Blues fans were focused on one man and one man alone heading into the 2013 season: Vladimir Tarasenko. Believed to be the best prospect the organization has had in years, Tarasenko entered the year with enormous expectations. Did he live up to all of the hype? What should we expect from the youngster in 2013-14?
Tarasenko's year was a mixed bag.
He burst into the NHL with a memorable two-goal debut against the Detroit Red Wings. Immediately fans and analysts thrust him into the Calder Trophy conversation, the award given to the NHL's best rookie. He ended his first month as a regular NHL skater with five goals and four assists in seven games. He was exceeding the point-per-game pace that some fans projected for him.
Unfortunately, Tarasenko's first month was his best month of the season. He trailed off once the calendar flipped to February, adding just three points in 10 games. Near the end of February, Tarasenko was on the receiving end of a brutal hit from Colorado's Mark Olver. The hit reportedly knocked Tarasenko out before he even hit the ice.
The concussion forced Tarasenko to miss a chunk of games between February 20th and March 16th. When he ultimately returned in the middle of March, Tarasenko didn't look like the same player we saw in January. He posted four points in six games in March, but followed it up with a month of April that saw him record just three points in 15 games. He ended the regular season riding a 15-game goal drought.
Tarasenko's poor end to the regular season earned him a spot in the press box as the playoffs started against the physical Los Angeles Kings. After the Blues' offense sputtered, Tarasenko was called on to suit up for Game 4. His impact was minimal, but that's mostly due to the fact the Blues used him incorrectly.
So, how should Tarasenko's first year in the NHL be evaluated?
Tarasenko deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to the NHL lockout, he spent considerable time in the KHL before the NHL season even started. When you add in the 31 games he played over in Russia before playing in his first NHL game, Tarasenko appeared in a total of 69 games in 2013.
He suffered an injury in Russia that was believed to be a concussion and he suffered a more severe injury with the Blues in February. These two injuries had to have taken a toll on the youngster as he was trying to adapt to the speed and size of the NHL.
Speaking of adapting to the NHL game, Tarasenko probably had a difficult time adjusting to the pace and size difference that's found when you compare an NHL game with one in the KHL. The NHL features less space and much more physical play that Tarasenko has probably never seen before.
With these points in mind, I believe Tarasenko had a mostly successful first year in the NHL. While it didn't live up to all of the hype (some of which was outrageous), it was a solid first year filled with adversity. With that being said, I don't think we've seen all that he has to offer. I'd imagine we'll see more offensive production in 2013-14 when Tarasenko has the benefit of entering the year fresh and with the added knowledge of what to expect at the NHL level.
I fully understand most fans' disappointment with the way his year turned out on the whole after such a fast start, but I was encouraged from what I saw from Tarasenko this year. He showed his ability to score, but he also showed his inexperience at playing the NHL's style of game. It seemed that when he came back from the injury, Hitchcock was a little wary to turn him loose, and thus limited his ability to be a major impact in the game. Combine that with the fact that he has to change his playing style a bit, and you have to expect a statistical regression.
In the KHL, he played more like a center, with the puck on his stick for much longer stretches. He had a wider ice and a less physical league to dance and shoot around. He showed his familiarity with this play by holding the puck too long and being unable to absorb hits in the NHL this year. His true gift is scoring after making 1-2 moves to beat defenders (i.e., that goal in Columbus off Steen's pass from the boards), so he'll have to rely on his centerman to help him make the play.
To make it short, Tarasenko probably will not be able to play at the overall level that guys like Crosby, Malkin, or Datsyuk play, but I think his goal-scoring ability will be comparable so long as he's on a top 6, productive line with a strong center.