- Craig Custance
It's hard not to appreciate his honesty. Some teams will pump up their prospects regardless of how good they project them to be. Others are overly cautious in building expectations for their young players.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong just wants a little more time to evaluate. He still isn't exactly sure what he has in Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who is off to a red-hot start in the KHL, with six goals in seven games for St. Petersburg. Tarasenko is currently ranked among ESPN Insider Grant Sonier's Top 20 prospects.
When asked for specifics about what Tarasenko needs to improve in order to achieve NHL success, Armstrong paused for a moment before answering.
"Can you call me back in six months?" he said, and then laughed. "It is hard because we haven't seen him play on the small ice outside of the World Junior [Championships]."
Tarasenko was the No. 16 overall pick in the 2010 draft, which also included Evgeny Kuznetsov; teams were cautious that year about choosing Russian players, who can be tough to lure to North America. The Blues felt really good about getting Jaden Schwartz at No. 14 in that same draft, then struck a deal with Ottawa to grab Tarasenko two picks later. An abundance of right-handed shot defensemen in their system allowed Armstrong to deal David Rundblad to the Senators for a shot at Tarasenko, who the GM felt was a risk worth taking as the draft worked itself into the teens.
"Look at the draft -- if his name was Smith, he'd be going in the top five," Armstrong said. "At some point, you take calculated risks."
It was calculated because Tarasenko completely sold the Blues during their one-on-one interview with him before the draft. He showed up with an interpreter but battled through the language barrier to speak English at times, showing Armstrong and his staff a willingness to learn.
St. Louis management really likes Tarasenko's infectious personality, one Armstrong compares to T.J. Oshie because of a relentless enthusiasm for the game.
"When you talk to him, you see the smile on his face. He's someone you root for," he said. "He has more in his repertoire than just scoring goals. He's going to be able to affect the game in many different ways."
Ideally, Tarasenko becomes a top-line forward who is not only a big-time goal scorer but also a team leader. One Western Conference scout joked that Canada is still having nightmares about Tarasenko scoring goals against Team Canada following his performance in the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Tarasenko captained the Russian team to a gold, impressing scouts along the way.
"Jaws were dropped," said the scout.
He thinks Tarasenko not only can score goals, but score important goals during crucial moments of the game.
"Every time the game is on the line, he's always involved," said the scout. "He's not the flashiest skater; you wouldn't call him a beautiful skater. But he's a good skater. He's a really smart player and he's always on the puck."
He's a strong player, although at 6-foot-0, you wouldn't mind if he were a little taller. That said, size isn't a concern for the Blues.
"He's got a really, really big core. Pretty strong legs and an excellent release," Armstrong said. "He's got that sixth sense around the net. He knows how to score goals."
Until there's a large sample size of games on North American ice, there's no guarantee his game will translate to the smaller ice.
"For him, the whole thing will be the speed of the NHL game and the small confines. His area to perform is going to be so much smaller," the scout said. "That's big. He's going to have do things so much quicker."
Like any Russian native, there's always the concern that he could return to the KHL if things don't go well in the NHL, which would be the worst-case scenario for the Blues. They're confident it won't come to that.
"We know there's going to be some slight curves in the road, and we're going to be patient with him," Armstrong said. "He's the whole package. It's just about getting accustomed to playing in North America."
Grant Sonier's Take
ESPN.com NHL scouting insider Grant Sonier weighs in on Tarasenko's ceiling and floor:
Best-case: "He's an elite offensive forward. He has the skating and the skill. He does have the creativity. But you can't compare him and Kuznetsov at this stage. Kuznetsov has been a star since he was 17 in the KHL. How can you say Tarasenko is better? The thing Tarasenko has going for him is he has the high character. His work ethic will allow him to play in different roles. He really works hard and has high character."
Worst-case: "He comes over and doesn't get the assignment he believes he should get and leaves. Most European players, if they don't get the assignment they believe they should be getting, they'd rather play in their own country. So worst case is he sours on the NHL and goes back to Russia, where it appears he's on the verge of being a really good player in the KHL."