Last fall, I travelled down to London, Ontario for the annual NHL Rookie Tournament hosted by the Maple Leafs. It was our first true media credentialed opportunity and to say I was excited would be an understatement, wow it seems like such a long time ago. As I was entering the main ‘media gate’ at Budweiser Gardens, I saw a familiar face, and one of my favourite media personalities, Mr. Paul Hendrick. While we have talked a bunch of times in the past, it had been some time and I was nervous to say hello. This is the thing about Paul, he is an incredible person who will always take the time to speak to anybody he meets at the hockey rink. So after a few words, I ask if anybody is standing out or who I should be looking for on the ice. Paul doesn’t even hesitate he says “Corey, you gotta keep an eye out for this Soshnikov kid. I have been talking to a few people who cannot stop raving about his skillset and believe the Leafs have found a gem.” After a few more minutes of talking, Paul heads off in his own direction but those words will be etched into my brain for the entire weekend, and into the future as I watched Nikita Soshnikov on a regular basis for the Marlies down at the Ricoh Coliseum.
“Corey, you gotta keep an eye out for this Soshnikov kid. I have been talking to a few people who cannot stop raving about his skillset and believe the Leafs have found a gem”
For those of you who do not get the opportunity to watch the Marlies live or on television, let us have some background on Nikita Soshnikov.
The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Soshnikov to a three-year deal, near the end of March last year. A ‘found wallet’ (as Brian Burke liked to describe free agent players) as he was undrafted into the NHL, the Maple Leafs were cautiously optimistic that they may have signed a solid depth player that could provide scoring when needed, and if nothing else, an AHL player that could be called up if injuries dictated on the big club.
Fast forward to the 2015-16 AHL season. Everybody knows by now exactly how good the Marlies are playing. They are the best team in the AHL by far, but with top names either out with injury or being called up for minutes in the NHL, it was that signing during last spring that has caught my eye on a regular basis this season. Soshnikov stands in at 5’11” and weighs around 185 pounds. While not exactly intimidating in size, but truly a player who appears bigger in person than on a stat sheet, like a mini-Nikolai Kulemin.
Nikita Soshnikov is now 22-years-old, and grabbing more attention than from just Henny and I. It would be no secret that the Maple Leafs organization are thrilled with the development during this ongoing season by Soshnikov. While the native of Nizhny, Russia has put up 17 goals and 8 assists for the Marlies in his 45 games played, that isn’t why the team and coaching staff would be impressed. No, the answers and reasons go much deeper that just scoring, which did take some time as the young Russian got acclimatized to his new North American surroundings.
Having read scouting reports that suggested Soshnikov needed to work on his play away from the puck, I would suggest that isnt anywhere near accurate. Regularly put out for penalty killing shifts by Coach Sheldon Keefe, Soshnikov is an absolute ‘dog on a bone’ when it comes to puck pursuit. Never appearing to take a shift off, Nikita has zero issue with finishing a check or being a little piece of sandpaper during his shifts. One of his most noticeable attributes is the ability to protect the puck with his body and feet. During one particular penalty kill earlier in the season, the stick was slashed from Soshnikov hands. Instead of peeling to the bench for a fresh twig, he found the loose puck near the blueline, protected it from the opposition forward and controlled it with his feet until support came to his aid and he dished it off with a soccer style pass. To my eyes, these are defining moments. Not only did Soshnikov not panic during this situation, but he managed to use his athletic ability to thwart a potential goal scoring opportunity before heading off the ice. These types of plays wont show up on a stats line on the website, but it sure was noticed by the coaching staff, I can guarantee that.
Before coming to North America, Soshnikov was known for his goal scoring and ability to put up points. Each report that I read, suggested as Nikita gains confidence, the production increases. This is exactly what I have seen from Soshnikov since the beginning of the season with the Toronto Marlies. The confidence has increased dramatically and you can see it when he gets the puck in the offensive zone. No longer looking to dish it off, or make an ill-advised pass, Soshnikov is taking the puck hard to the net and wanting to score.
When you see Soshnikov wandering around the halls at the Ricoh, post-game or post-practice, he seems very reserved and quiet. When it comes to interviews, the Marlies PR team does not force him into this uncomfortable role or situation, as his English is still being worked on during his first year in North America. Completely understandable.
During a game not long ago, I talked with fellow Russian and Leafs prospect Rinat Valiev about Nikita and what he is like off the ice. I asked Valiev if Soshnikov was a quiet as he seemed. With a quick smile and mischievous twinkle in his eye, Rinat just laughed. “No, we are roommates and Nikita is far from being quiet, we have a lot of fun being together…” and he laughed again.
Think of how overwhelming it must be to be flown into Toronto, and not be able to articulate your thoughts in English when it comes to hockey plays or even simple day to day tasks. Personally, I cannot imagine having to do this by flying into Russia and being placed in a similar situation so, I add another check mark onto the list as to why I like this player so much.
Where do I see Soshnikov playing in the NHL? (and I do see him in the NHL) Top-nine without hesitation, but most likely a third liner with the ability to move up, similar to what Komarov has done. Solid skater and offensive capabilities, possesses a good left-handed shot and the ability to play in any situation. Sheldon Keefe has moved Soshnikov all over the Marlies lineup but prefers him on the third line contributing to a shutdown role with the ability to score. This would be the exact spot I would place Soshnikov if I was coaching a hockey team. As a Coach, I know that every time I sent the player who wears No. 90 onto the ice, I would be comforted in what I am going to get from this player each and every shift.
Each and every one of us loves a player who will give a tireless effort in any circumstance, a player who can play with an edge to his game, and one that can score timely goals. So with that in mind, fellow Maple Leafs fans, keep an eye out for Nikita Soshnikov.
Dubas quote to Kyle Cicerella:
“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.”