What is wrong with Vladimir Tarasenko?
Formerly known as the charismatic Russian who said all the right things off the ice and dazzled with his play on the sheet, Tarasenko came under fire at the end of last season, when he managed just two goals in the Blues’ final five regular season games, leaving the ice due to injury (and some boos at a Hot Shots establishment) during the climatic Colorado Avalanche matchup. Let’s just say the seat that houses Tarasenko’s ass hasn’t gotten any cooler in the 2018-19 season.
It’s a deserving sigh, because he’s not having a great year. Coming into Saturday’s contest against the New York Islanders, Tarasenko has just 11 goals in 37 games, including just two goals in his last 13 games. This is coming from a guy who averaged 37 goals from the 2014-15 season through the 2016-17 season, building a reputation as an elite shooter who finished in the top 15 in goals in the league.
Tarasenko is on pace to finish with 48 points, which would his lowest total since the 2013-14 season, his first full year in the league. That would be a good total for a guy like David Perron or Pat Maroon, but not the face of the franchise. Things aren’t going well, and when you are a high-paid talent in any professional sports league, the spotlight can burn brighter with each passing game where your team losses and you do nothing to help it.
Here’s the thing. Tarasenko is shooting, accumulating 135 shots in those 38 games. While his shooting percentage is down to 8% (from 10.8% last season and 13.6% in 2016-17), Tarasenko is on pace for close to 275 shots. He is putting the puck on net, but it’s not going in. It isn’t like he’s stopped shooting all-together and become a complete non-factor. That would be an easy diagnosis.
The reason for his lack of goals on a healthy amount of shots isn’t complex though. Tarasenko has become predictable. Goaltenders in this league are elite defenders who train for certain players, can adapt, and will find new ways to stop players from scoring. They will make even the best players adapt. At this point, NHL goaltenders know what Tarasenko does. He lines up on that dot off wing, and shoots a wrist shot. He gathers the puck, takes a few seconds, and lets it rip. It’s a hard shot with some slice to it, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t the California Penal League, ladies and gents. Tarasenko needs to adapt.
He doesn’t do one-timers often enough to keep goalies guessing. He doesn’t crash the net with reckless abandon, trying to scoop up rebounds or jamming in loose pucks. He sits out on the dot and waits his turn, not daring to move in and go for broke. If you maintain that stance, the puck you are shooting better have magic dust on it, or it will stop going into the net.
The factor of Tarasenko’s lack of scoring and production can be directly tied to this team’s futile stance in the standings. If he throws a few more rubber biscuits into the basket, the Blues may have a few more wins. It’s like getting nothing out of your middle-of-the-lineup thumper for a couple weeks. Imagine your running back failing to find the end zone for a few games.
Ryan O’Reilly can’t do it all himself, and Perron can only be a great scorer for a certain amount of games before disappearing into the enigmatic bad penalty-seeking Frenchman that we all know and halfway love. Tarasenko needs to do more or else this team will continue to lose and look very bad doing it.
Is he hurt? He left practice on Wednesday early, and there were rumors as this article was being typed that he could be dealing with an injury. Frankly, I don’t give a shit if he is. Hurt or whole, you need to produce in this league. Hundreds of players perform hurt in this league. They find ways to score, assist, produce, or contribute. It’s hockey, damn it! There’s no crying, excuse-making, or daycare for former prolific scorers to sulk in. If Tarasenko has both arms and legs attached, get out there and win some games. Let me remind you he is making $7.5 million to produce for the St. Louis Blues. If Alexander Steen is going to come under fire for not producing like a high-paid assassin should, Tarasenko deserves some heat as well. He needs to do more.
Tarasenko turned 27 years old in December, which means he isn’t a spring chicken in this league any longer. He was a guy who used to put up 40 goals and showed that more wasn’t impossible. Like it or not, when one looks at his performance last season and this winter, it’s not hard to detect a player taking a few steps back. I’m sorry, dude. The Blues can’t dismiss another head coach for you either.
The spotlight burned brightest during Thursday’s game against Washington. Tarasenko missed the game with an injury, but another guy played and scored. Seeing a guy like Alexander Ovechkin and the impact on his team doesn’t ease the stomach that much when looking over at Tarasenko. That’s not saying #91 must be as great as Ovie. That’s wildly unrealistic. 96% of players in this league don’t have 637 goals and make defensemen appear smaller like the Great 8 does. The point is, Tarasenko is St. Louis’ version of Ovechkin; the guy who the other team must fear when he climbs over the bench and comes into play. Lately, Tarasenko hasn’t been that guy.
Let me be clear. I don’t think the Blues should trade Tarasenko, because there’s still so much capability there and he has a cap friendly contract-but they certainly need more from him if 2019 and beyond is going to stop looking like a joke.
Either way, I’d buy more bourbon.
*Initially published in Thursday’s St. Louis Game Time paper, and updated for this publishing.