For several years now, the St. Louis Blues have been primarily identified with one player: Vladimir Tarasenko. He is seen as the team’s superstar, their one irreplaceable player, their most dynamic scoring threat and the player that can change a game at a moment’s notice.
But this year, there have been fewer goals from Tarasenko. Through 18 games, the man affectionately known as “Vova” has just six goals, putting him on roughly a 27-goal pace. 27 goals is a decent total, but it certainly doesn’t put a player among the league’s most elite goal scorers. Consequently, Blues fans are starting to question whether Tarasenko is really the star the team needs.
But this year, a different side of Tarasenko has emerged, and while his goal scoring ability may not have shown itself yet, the player we’re seeing in 2018-19 is a much more complete and well-rounded contributor than in years past.
The Tarasenko of Old
There’s no doubt what Tarasenko is capable of. He’s third in the league in goals scored over the past four seasons, just one tally behind Patrick Kane. He has one of the best shots in the entire game, a laser that can beat any goalie in the league when he gets it off.
But his game was not without its drawbacks. Tarasenko was seen as a less-than-stellar defensive performer, who was capable of serious lapses. Part of that was due to his style of play. He was accused of laziness, of being so offensively focused that he didn’t back check effectively. These accusations had some validity: defense was not Tarasenko’s strong suit, even though he did receive one fifth place vote for the Selke Trophy last season.
Another of Tarasenko’s issues was streakiness. He was prone to long scoring droughts, during which time his overall play would drop off precipitously. Not only would he not score goals, but his defensive performances would become even weaker, and he was visibly frustrated on the bench. It wasn’t that Tarasenko was immature, but rather that he took his role so seriously that it affected him deeply when he struggled to contribute.
The Tarasenko of Today
Though the season is still young, a lot has seemed to change in Tarasenko’s game. For one thing, while the partnership with Ryan O’Reilly may not have manifested in the way many hoped (where O’Reilly would become the elite playmaker that enabled Tarasenko to become a 50-plus goal scorer), they still have good chemistry, and Tarasenko has become an assist machine (notching 10 of them so far this season).
What’s particularly noticeable in those assists is the physicality and determination many of them required. Consider this assist on Alex Pieterangelo’s goal against the Sharks. The play begins with Tarasenko behind the net, working hard to keep the puck, holding off two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in the process. He then escapes, pivots to the other side, and hits a pinpoint pass to Pietrangelo for the finish. While it doesn’t register as a goal, it’s a scoring opportunity that doesn’t happen without his hard work.
But Tarasenko isn’t just evolving as a playmaker, he’s becoming a self-sacrificial defensive player as well. Never did he prove this more than in the sequence towards the end of the Blues’ most recent game against the Blackhawks. With the Blues’ net empty, Tarasenko was the only one back-checking against an attacking Artem Anisimov. He made a desperation diving poke check, disarming Anisimov and knocking the puck out of the zone. Moments later, the Blackhawks regrouped, and Patrick Kane carried the puck in. Tarasenko stood alone in front of the net and reached out his hand to block a slap shot off Kane’s stick.
Though it was not ultimately enough to win the Blues the game, it was evidence of just the kind of player Tarasenko has evolved to be. He put his body on the line to make plays in the defensive zone to keep his team in the game. A goal disallowed is no less valuable than a goal scored, and in that brief sequence, Tarasenko single-handedly prevented the Blackhawks from scoring twice.
The Tarasenko of the Future
It’s hard to know for certain whether Tarasenko’s improved play is a permanent evolution or a temporary hot streak, but all signs point to the former. He’s becoming a more complete player, putting aside some of the weaknesses in his past. Though some fans have complained about a poor decision here or there, no fair analysis of Tarasenko’s play this season can consider him anything but an integral player for the Blues, still among their very best, even if Ryan O’Reilly may have surpassed him by a small margin.
I kept waiting for him to shoot it (90 percent) or saucer it to Schenn (10 percent). But to drop it to a guy without an NHL goal? I didn't understand that. But I'm not going to call the guy a disappointment. That's reaching big time. #stlblues https://t.co/zQuZ1qQLto
— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) November 18, 2018
Tarasenko has five seasons remaining on one of the league’s team-friendliest contracts. Paying $7.5 million per season for a player as good as Tarasenko is an absolute steal, and it’s the kind of contract that should allow a team to build a serious contender around him. The Blues are not a serious contender at the moment (another discussion for another time), but Tarasenko certainly isn’t to blame for that.
One final consideration: no part of his current game suggests that Tarasenko isn’t going to return to his peak goal-scoring form. He’s the kind of player who can hit a hot streak and pot four or five in just a few games, and it would be no surprise to see him do that soon. If the Blues turn their season around, expect Tarasenko to be a big part of the reason why, perhaps even the biggest reason.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.