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Vladimir Tarasenko is shining brightest in his biggest NHL moment

Written by 
Published in Hockey
Friday, 31 May 2019 05:06

ST. LOUIS -- When Vladimir Tarasenko first came to St. Louis in 2012, the Blues assigned their prized Russian winger an interpreter to help him interact with the media. Tarasenko, who grew up in the Siberian plains, knew a little English from school but by no means was conversational. He struggled anytime he had to go to a grocery store and couldn't converse with teammates besides basic on-ice cues.

And he wasn't truly comfortable with the new arrangement. "He wasn't like a real translator," Tarasenko told ESPN in 2017. "He just translated what he wanted to say." The team tried again. Tarasenko still had qualms about the situation. He knew it wasn't just about getting his message across to journalists. If he was going to assimilate to the team, be a member of the community, he would need to figure this out on his own.

With the help of teammates -- often over dinners on the road -- Tarasenko became fluent.

The Blues got exactly what they hoped from their 2010 first-round pick in terms of goal scoring. Tarasenko's wicked shot was well-noted in the draft process, and the only reason the winger slipped to No. 16 was fears that he might stay in Russia and not sign a North American contract. Since his debut, only one right winger (Patrick Kane) has accumulated more goals than Tarasenko's 211. The 27-year-old has improved his production in each of the three playoff series so far, and entering Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Tarasenko rides an eight-game point streak. When he and linemates Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn have been on the ice against Boston, they've controlled 70 percent of the shot attempts, 67 percent of shots on goal and 61 percent of scoring chances; the Blues have scored three goals, with only one goal against.

But what has exceeded expectations -- and has been on full display in this improbable Blues playoff run -- is Tarasenko's all-around game, which has steadily improved in each season, as has his leadership. Tarasenko has often used his 6-foot, 225-pound frame to protect the puck well. But he has added new wrinkles.

"He gets harped on a lot; I think lots of fans don't think he's good defensively," defenseman Joel Edmundson says. "But as you've seen in the last three series, he's willing to block shots, he'll finish his checks, I think his game has really come along the last two years. He's a 200-foot player now. We'll toss him out there with a minute left [in the game] in the D-zone, and he's a guy we rely on a lot now."

Adds coach Craig Berube: "I really believed he could be a 200-foot player in this game. That was what we demanded of him. He wanted to do that, too. He wanted to become that player. He wants to be in all these crucial situations. For me, he's gotten better and better over the year. He's really dialed in to the team game."

While Tarasenko's goals per 60 minutes rate was down from last season, he did improve in the Corsi for (shot attempts) per 60 minutes while his Corsi against per 60 minutes significantly improved.

But perhaps the most important factor is this: The team feeds off of Tarasenko's energy. Tarasenko began the season slowly as he worked his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. Perhaps it's no coincidence that as Tarasenko heated up -- he scored 21 of his 33 goals over the final 35 games -- so did the Blues.

"His shot will amaze you anytime you see it," forward Oskar Sundqvist says. "But in terms of his all-round game, when he's on, we're all on."

"We go as he goes," defenseman Colton Parayko notes.

A lot of that comes from the respect Tarasenko has earned in the locker room. It begins with his commitment to learn English and be one of the guys.

"I wasn't with him for the start, but I have so much respect for a guy willing to do that," says veteran forward Chris Thorburn, who has been in the league since 2005. "If it was roles reversed, me going to Russia, I'd just be like 'Man, let's just get this thing over with so I can go back home.' He's embedded in the St. Louis community. He might call it home, but it's his home away from home for sure."

Tarasenko, wife Yana and their two sons, Mark and Aleksandr, fell in love with St. Louis. They're active at school and hospital visits. ("Whenever we do a community event, everyone wants to meet Vladimir Tarasenko," Parayko says.) Not only did Tarasenko enroll his kids in schools and hockey programs in the area, but they built a home. Many European and Russian players return to their native countries after the NHL season; the Tarasenkos now make St. Louis their year-round home.

More than that, teammates say they enjoy the fact that Tarasenko is always smiling when he arrives to the rink. He is the player to greet everyone with a "good morning."

"He's a really good audience," Thorburn says. "We're a team that likes to have some fun, and he likes laughing at the jokes. I like when he's around because he's an easy guy to make laugh. He makes you feel funny."

Robby Fabbri, who missed nearly a season and a half with injuries, says Tarasenko was one of the players on the team who checked in on him most when he was rehabbing. "With everything I've been through, has been always supporting me, always having my back," Fabbri said. "He made me feel supported and a part of the team. He's an all-time guy."

Not only has Tarasenko been a big presence on the ice during the Final but he's ubiquitous off of it, as well. He has held court at long media scrums and podium sessions, and isn't afraid to tell a quip; as he walked off the stage at media day, he joked to a staffer: "You guys should fine the media for bad questions!"

He has come a long way in seven years, and he's showing no signs of slowing down yet.

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