Sportsnet NHL Awards: Breakout Player of the Year

St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Dangles. Dekes. Toe drags. Top shelf.

Is there anything Vladimir Tarasenko hasn’t done this year?

Every season, a new player makes his mark on the league, emerging from some degree of obscurity to become an NHL star. This year belongs to St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

In 76 games, Tarasenko scored 36 goals (eight on the power play) and earned 35 assists for 71 points to lead the Blues in scoring. He also had a plus-25 rating and six game-winning goals.

But it’s not just about the numbers — it’s about how he scores. Tarasenko has that rare gift of being able to put the puck in the net in every fashion imaginable, from his signature wrist shot to this goal-of-the-year candidate:

Tarasenko had a flurry of phenomenal goals this year, but the magic can be traced back to one exact date: Oct. 28, 2014. The Russian forward netted a trio of gorgeous goals for his first NHL career hat trick, one of which was the overtime game-winner. He also added an assist, earning himself his first career four-point game.

Tarasenko became just the second player in Blues franchise history to score a hat trick that included the game-winning goal (Brett Hull was the first, on Oct. 9, 1997). The feat earned Tarasenko the league’s first star of the week.

It should be noted, of course, that while some of his goals have had that certain “where’d-this-guy-come-from” quality, this breakout season didn’t just appear out of the blue. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance throughout his time in the KHL and in his first two NHL seasons, including the very first time he hit the ice for the Blues. He scored twice in his NHL debut during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, tallying five points in his first two games. He tied Wayne Babych, 1978, for most points by a Blues rookie in his first two games.

Unfortunately, his rookie campaign was cut short by a concussion; and when he returned for the playoffs he got very little playing time as the Blues were quickly eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings.

In his sophomore season, Tarasenko scored 21 goals and had 22 assists for 43 points in 64 games, which is impressive in its own right. Even more impressive was his performance in the post-season, especially considering his late-season injury sidelined him until the playoffs. Short-lived as it was, the Blues’ playoff campaign was bolstered by four goals in six games by a red-hot Tarasenko.

Which brings us back to that Oct. 28 hat trick — and we haven’t looked away since since, for fear we’ll miss something like this:

He even earned himself a Gordie Howe Hat Trick:

His amazing month of November earned him second-star honours and he went on to reach a new personal best by scoring his 22nd goal of the season versus the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 29.

But he didn’t stop there. Here, he nets one versus the Boston Bruins to hit the 30-goal milestone for the first time.

Tarasenko was listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury he suffered versus the Vancouver Canucks on Mar. 30, but will play in the Blues’ regular season finale versus the Minnesota Wild.

While you never know what deke or dangle is coming up next, one thing is clear: We can’t wait to see what he does next. Because Tarasenko proved this year, he can do it all.

Runners up for Breakout Player of the Year

T.J. Brodie, D, CGY
If we could list the entire Calgary Flames roster here, we would. But defenceman T.J. Brodie perfectly defines the breakout season of one of this year’s most surprising teams. Brodie’s breakout has certainly been more subtle than Tarasenko’s string of #GottaSeeIt moments. For Brodie, it’s not just about the numbers — though 11 goals and 30 assists in 81 games is a solid tally for a defenceman. It’s the way he has embraced his role on the blueline, especially in the absence of team captain Mark Giordano.

Nikita Kucherov, RW, TB
Here’s another name we’ve been hearing a lot more from this year. The second-year Tampa Bay Lightning winger has seen a huge jump in playing time this season and rewarded his team by scoring 28 goals and 36 assists for 64 points in 81 games. Something tells us this is only the beginning.

Did you know?
Tarasenko. The name sounds familiar beyond the Blues, right? You might remember him from such heartbreaking Canadian crumbles as the 2011 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. Yep, a teenaged Tarasenko scored the game-tying goal to help propel the Russians to their shocking 5-3 comeback win to claim World Junior gold.

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