Blues’ Tarasenko Should Win Masterton Award

As the season winds down, the St. Louis Blues look locked into a playoff date with the Minnesota Wild. The only question now is who will have home-ice advantage. Looking back, no one could have expected the offensive explosion the Blues have put forward this season. At the moment, seven players have 20 goals, and young superstar Robert Thomas will likely score one more to join them before the season ends. Team captain Ryan O’Reilly has a chance as well.

In the limelight of all that excitement, it can be easy to forget that the team’s leading scorer, both in goals and points, Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade last offseason. For reasons we’ll discuss momentarily, the trade never materialized, and the Blues (and likely Tarasenko) could not be gladder for it. Even so, given the circumstances, and his incredible success this season, there’s no question that Tarasenko should be the front-runner for the Bill Masterton Trophy. Awarded each year to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey,” it is essentially the league’s comeback player of the year award. And no player deserves it more than the Blues’ winger.

Tarasenko’s Trade Request

Years ago, Tarasenko requesting a trade away from St. Louis would have seemed impossible. After all, this is the young player whom the Blues traded up to draft in 2010, despite other teams’ hesitations about whether he would leave Russia. He’s the same player who once penned a touching letter about how St. Louis had become his “home” for the Player’s Tribune — opening up about the disappointment of losing in the playoffs, two years before he would help the team lift a Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko
St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

But the following season was a hard one for Tarasenko. He ultimately played just 10 games, suffering a shoulder injury in a game against the Los Angeles Kings. He tried to return after the Covid-19 shutdown, but never looked right, and would miss much of the next season as well. Ultimately, between the 2019-20 campaign and the 2020-21 campaign, he played just 34 regular-season games, collecting 7 goals and 17 assists.

After two hellish seasons and a slew of surgeries, the Russian sniper believed the team had violated his trust in them, especially with regard to his health. He wanted out, asking to be traded away from the only team he’d ever known. But after two lost seasons, with no certainty about his health and two seasons remaining on his contract at a $7.5 million salary-cap hit, no trades materialized for general manager Doug Armstrong. Even the Seattle Kraken didn’t take Tarasenko for free in the expansion draft. It became clear that like it or not, he would return to St. Louis for the 2021-22 season. The question quickly became whether he would wallow or whether he would return to form despite the circumstances. But he quickly put those questions to bed.

His Best Season in St. Louis

Not only did Tarasenko say all the right things in the preseason, with teammates like O’Reilly backing him publicly, but he wasted no time in setting the record straight about what kind of season he’d have. In October, he scored nine points in seven games. in November he added 10 more points in 15 additional contests. Very early in the season, it was clear that Tarasenko’s rebound would be one of the best stories of the season. What wasn’t obvious was that the best was yet to come.

Related: 3 Positives from Blues Hot Start

Tarasenko’s season faltered somewhat in the winter months, but as spring arrived, he found his footing again thanks to a partnership with his linemates: Thomas and fellow Russian Pavel Buchnevich. In his last 24 games, across March and April, Tarasenko has 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points. In the month of April alone, the trio has 65 points as the team has gone 10-0-2. At the moment, there are few lines in the NHL hotter than Tarasenko, Thomas, and Buchnevich.

As a result of the late-season outburst, Tarasenko now has reached a career-high in points with 79 (his previous high was 75 in 2016-17). He has 33 goals, tying his total from 2017-18 and 2018-19, and he’ll likely break that total soon. It’s not just a bounce-back season, it might be his best season ever with the Blues. Reports now even suggest Tarasenko has settled his differences with the team and wants to be in St. Louis. That might even mean a long-term future and contract extension for the beloved player who moved from 11th to fifth in the Blues’ all-time points standings with his output this season. Fifth in franchise history in goals as well, a long-term future in St. Louis could make Tarasenko one of the team’s greatest-ever players.

The Masterton Frontrunner

All things considered, it is difficult to imagine a better contender for the Masterton Trophy. In recent seasons, the League has had real heroes win the award, with Oskar Lindblom overcoming cancer to return to the ice and Bobby Ryan and Robin Lehner openly battling with mental health issues and substance abuse. This season, no such obvious winner exists. But Tarasenko has gone from three shoulder surgeries to a career season, from requesting a trade to scoring highlight-reel goals. No one better exhibits “perseverance” than he has this year.

Of course, there are other contenders as well. Kevin Hayes tragically lost his brother, Jimmy, before the season, and has still managed to play a lot of hockey with the Philadelphia Flyers and score 29 points in 44 games. Dylan Larkin had to leave the Detroit Red Wings for a period early in the season due to a family emergency and has still put together a sensational season. There are certainly other contenders as well.

But seeing one of the game’s potential superstars, a former cover athlete for the EA Sports NHL video game, battle back from a career-threatening injury to return to top form is good for hockey, and it’s a story that should be told. The right way to tell it is from a stage in Las Vegas later this summer.