father. “The way he wants to win every game, he wants to score a goal every time,” Lehtera said. “In Finnish we say, ‘You can see his eye burning.’ ”
Now, the nurture, the development. Look at how Tarasenko was raised. From about age 1 to age 11 he lived with his grandfather, who quit his job at the school to spend more time with him. He played both soccer and hockey outside with his grandfather, and he went to both soccer and hockey school. He was given a choice of sports. He chose hockey because the rink was smaller than the pitch and the action was more intense.
His hockey hero was his father, not an NHLer. He watched tapes of him, mimicked him. As he grew older, they studied the tapes together – shooting angles, defensive nuances. When he was 15, he started playing for his father in the junior league. When he was 16, he started playing for his father in the KHL – with men against men. It was not always easy. “They were fighting a lot,” Lehtera said. Not because his father was treating him differently than other players, but because he wasn’t.
“There is a quiet seriousness in him,” said Mike Liut, the former Blues goaltender, now an agent representing Tarasenko. “He’s well-schooled in athletics.”
Liut traveled to Novosibirsk during Tarasenko’s draft year, 2009-10. He met with Tarasenko, his father and his grandfather for lunch. He gave examples of two Russians who had come to North America: One never made an effort to adapt to the culture and the game. The other was Alex Ovechkin, a superstar. He told Tarasenko: “If you don’t want to come, don’t come.”
Tarasenko spoke up on his own. He told Liut he wanted to win a world championship for Russia and play in the Olympics for Russia if he could, but he wanted to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup.
He still had to convince NHL teams, including the Blues, who were wary of wasting a draft pick on a Russian who wouldn’t make a commitment if he came over – or wouldn’t come over at all. The Blues spoke to Tarasenko at the NHL combine and again at the draft. They made it clear that they had to be certain he wanted to play in the NHL if they were going to take him with the 14th overall pick. He told them the same thing he told Liut, and he did it in the same way.
“One thing that impressed me, he didn’t want to work through an interpreter,” Armstrong said. “His English was spotty at best, but he wanted to grind through it on his own. That shows you a little bit about his character. … He was very strong about wanting to play. Really, the interview process sold our staff. It certainly sold me.”
Armstrong told Jarmo Kekalainen, then the Blues’ assistant GM and director of amateur scouting, that Tarasenko reminded him of T.J. Oshie, the American sniper they had taken in the first round in 2005. He loved hockey. He loved to score. He loved to smile. The kid was a rink rat.
The Blues still didn’t take Tarasenko with the 14th pick. They took Canadian winger Jaden Schwartz instead. They liked Schwartz, obviously, and they wanted a sure thing because they felt the organization was at a stage where it couldn’t afford to come out of the draft with nothing. “It would be disingenuous to say we weren’t a little nervous,” Armstrong said. “We would have taken him at 14.”
But they had been trying to get a second first-round pick. After they landed Schwartz, they acquired the 16th overall pick from the Ottawa Senators for defenseman David Rundblad, whom they had taken 17th overall the year before. They landed Tarasenko, too. In retrospect, they didn’t need to be nervous at all.
Knowing what we know now, where should Tarasenko have gone? Top five?
* * * * *
Tarasenko went on to play in the world juniors and world championships for Russia. He went on to play for SKA St. Petersburg, skating on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk during the NHL lockout. He went on to the NHL and flashed his ability immediately. He scored two goals in his first game and could have had more.
Under the stands at the Scottrade Center, the Blues have a shooting gallery, sort of like a batting cage at a ballpark. There is synthetic ice, a shooter tutor and a pile of pucks. The guys can mess around before morning skates or games to test their sticks or work on their shots. One day, Tarasenko and teammate Chris Stewart laid a little wager on some target practice.
“He went 4-for-4, and I left the room,” said Stewart, now a member of the Buffalo Sabres. “That’s the last time I ever gamble against him in hockey.”
Tarasenko had eight goals and 19 points in 38 games his first season. He had 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games last season. He made the Olympic team and played on home ice in Sochi, but he was upset with how the Games went and came back motivated. Even a broken thumb didn’t stop him. He came back in the playoffs and scored four goals in six games, earning the respect of his teammates.
The NHL has been everything Tarasenko thought it would be.
“Even after tough losses, like in the playoffs, I never think like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to play this game anymore,’ ” Tarasenko said. “I’m sad, but after a couple days, you want to be better for next year. It’s really cool. You spend the time with the beautiful guys here, nice atmosphere in the locker room, nice atmosphere in the rink, driving around America, good cities …”
He is more comfortable now. Liut asked him about the difference this season, and he said: “When I get in the car, I don’t have to put on the GPS.” He is more mature now – physically and mentally. Lehtera said Tarasenko is stronger, faster, a much better athlete than he was before. “He’s a man,” Lehtera said. Tarasenko said he had learned to handle compliments as well as critiques from his father and grandfather.
“Before, they can’t tell me,” Tarasenko said. “If they tell me good job, I was like relaxing a little bit, losing my mind. Now it’s OK. If I make a good play, they can tell me, ‘Hey, good game, but next game in a couple days. So we’ll celebrate today, and we’ll go to work again.’ ”
Tarasenko, squat and strong, listed at 6-foot and 219 pounds, has muscled forearms, thick wrists and great hands. He excels in small spaces. He can keep his hands close to his body and control the puck on his forehand. He doesn’t necessarily need to move his hands outward to shoot, signaling to the goalie the puck might be coming, and doesn’t necessarily need to stickhandle to settle the puck, either, buttering the bread, taking precious split-seconds. The puck can travel three or four feet before the goalie realizes it’s on its way. “It’s a heavy, heavy shot with a sneaky, quick release,” Armstrong said.
He knows angles, nuances. “He knows when he’s got one-on-ones, he’s got the player vulnerable,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “He just anticipates these little gaps in coverage, and then he strikes.”
He likes to attack the net as a left-hand shot from the right wing. But he knows if you’re one-dimensional, the opponent can take away that one dimension, and he’s not one-dimensional. His goals have been like snowflakes – wrist shot, snapshot, slapshot, deflection, deke, no two the same – and he does more than score. On Tuesday night against the Sabres, he cocked his stick for a shot and held the blade in the air waiting for a pass. When it came, he didn’t shoot. He dropped a little backhand pass for Lehtera, who scored. Later, he set up Lehtera with another slick backhand pass. Lehtera said they were “Soviet Union-style.”
He knows it’s a team game. He doesn’t say much in the media. What he does say usually sounds like it came from a Russian Crash Davis. You’re gonna have to learn your cliches. You’re gonna have to study them. You’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.
“You can tell his grandfather and his father coached him well about making sure you include your teammates in all aspects of what you do,” Armstrong said, smiling. “When you see him interviewed now, he’s got the ‘Bull Durham’ in him.”
He knows it’s only November. Nine goals and 19 points in 15 games?
“Let’s see,” Tarasenko said, “in March and April.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS