RELATED LINK: Tarasenko Named NHL's No. 1 Star of the Week
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The day after Vladimir Tarasenko scored his first NHL hat trick, the St. Louis Blues held an optional skate. More times than not, top-end players typically take advantage of an off day.
If it weren't for Alexander Steen stepping onto the ice at the Blues' practice facility that day, Tarasenko would have been first on the ice. Continuous improvement is what matters to the right wing most.
It wasn't just another workout for Tarasenko, who in a 4-3 win against the Dallas Stars last Tuesday became the first Blues player to score a hat trick on an overtime goal since Brett Hull did it Oct. 9, 1997. Tarasenko was spending time improving his craft by shooting pucks -- lots of them. Wrist shot after wrist shot, snapping off a plethora of pucks. It's what turns good shooters into great shooters.
"When he first came over, he was just happy to play here," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the 22-year-old, who was named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday and leads the team with 11 points in 10 games after scoring two more goals Saturday to give him five in three games. "Now he wants to be a guy that contributes every night. He wants to be a significant player in the League. It's a big difference.
"He wasn't really happy when he came back from the [2014 Sochi] Olympics. He was really unhappy with how much he played [for Russia], what role he played, and he really put a strong focus into really becoming a real good player. I think quite frankly, if he doesn't get hurt post-Olympics, I think he's got 35 (goals) in him last year alone. … He just had a whole different focus. He was very determined in his game. He came back and did that in the [Stanley Cup Playoffs]."
Instead of gloating after a standout game, Tarasenko was already focused on how he can be better the next game. It's a humbling attitude he possesses, one he takes with pride. It's easy to see that there is no "I" or "me" in Tarasenko's vocabulary. That's typically reserved for "team, we, us."
"It's kind of hard, but I like it when people set high expectations for me," said Tarasenko, who has 35 goals and 78 points in 112 NHL games. "I'm supposed to work twice as hard everywhere. You can't make these people sad [in St. Louis]. It's good pressure.
"It was a good game [against the Stars]. I didn't score for five or six games. I feel a little bit better right now. Probably more confident."
Tarasenko's teammates have no problem gloating for him, especially when he's doing things not always talked about. Goalie Brian Elliott was asked if it was nice not to have to face Tarasenko in games and only in practice. "I don't even want to do that," Elliott joked.
"It's special, but we see it every day," said center Maxim Lapierre, who compared Tarasenko's shot to former Montreal Canadiens teammate Andrei Kostitsyn. "He's got such a good shot. Probably the best shot I've seen in my life. If he keeps playing like that, he's going to get a lot of goals. … It's one thing to have a hard shot, but he puts it anywhere he wants. It's easy for him to score goals, let's put it that way.
"We see the three goals, but guys like me see the shot he blocked with 16 seconds or whatever in (a) game. Every guy that scores three goals doesn't throw his face in front of a puck."
Soon after each game, Tarasenko reserves his time for the cell phone. It's time to talk to his father Andrei and grandfather Vladimir, who the younger Tarasenko is named after.
It's become a routine occurrence.
"I talk to them all the time," Tarasenko said. "My grandfather watches all my games. We talk after every game."
And what do they say?
"Same (as) what I tell you … it's only one night," Tarasenko said. "We're happy for you, but try to stay on the same level."
Which is why "tomorrow" is always most important for Tarasenko. Keep a level head and continue to improve.
"I know he's a great player, that's why I want to pass him the puck every time I get it," said teammate Jori Lehtera, who played with Tarasenko at Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. "He can pass, shoot, challenge 1-on-1s at the same time. You don't know what he's going to do. The defenseman doesn't know."
Blues coaches have tried to get Tarasenko to think with a shoot-first mentality. Hitchcock has said in the past that Tarasenko tends to "defer" shooting the puck because of his respect for veteran players.
"No, I never think like this," Tarasenko said of a shoot-first mentality. "I always look around for somebody else in a better position to make a play. I don't care about my shots. If somebody else is open, I will make the pass."
The chemistry Tarasenko has with Lehtera is unmistakable, even though Tarasenko has played with Paul Stastny.
"The Stastny combination with Tarasenko was good," Hitchcock said. "We're not opposed to that at all. It was really good too. In a lot of ways, to be honest with you, Lehtera and Stastny are very similar players. They're similar in the way they approach the game, they're similar in the way they see the game, they're similar in what their strengths are. Vladi and Lehtera work well together, but as time moves on, we're not opposed to playing Stastny with Vladi either.
"I think where you see it is Lehtera knows where Tarasenko is at the end of shifts. That comes from playing a lot together. You don't get that chemistry without playing well together. That to me is a telltale sign that, hey, these guys know. That's significant for us. It's similar to [Ryan] Getzlaf-[Corey] Perry or [Jamie] Benn-[Tyler] Seguin."
Tarasenko has been compared to having a Hull-like shot, but Hitchcock sees different comparisons.
"[Mark] Recchi used to shoot like that. Wouldn't give it away, kept the blade square," Hitchcock said. "Glenn Anderson did it. He had that ability too. But when you're face-to-face … how many players in the League can score from distance? Not very many. Seguin, he can. Not many people have players that can score from outside of 15 feet ... [Steven] Stamkos (can). Glenn Anderson could get a little bit of 1-on-1 space and all of the sudden, boom! Here comes the shot. You don't know if it's heavy or if it's quick or what it is."
It is why Tarasenko, who is on pace for 49 goals and 90 points, is working on his craft day after day. He wants to be among the best the game has now and in the future.
"It's not enough to play one good game and play five bad ones after it," Tarasenko said. "It's really tough sometimes to stay focused. When you can do this, you can play a lot of really good games. You can relax after three goals. I need to (keep) working."
But when asked what was the most pressure he faced, the game in Dallas or the postgame interview with Fox Sports Midwest analyst Darren Pang, Tarasenko's sense of humor kicked in.
"Most pressure was turbulence in the plane," Tarasenko joked, referring to the trip to St. Louis from Dallas. "That was most pressure for me."