Vladimir Tarasenko burst onto the scene three seasons ago for the St. Louis Blues. He was a teenage phenom in the KHL with his hometown Sibir Novosibirsk and then with powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg before making his way to the NHL after the 2012-13 lockout ended. In 225 regular-season and playoff KHL games, he posted 76 goals and 72 assists for 148 points, good for a 0.66 point per game average. Not bad for a young player in the KHL. Since coming to the NHL, he has only gotten better. In 192 regular-season and playoff NHL games, he has 76 goals and 70 assists for 146 points, good for a 0.76 point per game pace. He is on a good team, surrounded by talent and is on his way up. He has steadily increased his production from season to season. Take a look at his regular season stats from his first three seasons in North America.
After finishing out his entry-level contract, it was time for the Blues and Tarasenko to make a decision about his future. Had the team seen enough to take a risk on a long-term contract? Or did they prefer the risk of a bridge deal for 2-3 years to make sure he didn't flame out? In the end, the Blues agreed to an 8 year contract extension with the young Russian with a cap hit of $7.5 million dollars. As a point-per-game player, he will certainly be worth that kind of contract and the Blues have taken a risk that he could suffer an injury or flame out, though that seems unlikely as he has developed into one of the most gifted Russian wingers in the world not named Alex Ovechkin.
So all of that brings us to another young, gifted Russian winger, Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov's ascension has been a little different from Tarasenko, coming into the league with lower expectations and taking a different path to the NHL. While Tarasenko began playing in the KHL as a 16 year old and produced as a teenager, Kucherov only had short stints in the KHL as a 17 and 18 year old and only produced 7 points in 27 games. A year after being drafted, Kucherov moved to North America and played in the QMJHL. He had been one of the best offensive producers in the Russian junior leagues and continued that output in Canada with 87 points in 47 regular season and playoff games.
After making the adjustment to North American hockey, Kucherov was ready to make his North American pro debut with the Syracuse Crunch. There, he teamed up with fellow Russian center Vladislav Namestnikov and winger J.T. Brown. The trio clicked and produced at an elite level in the AHL. Steven Stamkos' broken leg and injuries to other forwards forced the team to begin recalling players from Syracuse to fill in as players like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat moved up the lines. Kucherov eventually received that call. He scored a goal against Henrik Lundquist at home on his first shift, on his first shot.
Unfortunately, his AHL production did not prove to be a sign of things to come for his NHL debut season. Kucherov was challenged by Cooper and the coaching staff to become a defensively responsible forward. He played third and fourth line minutes mostly with J.T. Brown and Nate Thompson, struggling with the communications barrier (he knew little English at the time) and it hindered his game. After that rookie season off 9 goals and 9 assists for 18 points in 52 games, Kucherov ended up being scratched for two of the four playoff games against the Montreal Canadiens. The message was clear; his defense was not good enough (and had to improve communication with his linemates).
So he buckled down over the summer of 2014 and when he arrived for training camp, he made it clear he did not want to go to Syracuse by way of showing a improved game. With a bit of a roster numbers crunch, there was a good chance he could be the odd man out, not requiring waivers for demotion. Instead, he earned a spot on the team with his impeccable two way play. He played third and fourth line minutes at the beginning of the season until a spate of injuries forced Jon Cooper to shuffle the lines, giving birth to the "Triplets".
The line combo of Palat, Johnson and Kucherov became one of the most dynamic lines in the NHL during the 2014-15 season. According to Dobber Hockey, the line produced a combined 96 points when on the ice together in even strength situations. The next most productive line combo in the NHL came from St. Louis with 79 points. That line? Jaden Schwartz on left wing, Jori Lehtera at center, and Vladimir Tarasenko on right wing. Granted, injuries and other factors mean that coaches often end up shifting lines around and different combinations get put together throughout the year. But that goes to show you the incredible chemistry that the Triplets had together. Kucherov ended the 2014-15 season with 29 goals and 36 assists for 65 points in 82 games good for 0.79 points per game. Not far behind Tarasenko's production. He added another 22 points in 26 playoff games to close out the year.
Kucherov is now in the last year of his entry level contract. Come next offseason, Steve Yzerman and company are going to have to make the same kind of decision as the Blues made with Tarasenko. Go with a short bridge deal that is more manageable for the cap or go long and sign him to a big extension. He could easily be a point per game player this year with the Triplets a year older, a year wiser, and likely to be the core of the top power play unit. One big difference is that the Blues have a number of large contracts coming off the books in the next two seasons. The Lightning have a number of large contracts that will be going onto the books. For now, let's see how this season plays out and we'll see what Yzerman decides to do with the young Russian next offseason.