Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko appears to be closing in on his decision whether to play in the NHL or Russia next season. But there are factors still at work guiding what he will decide, a source close to the situation told the Post-Dispatch.
The Blues drafted Tarasenko No. 16 overall in the 2010 NHL draft and immediately after Tarasenko's selection, former amateur scouting director Jarmo Kekalainen said: "If his name was Walt Smith, he would have been long gone at 16."
The talent Tarasenko possesses is unmistakable, but NHL teams are wary of drafting Russian prospects because if they elect not to come to North America, or at least not as quickly as clubs and fans expect, taking the risk can turn into a huge mistake.
The Blues said they were fine with taking the risk and still might come out looking smart if Tarasenko announces soon that he'll be in St. Louis for the 2012-13 season. The organization, however, now finds itself facing the challenge of signing the forward, who will turn 21 in December.
An announcement on Tarasenko's future was expected to come following his appearance with Russia at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, which end Sunday. But in an unforeseen development, Tarasenko, who was one of the top forwards in the Kontinental Hockey League this season, did not make the Russian national team roster.
Tarasenko was reported to be leaving the world championships, which are being held in Sweden and Finland, but according to sources his decision will still come after the tournament. Tarasenko's representation, which includes North American-based agent Mike Liut, a former Blues goalie, is expected to talk with Blues general manager Doug Armstrong soon. The two will be at the world championships.
"We've had some initial conversations and we're going to talk before June 1," Armstrong said recently. "I haven't talked to (Tarasenko) yet, (but) he knows we have talked about certain things. He has to make hard decisions like a lot of young players do."
But Tarasenko's decision might not rest solely on whether he wants to play in the NHL next season. The league's collective-bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15 and with the potential of not having a hockey season, or at least the on-time start of one, it could lead Tarasenko to stay in Russia for another year.
The decision to commit to the NHL in 2012-13 would be a leap of faith because the forward would be reaching that conclusion before the beginning of a work stoppage. Tarasenko could return to play in Europe like other NHL players during the last labor strife did, but it's not an ideal way to begin a career, a source close to the situation said.
But there are perhaps two factors pushing Tarasenko to sign with the Blues.
No. 1, the club has expressed its desire for him to join the organization and step into the lineup immediately. A fear of European players is that they will commit to the NHL and then be assigned to the clubs' American Hockey League affiliate.
"We'd like him to come over because we think he can push for a roster spot on our team," Armstrong said. "We think that he has the pedigree. He's got the experience now. We would not sign him to come over and play in our minor-league system. But all that being said, whenever training camp opens, he has to prove it not to me ... he has to prove it to the guys that he's sitting beside in the room that he's ready to play."
Tarasenko proved himself this season in the KHL. He had 18 goals and 38 points in 39 games for Sibir before being traded to St. Petersburg, for which he had five goals and nine points in 15 regular-season games. In 15 playoff games, he posted 10 goals and 16 points for St. Petersburg, which lost in the KHL conference finals.
The No. 2 reason Tarasenko could leave Russia, considering the season he produced in the KHL, is his omission from the world championship roster. That was seen as a surprise to many and political to one source.
In an interview with Sovetsky Sport, a Russian media outlet, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the coach of the national team, indicated that Tarasenko was left off because of his conditioning level.
"This young man still needs to learn," Bilyaletdinov said told Sovetsky Sport. "And to understand that there's a completely different level here. To play in the world championships you need to prepare. Tarasenko came in such a condition that I thought he wasn't quite prepared. I don't know what it is related to. I wouldn't want to discuss Vladimir's attitude to work. But he needs to learn a certain lesson."
When the Sovetsky Sport reporter asked if having Tarasenko in the national team's camp for one month following St. Peterburg's playoff exit was enough time to get him into shape, Bilyaletdinov responded: "We shouldn't be doing it! Of course we tried. But players must come prepared. This is not a club, but the national team."
Multiple sources, however, said that Tarasenko is in shape, and they speculated that he might have been "bulking up" for his indoctrination into the NHL, and that's what upset the national team. Another source indicated that Tarasenko's unwillingness to commit to playing in Russia next season is the reason behind him sitting out the world championships.
Regardless, Armstrong said that he was not disappointed to hear the news.
"No, the political games, not only for the Russian country, but ... everyone views the world championships differently," he said. "Being part of it a few different times (with Team Canada), you're looking at players for potential Olympics, you're looking at them for different things.
"He made it last year. He had a good season (this year) and he isn't on the roster this year. Why that is, I don't speak Russian, so I'm not sure exactly why he isn't on the team. But that has zero concern for me on whether we think he should come to the NHL. We think he should come to the NHL. I hope he does come to the NHL. But I preface that by saying, if he doesn't, he is still 21 years old. He's got a great career ahead of him. We hope he comes.."