Saturday, January 12, 2013

McDonald, Steen, Tarasenko could be special combination

Hitchcock to look at trio, likes potential;
'Vova' arrives after lengthy trip from Russia

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Ken Hitchcock admits he doesn't know how this abbreviated training camp will play out.

But one thing the veteran head coach beginning his first full season with the Blues does know is that when skates are laced up officially Sunday morning, there is one particular trio of forwards the 61-year-old wants to keep a keen eye on.

"I don't know how this is going to play out, but that's one line we're going to take a look at," Hitchcock said, referring to veterans Andy McDonald and Alex Steen along with 2010 first round pick Vladimir Tarasenko.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Andy McDonald will be the most experienced on a line with
Alex Steen and 2010 first round pick Vladimir Tarasenko.

It's one unit that intrigues Hitchcock, and the thought of this being considered the Blues' third line considering the lethal combinations and possibilities it can provide can be staggering.

There's speed, skill, grit and finishing ability from all three that will make the Blues troublesome to defend against once Hitchcock establishes his top two units as well.

Hitchcock wants the 35-year-old McDonald and the 28-year-old Steen together, and it was based off the chemistry the two had during the playoffs a season ago.

"They like playing with each other," Hitchcock said. "This is a new look for us, it's new for them. I like the part that Alex had played center in Europe, and if you can play in a big ice, you can play anywhere.

"Him and Andy have good chemistry. They find each other well on the ice."

Add in Tarasenko, the 16th pick in 2010 who will debut in the NHL this season with much anticipation, and the Blues feel they can have one of the most balanced and talented lineups in the league.

"Alex and I had a little bit of a test last year," said McDonald, who had 22 points in 25 regular season games and another 10 points in nine playoff games. "... In the playoffs, we played for the most part together and there was chemistry there. With Vladi, I know it's still early, but he's got a lot of speed, he's got good awareness on the ice, pretty solid shot and he moves the puck well.

"It's exciting. We're going to find out in a hurry because obviously we've got a short camp and right into games, but there's chemistry already there with Steener and we're optimistic there's going to be great chemistry with the line in whole."

Steen will center the line, and fans that think that's a change from the past, they're right. Steen, who admitted he doesn't know much about Tarasenko, hasn't played center much in the NHL. In fact, he hasn't played there on a regular basis since his first season in Toronto. But when he went to Sweden during the lockout and played for MoDo, Steen played there exclusively and loved getting back to old roots.

"I really enjoy playing center," said Steen, who had 28 points in 43 regular season games along with three points in nine playoff games a season ago. "It's actually what I grew up playing. ... I think the last game (with MoDo) I played 29 minutes. I think they knew it was my last game.

"But I really enjoy playing with Andy. I think we have great chemistry. We talk ... a bunch ... all the time. We communicate really well. Really good friends off the ice, which usually is good chemistry for on the ice. Hopefully that's what the plan is. If it isn't, we'll find out when training camp starts. I'll play wherever they want me to play."

Tarasenko, who arrived from Russia Thursday night after roughly 7,800-plus miles of travel, was on the ice with his new mates despite the long travel day. Tarasenko, who totaled 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in 31 games for SKA St. Petersburg in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League this season, played for what Hitchcock said was "the best line" in the league with New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk and Phoenix prospect Viktor Tikhonov.

"He doesn't miss the net, the puck's on the net, it comes fast, it's on his stick ... gone," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko's offensive ability. "He can put pucks through people. He's a good offensive player. The rest of the game, we're going to teach him. That's going to take long-term. If he can do the things offensively that we think he's capable of, he's going to contribute to our hockey club and help us a lot."

Tarasenko, 21, who's still mastering the English language, said there was no doubt he'd come back once the lockout was over and is glad to get the chance to play with such skilled players.

"I'm very happy to play with those guys," he said. "They're both very skilled players. I'm very happy.

"I'm really excited to be here, hoping for a good part of the season."

But Hitchcock cautioned that Tarasenko, who has 131 career points in the KHL, will be showcased by his strengths and will be a project in areas he's unfamiliar with.
(Mark Buckner/St. Louis Blues)
Alex Steen will move to center for the Blues this season.

"This is a whole different game here," Hitchcock said of the NHL. "That's a game of puck-possession, east-west, make plays. We are a linear game ... skate, chips into pucks, confrontation everywhere. It's a different game altogether. It's a completely different game. That's a game played on the move and this is not a game that you can play on the move here. ... There's a high skill level there. The ice is so big. Everybody can skate, but the game's played east-west. There's a lot of lateral plays that end up as shots on goal. You can't make those lateral plays here. There's no room.

"The players that adjust to the linear game in North America ... doesn't matter what country you're from ... the European players that can make that adjustment will have a lot of success."

Tarasenko does admit that the change in rink sizes will be his biggest challenge.

"The first one (is) the rink is smaller," Tarasenko said. "The second part's the mental part. It's a very difficult part for me."

But one of his teammates feels like won't be an issue.

"His language is pretty good and hockey sense-wise, he's right up there," McDonald said of Tarasenko. "There's not much communication needed during the game. He reads the play pretty well."

Despite being a newcomer to the league, Hitchcock is willing to give Tarasenko a shot to play with two established players. That's based off the 20-25 games Hitchcock said he's seen the Novosibirsk, Russia native play.
"I think that with any young player, what you want to have is a short-term focus on his strengths, in other words push him into areas that he's good at and then know that the long-term aspects of things he needs to work on are going to take time," Hitchcock said. "I think the problem with young players and coaches is you get impatient with the things that they need that are not their strength. When you get impatient in those areas, then you get nothing from the player.

"For me, what he does well, we're going to really push on. The things that he needs to learn about playing in the National Hockey League, that's long-term. That's going to take a year or two and we're just going to be patient as heck on that and take it from there. Any time you've got a young player, you've got to just build on his strengths and keep pushing on his strengths every day."

* NOTES -- Although the official 2012-13 schedule hasn't been released by the NHL, sources indicated that the Blues will open the regular season on Jan. 19 at home vs. the Detroit Red Wings. The remaining schedule won't be released at least until sometime Saturday morning once player ratification of the new collective-bargaining agreement is complete.

... The Blues announced that their training camp schedule has been set. Camp opens Sunday at Scottrade Center and is free and open to the public. Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning and practice runs from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. For a complete schedule, roster and events, click on the link here:|STL|home

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