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    Top Shelf: Tarasenko hits the ice running

    2:07 PM, Jan 22, 2013   |    comments
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    Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The NHL obviously is considered the top professional hockey league in the world with Russia's KHL running a distant second.

    When it comes to slowing down phenom Vladimir Tarasenko, however, the leagues seem to be on equal footing because neither NHL nor KHL teams have figured out how to contain the 21-year-old forward.

    Tarasenko, who was taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 16th overall pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, turned many a head while playing for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL earlier this season and he hasn't skipped a beat in his first two games in the NHL.

    Even though the KHL uses bigger rinks than the North American game, the league is known for its strong defensive play. Still, Tarasenko had no problem filling up the score sheet in his native Russia, notching 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in 31 games for SKA during the NHL lockout after posting 23 goals and 47 points in 54 games in 2011-12.

    While it's been obvious for a few years now that the right winger can produce at the KHL level, it would be understandable if Tarasenko struggled adjusting to the North American game. However, after only two games with the Blues, it appears that Tarasenko's learning curve may not be so steep after all.

    Tarasenko has exploded out of the gate, registering five points (three goals, two assists) in his two games. He scored twice in his first outing to help the Blues rout Detroit, 6-0, and becoming the first Blues player to notch a pair of goals in his NHL debut since Doug Palazzari in 1974-75.

    His five points through his first two NHL games also equals the most ever by a Blues rookie in that span. The mark was first set by Wayne Babych in 1978.

    Tarasenko also was named the No. 1 star in his first two NHL contests despite the fact he is currently ranked 14th out of 18 St. Louis skaters in ice time per game.

    There's little doubt Tarasenko's ice time will have to go up if he continues at this torrid pace, but the man in charge of his playing time -- head coach Ken Hitchcock -- is more concerned with tamping down expectations for the time being.

    Hitchcock is known as a taskmaster who wants all of his players -- even the superstars -- to buy into his system. Keeping that in mind, it seems likely Tarasenko will wind up in Hitch's doghouse at some point this season, but the coach has loved what he's seen from the youngster.

    "He's a great kid," Hitchcock said. "He's a kid that just loves to complete and play. He's got a real throwback attitude, which I really appreciate."

    Tarasenko is a bit undersized for the NHL game at 5-foot-11, 202 pounds, but strength does not appear to be a issue. His best weapon is a quick shot the left-hander whips at the net from the off-wing. The shot has served Tarasenko well during his years of seasoning in Russia, and that skill has translated to the NHL.

    If it seems like being a professional hockey player is in Tarasenko's blood, there's a good reason for that. Vladimir's father, Andrei Tarasenko, was a pro player in Russia for nearly two decades and led the Russian Superleague in scoring during the 1997-98 season.

    While Tarasenko has his father to thank for setting a good example to follow as a pro hockey player, Andrei also may have damaged his son's NHL draft stock a few years ago. The elder Tarasenko was the head coach of Sibir Novosibirsk -- Vladimir's first KHL club -- when he said it was important that his son "stay in Russia for a while, gain experience and become a respected hockey player."

    In Andrei Tarasenko's defense, it doesn't take much these days to scare NHL teams off Russian prospects and those comments from 2010 certainly did the trick. NHL general managers are scared young Russian prospects will leave the NHL for the KHL after a few years like Alexander Radulov did to Nashville several years ago, or even worse, they won't ever show up to play in North America.

    According to the younger Tarasenko, it's always been his dream to play in the NHL, but it was hard to get North American scouts to buy that back in 2010. As a result, 15 picks came and went before the Blues gambled on Tarasenko and the risk is paying off in the early going.

    With his quick start, Tarasenko has overshadowed this season's excellent group of rookies, including his Blues teammate Jaden Schwartz, who was selected by St. Louis two picks before the Russian in 2010. Schwartz had two goals and one assist in seven games with St. Louis in 2011-12 and has one assist in two outings this season.

    Still, when it comes to evaluating Tarasenko this season it's worth noting that the NHL annals are littered with stories of players who started their careers off with a bang only to fade away into obscurity.

    Hitchcock knows it's a long road to true stardom in the NHL, but Tarasenko's intangibles are making his coach more than hopeful about the future.

    "Talent aside, who knows where this thing goes career-wise," Hitchcock said. "But when you have that type of attitude and that type of sincerity and humbleness to your disposition, I think it bodes really well for him."

    The Sports Network

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