Vladimir Tarasenko's Breakout Start Putting Him in the Hart Trophy Conversation

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterNovember 5, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates his game winning shootout goal against the New York Rangers  at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2014 in New York City. The Blues defeated the Rangers 4-3 in the shootout.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In looking for a way to uniquely describe Vladimir Tarasenko, I researched a few different angles to attack this piece.

It's not enough just to say that Tarasenko is an unbelievably gifted hockey player who appears to be coming into his own with the St. Louis Blues this season; I needed something singular, much the way a brand needs a singular identity that can earn trust and awareness among casuals.

Is Tarasenko the best Russian hockey player besides Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk?

Maybe. No, there's Evgeni Malkin too. And Alexander Semin, in spite of his early-season struggles, is probably better. 

That's not good for brand recognition. "Vladimir Tarasenko is the fourth-best Russian in the NHL but maybe fifth if Alexander Semin is on his game."

What if we focused on his age? At 22, Tarasenko could very well be the best player in the league right now under the age of 23. Yeah, that's it. We've found our hook, the angle that will activate Tarasenko's brand through age-demographic dynamics.

What about Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall? Not to mention Ryan Johansen. 

Again, it's the same problem.

"Red-hot Tarasenko is the best young player in the NHL (unless you count Seguin, Hall and Johansen)."

Therein lie some of the reasons for why so few people were aware of Tarasenko before he scored the leader in the clubhouse for goal of the year Monday night against the New York Rangers. It was the only game on the NHL schedule and with so many eyes desperate for hockey action on the game, they had those eyes opened to the player Tarasenko is becoming.

One night later, in New Jersey, Tarasenko scored the only goal in a 1-0 Blues' win, the team's sixth in a row. He would have had two or three more if not for Cory Schneider making brilliant stops in one-on-one situations with the budding sniper.

After Tarasenko's goal in New York, Blues captain David Backes had this to say of his teammate: "He’s a guy, and I’ve said it many times, he’s as dynamic of a goal scorer as anyone I’ve ever played with.”

Backes is not one for hyperbole or exaggeration and is one of the more straight-forward speakers when it comes to interactions with the media, so that's not lip service pumping the tires of a younger teammate. But it's also weirdly not overly complimentary, as the top goal scorers with which Backes has played since breaking into the league in 2006 include Brad Boyes, Bill Guerin and Lee Stempniak.

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 04: (l-r) Alex Pietrangelo #27, Jake Allen #34 and Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues celebrate a 1-0 shutout victory over the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on November 4, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo b
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL was a weird place when it came back from the lockout in 2005.

That's another reason Tarasenko isn't a household name: If a goal is scored in a place where goals are rarely scored, does it make a sound?

The St. Louis Blues brand is one of defense and poor scoring, of 2-1 games won on the strength of guys like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. St. Louis is where goals come to die, and coach Ken Hitchcock is the grim reaper of offense on either side of the puck.

That's probably why so many missed Tarasenko becoming a new player when he returned from the Sochi Olympics last season. He had three goals in eight games after the break and finished the regular season with 21 goals in 64 games, but he missed the Blues' final 15 games because of hand surgery.

Tarasenko returned in time for the playoffs and scored four goals in six games, as the Blues were bounced by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

Consider everything working against Tarasenko last season: It was only his second season, he plays for a team with a reputation for defense and while he was a hurricane-force storm in the postseason, few take notice when that storm peters out after six games and there are seven other playoff series happening at the same time.

But since the Olympic break, playoffs included, Tarasenko has 15 goals in 26 games, which is a 48-goal pace over 82 games.

Hitchcock, in a story by Louie Korac of NHL.com, said something changed in Tarasenko after the Olympics, where he was used sparingly as a member of Team Russia:

He wasn't really happy when he came back from the [2014 Sochi] Olympics. He was really unhappy with how much he played [for Russia], what role he played, and he really put a strong focus into really becoming a real good player. I think quite frankly, if he doesn't get hurt post-Olympics, I think he's got 35 (goals) in him last year alone. … He just had a whole different focus. He was very determined in his game. He came back and did that in the [Stanley Cup Playoffs].

With such a small sample size in a budding career, it's quite possible that a 15-in-26 run is just that—a run that will eventually normalize.

But to watch Tarasenko today is to watch a player who stands out in every way and very likely isn't going anywhere, and the numbers back that up.

He's 6'0", 220 pounds and possesses excellent skating ability. He can snap a puck from anywhere just outside the face-off circles and be a legitimate threat to beat any goaltender, as he did to Schneider on Tuesday night. He can carry the puck and control it along the walls, shielding it from smaller (and bigger) defenders much the way Malkin does in Pittsburgh.

Frankly, if that Sochi chip is still on his shoulder, anything fewer than 40 goals this season would be an upset.

Tarasenko has shown chemistry with Jori Lehtera, who was a teammate of Tarasenko's in the KHL in 2011-12. Playing with Jaden Schwartz quite a bit recently, the three seem to be unstoppable once they gain possession in the offensive zone, which is frequently.

Via stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Tarasenko has a Fenwick of 57.3 percent and a Fenwick close of 56.2 percent. That's right in line with his numbers of a season ago (57.6/56.5), but with one big difference—zone starts.

Last season, Tarasenko started 38.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, second most on the team, and 24.9 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, second fewest on the team. 

This season, it appears Hitchcock is showing more trust in Tarasenko, who has a 33.5/27.1 percent split between offensive/defensive shift starts. 

Another difference in Tarasenko's game, and a big reason why his current pace of eight goals in 12 games may be more sustainable than you think, is his shot totals. Last season, he had just 136 shots in 64 games, an average of 2.125 per game; this season, he has 52 shots in 12 games, an average of 4.33 per game.

What hasn't changed is his shooting percentage: Last year and this year, it's 15.4 percent.

Tarasenko is shooting more, becoming a better two-way player and proving to be dangerous any time the puck is on his stick, no matter where he is on the ice.

If he continues at this rate, age and nationality won't be the major points of the Tarasenko brand. It will probably be something along the lines of: "Hart Trophy-winning Vladimir Tarasenko leads Blues to Stanley Cup Final."

All statistics via NHL.com or stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him and his brand on Twitter: @DaveLozo.


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