Blues’ top scorer, Vladimir Tarasenko, is a mastermind on the ice
In his second full year with the Blues, right wing Vladimir Tarasenko is having a breakout season. His Blues-leading 23 goals and 41 points (as of press time) put him solidly among the season’s highest performing National Hockey League players—a feat recently rewarded by inclusion on the NHL’s All-Star Team. His success comes partly due to sheer power—the 6-foot, 219-pound Russian regularly out-muscles and out-maneuvers defenders on the way to the net. But his mental skill at hockey’s most fundamental element—outwitting the goalie—is where his true power and innovation for the game lie.
In hockey today, Tarasenko explains, technology plays a big role in preparations. Teams watch video, track statistics and analyze saves to figure out playing styles and exploit weaknesses. Goaltenders do the same for opposing players’ physical setup and shots. So, on the ice, “you can’t have a favorite shot because goalies will know,” Tarasenko explains. “You have to try something new.” The 23-year-old is gaining a reputation as a master at disguising his body language when he shoots, giving goalies few clues about his intentions and cutting down their reaction time— though it helps that he’s strong enough to make firing off shots look effortless.
Meanwhile, goalies’ style of play is more agile than in the past, when they were more stationary and often made saves with the “butterfly” move. “Goalies right now are so athletic,” Tarasenko says with admiration. “They work like us in the gym.” But that doesn’t stop him from some old-fashioned mind games—for example, his interaction with the goalies: “In the US, you laugh all the time,” he says. “In Russia, you laugh if you’re crazy. My game face is a smile. I smile at the goalies.”
Although he’s a relative newcomer with the Blues, Tarasenko is in his eighth year of pro hockey—at just 16, he was getting paid to fire pucks at the net. But coming to the NHL involved a learning curve: Here, the rinks are smaller than in Europe and Asia, which means the game is faster and there’s less time to react. He attributes his serious 2013 concussion directly to that adjustment.
Aside from his iPhone and the occasional Play-Station soccer game with his teammates, Tarasenko isn’t big on tech. Get him talking about his stick, though, and it’s a different story: This superficially simple technology gets him animated. First, he explains the flex. (Simply put, that’s how much the stick bends when he shoots.) Then, he talks carbon composites. The carbon fibers in his top-of-the-line RibCor engineered by Reebok, “are permanently in tension to help increase power transfer.”
Then there’s the curvature of the blade, which makes him a little nostalgic because it’s similar to the one he had as a kid, when he used his dad’s stick to play. Reebok might talk about how the blade has “the ideal fiber orientation at 45 degrees on the forehand and backhand to store and release energy and a 90-degree middle for strength and stability.” But to Tarasenko, it’s simpler. “This is like Joe Sakic’s stick,” he says, referring to the retired Colorado Avalanche great. “That’s what most kids started with—it’s the most popular in the world.”
Tarasenko is demure when asked about hockey heroes he’d like to meet. The only pro athlete who sparks his curiosity is Brazil’s Ronaldinho. Tarasenko’s early athletic passion was split between soccer and hockey—not surprisingly, since his grandfather, Vladimir, was a professional soccer player, and his father, Andrei, played pro hockey. “In our hometown, there were two people who played Olympic hockey: me and my father.” And for three years, the elder coached the younger. “It was a tough time,” Tarasenko says. “He was tough on me. My dad played the same position, right wing. I wanted to be a goalie…” He trails off, shaking his head with a laugh—clearly that wasn’t going to happen. “He’s still coaching in my hometown.”
From age 2 until 11, Tarasenko lived with his grandparents. Toward the end of that time, “I was outside for three or four hours a day playing soccer or hockey. You’d go home for lunch, put some dry clothes on and go back out.” After he started playing hockey, he never questioned what his future held. “At age 5, right away, they told me you needed to have a goal in life, and my goal was to play here, in the NHL,” he says.
Opportunity knocked when the Blues drafted him in 2010, though he didn’t take the ice for them until 2013, after playing a couple more seasons in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg. He admits to being nervous his first game, against Detroit—that is, until he scored on his first and second shots. Last season he added another career highlight: scoring a crucial playoff goal. This season, the highlight was his first two hat tricks, especially when the fans went wild for the one at his home stadium. And they’re still going wild for the young Russian: In January, his jersey was outselling T.J. Oshie’s by more than double at the Scottrade Center’s store— quite a feat considering that Oshie’s has been the top seller for the past four years.
Upon learning that fact, Tarasenko pounced on it as ammunition for ribbing his American teammate. There is other good-natured locker room rivalry too, especially around soccer. “Right now on our team, some guys follow Manchester City, some guys follow Manchester United,” he says. But he and Patrik Berglund are diehards for Chelsea, and as luck would have it, those three teams are at the top of the British Premier League. “It’s kind of fun when the teams play against each other,” Tarasenko says. “But you don’t want to be on the losing side!”
Since moving to St. Louis, he’s discovered a love of watching baseball—but playing is another story. “I was in the batting cage and got zero,” he says with a laugh. “Not even close!” And there are flights home: During the summers, he and his girlfriend, Yana, return to Siberia. During the season, they mostly stay home and get ready for his next game. His comfort level in the city and with the Blues is clear. “I like the atmosphere,” he says. “St. Louis is like home for me right now. I’ve never played for a different NHL team so I can’t compare—but I don’t want to.”
As Tarasenko gains confidence on the ice this year, he says he can also feel himself gaining the trust of his team and coaches, which motivates him during games. “Goals are good, but team success is more important for me,” he says. Especially, of course, the Stanley Cup. “I think the main goal for all of us is to bring the cup to St. Louis.”
After a run of disappointing playoff appearances, the Blues are poised to turn things around come April, led by Tarasenko and fellow offensive stars like Oshie, David Backes and Jaden Schwartz, plus defender Kevin Shattenkirk, who has an impressive 28 assists so far. The expectations, combined with the media spotlight, might make some players nervous, but not Tarasenko. He feels less burdened by it here than when he went pro in his teens. He still has an intense drive to outperform the competition, but he also has perspective now, and that’s helped him relax. In fact, when asked about his pre-game rituals, he replies simply, “Just have a good nap. That’s it.”
Photo credit: Wesley Law