The heartache for millions of Canadian hockey fans was an eye-opener for one National Hockey League executive.
General manager Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues knew very little about Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko prior to selecting him 16th overall at the 2010 NHL entry draft.
But he learned plenty just six months later in the gold-medal game at the world junior championship in Buffalo on Jan. 5, 2011. With Russia trailing the Canadians in the second period, things went from bad to worse for Russia when Tarasenko, the team captain, left the game when Marcus Foligno’s skate apparently made contact with his shoulder.
Fortunately for Tarasenko and his teammates, he managed to return to the game in the third with the Russians down 3-0. He also made an immediate impact by setting up a goal and scoring the equalizer in an eventual 5-3 Russia victory.
“That’s where I really got excited, in Buffalo, because it confirmed what our scouts were telling us,” Armstrong said on the phone Monday from St. Louis, where Tarasenko and his Blues teammates enjoyed a day off after opening the season with five wins in six games.
“It showed a lot about his competitiveness and character to come back into that game.”
It reminded Armstrong of his days working as an assistant GM and GM when the Stars moved to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993. That summer, the team drafted right-winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who’s now in his 16th full NHL season and second with Armstrong in St. Louis.
“He just worked like a dog from the start to the finish of a game,” said Armstrong. “[Those types of players] are wired that way, and that’s what Vladdy showed [in Buffalo].”
Armstrong traded right-handed shooting defenceman David Rundblad, a 2009 first-rounder, to Ottawa at the 2010 draft for the 16th overall selection. At the time, the Blues had two other blue-line prospects that shot right-handed in Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo, and there was a belief that all three wouldn’t play for St. Louis at the same time because their styles were similar.
St. Louis then chose Tarasenko, who had been passed over by several teams earlier in the draft, including St. Louis, because of the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“We thought he was going to be a very good prospect,” Armstrong said of Tarasenko, “but we didn’t take him at 14 [overall]. It was too high of a pick to take a flier. We took [forward] Jaden Schwartz,” who cracked the Blues lineup out of training camp earlier this month.
Tarasenko, 21, arrived at camp armed with a three-year entry-level contract and nearly four years of KHL experience. He played in Russia during the recent NHL lockout and had 14 goals and 31 points in 31 games for SKA-St. Petersburg, playing on a line with NHLer Ilya Kovalchuk and former Phoenix Coyotes centre Viktor Tikhonov.
Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock got a chance to see the line play on multiple occasions from an 18-game video package the KHL sent him featuring Tarasenko, a five-foot-11, 220-pound right-winger dubbed The Russian Tank.
“I got a better handle on him from that video package,” said Hitchcock, whose Blues became the first team to reach 100 points last season. “The first thing I noticed is that he’s more than a scorer.
“He’s got a great wrist shot … but where he’s really good is he makes a great pass. He sees the ice really well.”
Hitchcock said Tarasenko is different than Russian forwards Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov, whom he coached in his previous NHL stop in Columbus, saying he’s responsible in all three zones on the ice and knows how to play in each.
“You can just tell he’s a coach’s son,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a very respectful young man who is humble and has no sense of entitlement.”
Tarasenko’s father, Andrei, coaches HC Sibir in the KHL and was a forward in Russia for 21 seasons. His grandfather was also a coach.
Hitchcock said the younger Tarasenko’s time spent in the KHL has helped him adapt to the speed of the North American game and the size of NHL players. Tarasenko awoke Monday with four goals and eight points in six games, highlighted by a two-goal effort including the winner in his NHL debut in the Blues’ season opener on Jan. 19.
“The best part for us is he’s a [scoring] threat every night. You can’t have enough of those guys,” Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who entered Monday’s action averaging 14 minutes 46 seconds of ice time, or four to five minutes less than the majority of players ahead of him in the scoring race.
By season’s end, Hitchcock expects Tarasenko’s production to have surpassed that of fellow rookies Mikael Granlund and the Edmonton Oilers duo of Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz.
“I think there’s just a lot of really good young players,” he said, singling out Schultz in particular. “But I think once the enthusiasm wears out [for some rookies] I think that’s when Tarasenko is going to shine because he’s used to this level [of play].
“I don’t think he’s going to get distracted by [his] success. And I think endurance-wise, having played all that hockey [in the KHL] is going to help him.”
The key for a veteran NHL coach is to not overreact when a player like Tarasenko gets tired like he did against Dallas on Saturday. He rebounded the following night with a one-assist performance in a 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota.
“Get him in a consistent pattern where you don’t start moving him from line to line and get him out of sync,” is Hitchcock’s advice to himself. “Make him as comfortable as you can and help him through the difficult spots that are going to be there. He’s never been in some of these [NHL arenas]. He’s never seen some of the players. Let him play through that stuff.”
Let him open his eyes.