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Chinakhov taking first steps on his journey with Blue Jackets

First-round pick from Russia has arrived in Columbus with an eye on making an NHL impact

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Yegor Chinakhov has a long journey ahead. 

He'll try to pick up English as his first year in North America goes on. He'll adjust to a brand-new home, as Ohio figures to be just as far culturally from his native Omsk, Russia, as it is geographically. And while the 20-year-old was named the top rookie in the KHL a year ago after a breakout season, he still has to elevate his game another level to make it in the NHL.  

But that journey began over the past week with small steps. He arrived in Columbus for the first time last Tuesday and has taken part in a handful practices with the team, including a few informal twirls with his soon-to-be NHL campmates and two skates over the past two days during the team's short development camp.  

And to hear Chinakhov tell it, he's taken the opening few days of the transition to Columbus in stride. 

"So far it looks beautiful," he said in a meeting with the media Tuesday, during which his words were translated by interpreter Anton Poltyrev. "There are places to go, places to eat, places to walk around. So far, so good." 

Tweet from @khl_eng: Yegor Chinakhov? Yeah, that Russian winger with 5 goals in past 5 games. pic.twitter.com/cOyRnE9msF

The success of that development will be judged in many ways, but the one most people will be interested in will be goals and assists. That might be where he ends up feeling most comfortable, anyway, as hockey is hockey and he's shown a gift for that as he gets ready to try to crack the CBJ roster when the upcoming campaign begins in August. 

Thanks in part to a wicked wrist shot, good vision and a strong competitive drive, Chinakhov burst onto the scene a year ago with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. He had dominated the top Russian junior league in 2019-20, notching 27 goals and 69 points in 56 games with Omsk's affiliate, Omskie Yastreby, but in a lot of ways he was a relative unknown when he made the senior club at the start of the season as a 19-year-old. 

That all changed last October when the Blue Jackets shocked many in the NHL world by choosing him 21st overall in the NHL draft, with television draft analysts memorably unable to tell viewers much if anything about the winger.  

"I was in shock, too, but I expected that I would be picked either in the first round or the second," he says now of a night the call came in the middle of the night in Russia. "There was early training the next morning so it was a very short period of shock and then I went to bed." 

His play did the talking throughout the rest of his first season, as Chinakhov overcame an injury suffered while skating with the Russian team at the IIHF World Juniors to post 10 goals and seven assists in 32 KHL games. 

Then in the Gagarin Cup playoffs, as Chinakhov went on to notch five goals and seven points in 21 games as Avangard -- coached by longtime NHL mentor Bob Hartley and featuring a roster that included such notable names as Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Yemelin and Blues first-round pick Klim Kostin -- won the KHL title. 

Tweet from @khl_eng: Yegor Chinakhov rifles first goal of 2021 #GagarinCupFinal! pic.twitter.com/pFaUqL9w0S

"You cannot underestimate the experience I had last year playing with all those big stars on a high level, so of course it help develop (me) and did a lot of great things for me," he said.  

He could have stayed with Avangard, as many young prospects from his country do to continue their development. Columbus previously has drafted such notable young Russian stars as Kirill Marchenko (2018, second round) and Dmitri Voronkov (2019, fourth round), but those two 21-year-olds have opted to stay home for the time being, with Marchenko's contract running through the current season and Voronkov's through 2023. 

It's a path previously followed by current CBJ defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who stayed in the KHL until age 23 then immediately slid into a full-time role when he arrived in Columbus. Avangard offered Chinakhov the chance to remain in his hometown of Omsk, but after thinking about it, he chose to begin his North American career this upcoming season. 

"It is the decision we made," he said. "I talked to my family, I talked to my agent and decided that development here would be more beneficial to me." 

Chinakhov said Gavrikov reached out immediately after he was drafted and offered to help in any way, and he has already been chatting with Marchenko about what the Columbus experience is like. That gives him a bit of an outlet to speak to someone in his native tongue, which assuredly is nice to have, but he added the transition to the United States has been relatively comfortable so far. 

"A couple of the first days were rough just because of the time difference," he said. "As soon as I got adjusted to the time difference, everything was good. I like the camp, I like the training. It's just great emotions right now, but everything is positive." 

This entire season will likely be a big learning experience for Chinakhov both on and off the ice. When it comes to the former, while he was shown to be a quick learner a year ago in Europe's best league, he'll face an even steeper learning curve as he gets used to the highest standard in the world. 

Chinakhov said he didn't look at anything specific to improve upon during his offseason training, simply trying to get better throughout his game to adjust to the NHL. Surely, there will be ups and downs, but hockey will in some ways be the most familiar thing he has. 

To that end, the next step is taking part in the upcoming Traverse City Prospects Tournament, a chance for the team's top youngsters to match up against similar opponents from around the NHL. For Chinakhov, it will be his first look at trying to earn a spot on the Blue Jackets' roster for the upcoming campaign.  

"I can't wait for that moment because I haven't played since May," he said. "Any game at this point would be good, but I can't wait to play. I want to show myself the best. I think that a lot of players started at this kind of tournament in their career, so of course it is a great opportunity to show what I can do and then of course the coaches will decide." 

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