There was a famous quote the night of the 2010 NHL draft in Los Angeles from then-St. Louis Blues super scout Jarmo Kekalainen: “If his name was Walt Smith, he would have been long gone at 16.”
The now-Columbus Blue Jackets general manager was talking about Vladimir Tarasenko, the offensive whiz the Blues selected from some team called Sibir Novosibirsk. Kekalainen was referring to (pick any word) the bias, prejudice or fear by more than a few NHL teams to select Russian players.
The reasons? A combination of perceptions that some don’t buy into the North American team game (see Carolina’s Alexander Semin) and the fact teams don’t want to risk potentially losing pressured Russians to their homeland Kontinental Hockey League (see Nashville’s Alex Radulov and New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk).
The 2010 draft might go down as the NHL’s deepest in terms of elite forwards taken in the first round.
Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin went 1-2. Ryan Johansen went fourth, Nino Niederreiter fifth, Jeff Skinner seventh, Mikael Granlund ninth, Jaden Schwartz 14th (two picks ahead of Tarasenko by the Blues), Nick Bjugstad 19th, Riley Sheahan 21st, Kevin Hayes 24th, Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th, Charlie Coyle 28th, Emerson Etem 29th and Brock Nelson 30th.
As the Wild discovered during the regular season and is quickly being reminded during the Western Conference quarterfinals, Tarasenko is one of the most dangerous of that lot.
The 23-year-old budding star enters Game 3 on Monday at Xcel Energy Center fresh off his first career playoff hat trick, the first by a Blues player in 11 years. Blues captain David Backes calls Tarasenko “the most dynamic offensive player I’ve ever played with.”
“He’s one of the elite players in the league,” said Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold, the former Blue who shared a locker room with Tarasenko the past three years. “I don’t think it’s a secret anymore. Last couple years, he snuck up on people.”
Tarasenko is one of the rare pure goal scorers in today’s NHL and gives the Blues the type of gamebreaker they lacked in recent playoff disappointments. Two postseasons ago, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock scratched Tarasenko in five of six playoff games. Last postseason, Tarasenko scored four goals in six games and followed it up with a team-leading 37-goal, 73-point campaign this past season, the youngest Blue to hit 30 goals since Brendan Shanahan in 1991-92.
Focus turns to playoffs
Tarasenko entered this postseason vowing to forget about his breakout season.
“The year is over,” he said before the series. “Even if you have an unbelievable year and you lose in the playoffs, nobody will ever remember it. I think our goal right now is to make our city happy and our fans happy. This is a new stage. You can’t think about past.”
Tarasenko loves the postseason because the “price of a mistake is way higher than the regular season. I like the high-pressure games.”
Tarasenko, who alleviated doubts that he’d come to North America by telling everyone before and after the 2010 draft that his dream was to play in the NHL, speaks English impressively. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said Tarasenko has made a great effort to immerse himself in the culture here, not easy when everything on and off the ice is different.
“If we had a couple Russians, it would be tough on me,” Tarasenko said. “But I’m the only one, so I need to talk to the guys in English and they have taught me a lot.”
He then added with a laugh, “Well, that and PlayStation.” Shattenkirk and Backes said it’s hilarious any time Tarasenko learns a new word and tries to use it in context.
“His sense of humor is good, too, with the English language,” Backes said. “He’ll give it back to you and he always likes to chuckle; he always has a smile on his face.”
Learning from Stewart
Tarasenko said when he first arrived, it was Shattenkirk and the Wild’s Chris Stewart who took him under their wing. Stewart related to Tarasenko because during the 2012-13 lockout, Stewart played in Germany and the Czech Republic.
“When I got here, [Tarasenko] could barely speak a lick of English, and I identified with the struggle,” Stewart said. “It’s not easy being able to go to a new place and not being able to communicate with guys. I just tried to help him as much as I can. He’s a great kid.
“The kid’s a star. I’ve believed in him since Day One. He does things in this league that a very few select players can do. He’s the real deal. He’s a big boy too, strong on his skates and he can shoot the puck.”
Tarasenko is playing on a threatening line with Alex Steen and Jori Lehtera. The trio was outstanding in the regular-season finale against the Wild and again in Game 2.
The Wild will have to figure out a way to bottle Tarasenko up at home.
“I get to practice with him every day and every time he gets over the blue line, there’s a chance of the puck going in the net,” Blues goalie Jake Allen said. “Opposing goalies probably feel the same way. I definitely would if I was playing against him. He can score from anywhere.”