Voynov needed patience, perseverance to make NHL

Monday, 05.06.2013 / 3:05 PM
Curtis Zupke  - NHL.com Correspondent

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When Slava Voynov first arrived in Manchester, N.H., to begin his hockey career on North American soil, he had the good fortune of fellow European Vladimir Dravecky as a teammate to help him adjust to the language and culture. Later, Alex Frolov was a valuable guide.

But when they weren't around anymore, Voynov turned to what a lot of foreign players rely on when it comes to learning English: American television.

"Breaking Bad," Voynov said.

The show is about a man who lives an alternate life on the other side of the law. While it's probably not ideal for teaching someone American culture, it could serve as a metaphor for Voynov, who eschewed more money in his native Russia to pursue an alternate career here as one of the best under-the-radar defensemen in the NHL for the Los Angeles Kings.

"Good for him," said Fedor Tyutin, a Russian defenseman for the Columbus Blue Jackets. "I don't know him that much personally, but just to hear what he had to through to get there and keep playing at that level and win the Cup. It's not like he was a high draft pick. He worked his way through hockey. He pretty much could have stayed in the KHL, but he chose to go to the AHL and work his way through. I personally have a lot of respect for that guy."

Voynov broke out last season when his skill and instincts not only earned him a job on the blue line but helped propel the Kings to their first Stanley Cup. Including the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Los Angeles went 46-19-9 with him in the lineup.

Voynov came to the forefront again in Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals as he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against the St. Louis Blues. Game 4 is Monday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Listed at 6-feet, 190-pounds, Voynov has precocious poise founded in solid positioning and terrific first-pass ability. As a kid, his father, Leomid, showed him videos of Sergei Zubov so Voynov could learn "how he thinks the game" -- and it shows.

"I think the quiet guys are the ones that take care of their responsibilities first, and then add to the offense later," said Rob Scuderi, Voynov's partner most of this season. "He may not be a guy that leads the rush, but he always follows up. He always finds the right space. He finds the right hole to jump into, and he only jumps into the play when he knows he has a chance and he doesn't force things.

"He has that extra-second patience that not a lot of D have, that extra poise to hold onto the puck for one more second and then make a clean breakout pass to a guy who wasn't open that second earlier."

It took patience and shrewdness by L.A.'s scouting department to secure Voynov. General manager Dean Lombardi said Voynov fell to the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft because of the uncertainty of whether he would leave Russia.

"The financial inducement was so different because we could only offer entry level, and those Russian teams could offer unlimited," Lombardi told NHL.com. "And they had the money. It wasn't like 20 years ago when they didn't have the money. This is where your scouts not only have to get the player right, but they got to do some digging. They were smart enough to know they could get him in the second."

Los Angeles took Voynov with the 32nd pick. He was under 20, but because Voynov didn't come out of junior hockey he could play in the minors. That equated to starting over for Voynov, who had to adjust to the smaller ice surface and a quicker game -- knowing he could be earning bigger dollars in Russia.

"This kid kept his word, which is a real tribute to him," Lombardi said. "He kept his word. The Russian teams were offering him all kinds of money. And then he could have went to the Quebec league and actually got more money, but he was too good for the Quebec league. And he was under enormous pressure to go back to Russia. And there he is toiling in the minors, riding that bus, struggled at times, went through some severe growing pains."

For Voynov, the reasoning was simple.

"I want to play more in the NHL," he said.

In Manchester, Voynov began working with Mike O'Connell, from the team's pro development department. O'Connell noted Voynov's calmness and an ability to read a play before it developed. The language barrier was bridged by watching video.

It all didn't come right away, though. Voynov took a path that most players take, spending three seasons in Manchester. O'Connell kept telling Lombardi, "Don't worry, this guy's going to be a hell of a player." Meanwhile, O'Connell could sometimes sense that Russia was calling.

"You could tell sometimes -- the frustrations," O'Connell said. "He deserved an opportunity to play in Los Angeles. He really had no home base. It's hard being away from home. The whole development process, kids his age, his talent level, were making the kind of money (in Russia) he could be making. People talk in social media. … I think he knew he could play at the National Hockey League and be a dynamic player … an extremely intelligent player."

At 2011 training camp Voynov passed the disappointing Thomas Hickey as the club's top defense prospect. By December, he was with the big club under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Even during the team's Cup run, Voynov was largely unheard. He rarely does media because of the language hurdle, although teammates say he lets on more than the actual English he's learned. Alec Martinez uses a Russian phrase for "D-to-D," and Jake Muzzin says the two have an inside-joke Russian phrase they use for "What happened?"

Meanwhile, Voynov lives by himself and has eased into local life. He likes sushi and "sandwiches, sometimes" and cites a steakhouse as his favorite restaurant. He often wears an Al Pacino T-shirt. His thoughts drift toward home, but the transition is smoother.

"I like the food," Voynov said. "I like the people. I feel like it's home."

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