Vladimir Tarasenko: This Year’s Steen Or The Next Ovechkin?

This is the first installment of a three-part series on Vladimir Tarasenko, his prospects as the next NHL superstar and the challenges facing the Blues in signing him to a new contract in the off-season.

As the trade deadline approaches and the annual questions arise about whether the St. Louis Blues are built to make a deep run in the playoffs, high-profile players come up for discussion, especially with regard to scoring and that five-headed monster known as Cap Space.

The biggest story for the St. Louis Blues in that regard centers around their explosive 23-year-old Russian dynamo, right winger Vladimir Tarasenko. His signing in the off season will command the attention of Blues management—and their fans—until it gets done.

Is Tarasenko the real deal, or will he be an update of last year’s Alexander Steen story, someone whose value will inevitably fall short of the hype?

It already seems as if his stratospheric start to the 2014-15 season has calmed down a bit. Is he just another, more expensive liability? Or has he already proven he is the future of the St. Louis Blues and the face of the franchise?

If he is the real deal, how will the Blues afford him? Knowing that the team is strapped for cap space, what are the Blues’ options going into the off-season? We will examine these issues over the next three weeks in this editorial, comparing Tarasenko’s numbers and performance not only to Steen’s but to some of the sport’s greatest players to ask a question that can’t be answered with numbers: what does it mean for the Blues if he goes to another team?

Alexander Steen: Out of Nowhere—Or Was He?

Last year the St. Louis Blues’ hard-working forward, Alexander Steen, exploded onto the first half of the regular season like he never had before in his previous nine years in the NHL. After leading the league in scoring through October and most of November, Steen scored his 20th goal of the season on November 27, 2013, still tied with Washington Capitals’ perennial scoring superstar Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.

At that point, with over 70% of the season still to be played, Steen was perhaps the most covered story in the NHL, on-pace for a monstrous 68-goal campaign. On December 18, 2013, Steener led the Blues with 22 goals and was tied with Corey Perry for second in the NHL behind Ovechkin’s 28.

Steen’s contract was due to expire at season’s end, and much speculation ensued on what it would take to re-up the gritty forward. If he had finished with even 50 goals, Steen could have leveraged astronomical numbers. Steen knew it, the Blues knew it, and the fans knew it.

In a savvy move, Blues President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Doug Armstrong inked Steen on December 18 to a $17.4 million, three-year extension. The extension took Steen’s obvious value and dedication into account but also his long and consistent history as a player who usually comes in under the 20-goal range.

The previous season he’d managed only 8 goals and 27 points in 40 games with the Blues. But the extension at $5.8 million per year was a good-faith gesture in hopes of improving those numbers over the long term. Most importantly, it avoided a protracted bidding war with other teams over the speculative future performance of an unrestricted free agent the Blues clearly saw as a core member.

The deal was widely hailed as a win for both sides. However, the ink on his contract had barely dried when, on December 21, in a game against the Edmonton Oilers, Steen went down with a concussion.

Nov 28, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens (30) blocks the shot of St. Louis Blues left wing Alexander Steen (20) during the third period at Scottrade Center. The St. Louis Blues defeat the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

His Richardesque goal-a-game start had already cooled since the end of November, and after the injury and his 11-game absence his numbers continued to fall. Steen’s final goal tally at season’s end was 33.

The six-game series against Chicago was a reflection of his regular season: after scoring the triple-overtime winner in Game 1, Steen never found the back of the net again, and finished with 3 points for the series.

Interestingly, Steen’s best year prior to 2013 in terms of goal production, 2009-10, was eerily similar to last year. Like 2013, it followed a year of below-average production, in which he had scored only 6 goals and 24 points in 61 games. Yet in 2009-10 Steen pocketed 24 goals and virtually doubled his point total to 47 in 68 games.

The one fact common to both Steen’s 2009-10 and 2013-14 campaigns? Both years were before his contract was to be renegotiated.

Vladimir Tarasenko is also in the last year of his contract, and perhaps it’s prudent to acknowledge that fact. But Steen’s situation and Tarasenko’s could not be more different.

But let’s be clear about something here: this is Alexander Steen we’re talking about, one of those pure-grit, Mike Ricci kind of guys who always leaves everything on the ice, someone with an impeccable work ethic who is always finding new ways to improve his game. Talk to Leafs fans; they are still lamenting his exit, and with good cause.

This year, despite the long period of decline last season, Steener has worked hard on his game and in an NHL.com article on February 20, 2014, he shared with writer Dan O’Neill that he changed the curve on his stick among other things. With a season output of 5 goals as of December 11, 2014, he first used the new stick on that date against the New York Islanders.

He scored two goals and picked up an assist.

Since then his output has increased from 5 to 14 goals, including a streak of goals in 5 consecutive games in mid-January. Alexander Steen is certainly not on pace to equal or break his career-best 33 goals from last year, but no one who knew better expected him to. His pattern of breakout campaigns in the last year of contract is an intriguing one, but taking the soul and grit of the player into account, it seems to be just that: intriguing, and nothing more.

Vladimir Tarasenko is also in the last year of his contract, and perhaps it’s prudent to acknowledge that fact. But Steen’s situation and Tarasenko’s could not be more different.