ST. LOUIS — There have been glimpses early this season of the player Vladimir Tarasenko was expected to be for the St. Louis Blues.
Like the power-play goal he scored late in the first period Tuesday night to give the Blues a 2-1 lead over Buffalo in a game they won 4-1. There was a beautiful quick-strike, top-shelf goal against the Avalanche last week, which was preceded by fast-twitch rebound goals against the Flames, Sharks and Panthers and by sniper shots versus the Rangers and Blackhawks.
Add in Tarasenko’s four assists and the 21-year-old Russian right wing has accounted for 11 points in his first 20 games this season.
The numbers are a far cry from those of team leaders Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie. But, for the 2010 first-round NHL Entry Draft pick, they’re a start.
“He’s still learning about the league,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says. “He’s learning about the level. Now he’s playing teams he’s never seen before in the East.
“Once he gets warmed up into the games, he’s a really good player. I would say the second half of every game he plays is excellent. He’s a major factor. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with the competition.”
After 58 games in a Blues uniform over the last two seasons, Tarasenko has 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points and St. Louis is 37-16-5 in those contests.
“It’s a long and hard season,” Tarasenko says. “It’s new for me. We have 10 games in 18 days. I never had that before. It’s tough. But we’re a perfect team with our relationship inside. Guys are helping me a lot to feel comfortable.”
But a quick conversation with the youngster reminds you that’s he’s still just a kid learning his way in the toughest league in the world. His ability to speak English, while described by others as significantly improved since his rookie season a year ago, reminds you that he’s also making this difficult transition while living far from his homeland.
“He’s just going through that young person’s phase where he’s got to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and once he gets there, which usually happens halfway through the game, he’s really good,” Hitchcock says.
The energy and tenacity of the beginning of NHL games are difficult for youngsters to adjust to and can be overwhelming at times, and yet Tarasenko has impressed his coach.
“He’s not getting pushed out of the competition,” Hitchcock says. “He’s digging in to the competition, which is a very good sign. It’s just that phase young players go through where they get comfortable when it’s really hard. It’s always really hard at the start of games, especially this early in the season.”
Tarasenko’s rookie season was interrupted by a concussion that forced him to miss time. He looked like he wore down late in the year after playing games in both the KHL and then the NHL (69 total games) because of the lockout.
This off-season he worked on being more prepared for everything.
“This season will be longer,” Tarasenko says. “I’ve never played 82 games in a season. (The longest) was probably 54 or 50-something, I guess. I worked a little bit more with my father (Andrei) in my hometown and tried to be ready for the season.”
His seven goals rank third on the team and his 11 points are tied with Jaden Schwartz for eighth — respectable, yes, but well short of remarkable. Then again, he’s only 21, still feeling his way through the rigorous NHL.
“(We’re) just (20) games in,” Tarasenko says. “We have 60-something more and everything can change.”
Don’t be surprised if it does.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.