January 5, 2016
TORONTO – Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas didn’t know what he was getting in Russian winger Nikita Soshnikov when Toronto signed him to a three-year contract last March.
All he could do was trust the word given by director of player personnel Mark Hunter.
At the time Soshnikov was winding down his second season in the KHL and had minimal exposure to North American teams. Hunter went to Russia in February to scout the potential talent available and took a shining to the forward, who played 57 games for Moscow Oblast Atlant and had 14 goals and 32 points — the third-highest point total among players 23 years old and younger.
“I saw him play only on video. Hunter really liked him and wanted to sign him,” said Dubas.
“I didn’t have a huge handle on what to expect. (But) he’s come over and just been outstanding in every regard — penalty kill, offensive threat, great speed, very physical and strong and competitive. I’m surprised with how quickly he’s come along and very happy with him.”
The 22 year old, who hails from the mining city of Nizhny Tagil and speaks very little English, opened 2015-16 with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Marlies and is called upon often by head coach Sheldon Keefe. It could have taken some extra time for Soshnikov to adjust and grow his trust with the first-year coach, however Keefe says that Soshnikov was dependable right from the get-go.
“I don’t even want to use the term ‘became reliable’ because I think he’s been reliable right from the beginning of the season,” said Keefe after Toronto’s 3-2 overtime win against the Syracuse Crunch on Sunday to improve to a league-best 27-7-2.
“He’s a guy that’s very versatile, play him anywhere and be happy. He’s a guy the opposition doesn’t enjoy playing against much.”
Soshnikov is fourth on the Marlies with 10 goals in 30 games, but having only 15 points doesn’t jump out on such an offensively-explosive team. Much of that has to do with usually dressing in a bottom-six role checking other teams’ top skaters and seeing only the occasional power play. The five-foot-11, 185 pounder plays bigger than his listed size.
“He does a lot of really valuable things other than generate offence,” said Keefe.
Soshnikov has had his most success this season playing on a checking line with Rich Clune and centre Frederik Gauthier. Earlier in the season the trio became Keefe’s only stable line as he shifted players around almost every game.
He’s had opportunities playing alongside higher-skilled players, but Keefe says that it doesn’t work in his favour and he gets thrown off.
“One of the things with him, we found that when we’ve moved him north in the line up and put him with top point getters, he’s lost his game a little bit,” said Keefe.
“We find he’s more effective on the lower lines, playing hard minutes, being hard on the forecheck. Higher in the line up, whether he doesn’t touch the puck enough or he looks to move the puck a lot more to other people, it affects his game a little.”
There is optimism surrounding Soshnikov because he seems to be more rounded and NHL-ready than some of the other prospects currently on the Marlies. Management also thinks he has a strong work ethic and that as the season goes deeper he will only get better while other players could fade — especially if it’s their first year in the AHL.
“We’ll see how he continues to handle the rigors of the season here but I’m excited to see him,” said Dubas.
“His commitment to our off-ice program is elite and I think it’ll pay off for him as the season goes along. When some players hit a wall he’ll bounce right through it.”