The important thing to understand about Vladimir Tarasenko is that he’s a volume shooter who never takes a bad shot.
That's perhaps the primary reason why the 23-year-old is already such an efficient goal scorer. Last season, he climbed to fifth in the league in goals scored, and he did it in large part thanks to a big jump in his shot totals. Early in 2015-16, he's been even better.
|Vladimir Tarasenko's Rise as a Goal Scorer|
That's the volume-shooter part. That he's managed to do it without losing his gaudy shooting percentage is the never-takes-a-bad-shot part.
When people talk about Tarasenko, they generally key in on physical attributes.
They talk about his speed, and to be sure, he’s awfully fast. They talk about how he protects the puck, and with good reason. He bulls through defenders without losing possession on a regular basis. They talk about his lethal shot, how his quick release fools goalies and his velocity overpowers them, and it’s certainly a treat to watch him do those things.
In preparing for this piece, though, I watched all of his shots and goals back-to-back-to-back, and the first thing that jumped out at me is that the man never takes a bad shot.
It’s like he has the home plate scoring-chance area—that irregular hexagon which stretches from the posts to the faceoff dots and then to the top of the faceoff circles at either end of the rink—hard-wired into his brain, and if at all possible, he won’t shoot until he’s pushed his way inside it.
Sometimes he doesn’t have a choice. He’ll be under pressure and throw the puck on net rather than risk turning it over, or there will be so much chaos in front of the net that he’ll occasionally take a shot from a less optimal area because the chance of a redirect is so good.
Those are both smart plays, but Tarasenko doesn’t generally need to settle for them. He likes to shoot from dangerous areas and is good at carving out that little bit of extra space to improve his shooting angle.
Consider this three-on-three rush against Vancouver, which ends in a goal for Robert Bortuzzo:
Obviously, the key play on the goal is Jared McCann getting puck-focused and not realizing that Bortuzzo is streaking for the net, but that doesn’t matter if Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller is able to stop the initial shot or the initial shot never comes.
Dan Hamhuis is one of the better defensive defencemen in the game, but Tarasenko comes in with speed, tempts him with the puck and then, while the blueliner is extended, just steps inside and lets go with that heavy shot into the now-open shooting lane.
There aren’t many players who can carve out that extra space while they’re being covered so closely by a guy like Hamhuis.
Most wouldn’t have taken the risk of closing that extra foot of real estate to get into a better shooting position. Tarasenko does it pretty much every time. He doesn’t settle for a shot from the wrong side of those faceoff dots unless he has absolutely no other choice.
That he’s able to be so picky and yet still pepper the opposition net with shot after shot is a testament to those other skills: speed, power and puck protection.
There are a few different plays we could look at to highlight Tarasenko’s speed, but the most interesting to me was a tight race with P.K. Subban in a recent game against Montreal:
There’s a long race with Subban, who is himself one of the best skaters in the league, and the puck is moving toward Subban’s side of the ice. Nevertheless, Tarasenko not only gets to the puck first, but he fires in that same instant, getting a shot away from a dangerous area which kicked a rebound to the front of the net.
In all these frames, I’ve included the second race between Alex Steen and Andrei Markov. In the end, Markov is able to hold off Steen, and the dangerous rebound that Tarasenko creates is safely defused as a result.
But this play nicely highlights many of the reasons Tarasenko is so dangerous. His elite speed can create chances where there shouldn’t be chances, he’s good at powering through coverage and his shot is so fast and heavy that even a set Carey Price sometimes can’t help but give out a dangerous rebound.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk at least a little bit more about how potent that shot is.
It’s so potent that St. Louis has taken to having Tarasenko line up as a defenceman when the faceoff is on the left side of the offensive zone to make use of his power, quick release and lethal accuracy:
There’s nothing sexy about that goal. It’s a set play off a faceoff, robotically designed to make use of that single wonderful asset that is Tarasenko’s shot. It’s a play the Blues run again and again because head coach Ken Hitchcock is a man who likes cold-blooded efficiency, and this is a play that works.
For those of us who like a little bit of flash, though, Tarasenko’s more than happy to oblige:
That’s a goal worth just admiring for a lot of reasons, but the most impressive element of it all is the way Tarasenko responds to time and space: He gets to the best possible scoring position.
The way the puck entered the zone forced Dustin Byfuglien to back off, and it’s awfully hard to defend while moving forward, so he just sort of hunkers in. Tarasenko lets him, waits just a half-second until Jori Lehtera and Bryan Little cross into Byfuglien’s lane, and then makes for the very centre of the ice as fast as he can.
The shot is great—a bullet that picks the top corner—but it’s almost an afterthought. Tarasenko is so close to the net, and because he’s right in the middle of the ice, it’s impossible for goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to take the whole net away.
His speed, power and shot are all great attributes, but it’s Tarasenko’s brain that really makes him special.
He’s patient enough to wait for the best opportunity, confident enough to press and create that opportunity, and clever enough to see the way a play is unfolding in the offensive zone and either take advantage of a breakdown or fire a shot to create another opportunity.
He’s also only 23 years old, which means hockey fans—especially Blues fans—can look forward to watching him score many, many more goals.