He has spent two full seasons in Providence, and given his pedigree — he was the 40th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft — as well as the undeniable skill he has shown in his two-plus professional seasons, he has had a lot of eyes on him for a long time.
Last year, Khokhlachev had a short, three-game window to show what he could do. It wasn’t a big enough sample size.
Now, just 10 games into the 2015-16 season, he has received another shot.
“I need just to play good and focus on this chance,” Khokhlachev said following Boston’s morning skate at TD Garden on Tuesday. “I’m playing with really good players, and this is my opportunity right now.”
Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said Khokhlachev will replace forward David Pastrnak, who has been nursing a sore foot ever since taking a shot off the skate last week against the Coyotes.
Pastrnak did suit up for both of Boston’s games against Florida and Tampa Bay this past weekend, but Khokhlachev will offer him the opportunity to rest his foot.
“I think [Khokhlachev] is a good playmaker,” Julien said on Tuesday. “He’s a smart, heady player, and he’s leading the league right now in the American League, so certainly deserves an opportunity to come up here and help us out. And he has been playing the wing for the most part in Providence this year, so he’ll get a chance to do that with us as well.”
Up until this season, Khokhlachev has been a center for the Bruins. He has played the wing occasionally — most notably, in the World Junior Championship for his native Russia — but not as a pro.
That changed this season. Earlier this month, P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy said Boston’s management wanted to see what Khokhlachev could do on the wing, and Cassidy obliged, slotting him on alongside left wing Frank Vatrano and center Austin Czarnik.
The results were electric. In their first game together — against Portland on Oct. 11 — that line factored into each of the six goals scored by Providence.
Czarnik sustained a shoulder injury on Oct. 16, and thus, that line’s run was short-lived, but Khokhlachev’s run on the wing was not. Khokhlachev said he has played the majority of Providence’s 10 games this season on the wing, mostly with Vatrano on the other side and a rotating cast at center.
But regardless of his linemates, Khokhlachev’s success has been a constant: He has netted an AHL-best 13 points this season.
“I have really good linemates that can score and see the ice really well, so they help me a lot, and I think we play good together,” Khokhlachev said. “Playing for Boston, I don’t care where I play — wherever they put me. If I have a chance to play for Boston on the wing, I will play wing.”
Last month, Khokhlachev said the transition to from center to wing wasn’t an exceptionally difficult one. Since then, he has proven as much, and the big club has noticed.
“I think he’s a smart player,” Julien said, “and he looks at our team up the middle, and he wants to play here. He wants to play in the NHL, so he was willingly asked if he could play the wing. We know if he does that, he’s a versatile player — can still play center — and the more you can get out of those guys, the better it is. I think he’s caught onto that as well.”
For Tuesday’s morning skate, Khokhlachev skated on David Krejci’s right side, with Loui Eriksson maintaining his spot on the left. In the handful of games Krejci and Eriksson have played together this season, they have proven to be one of the Bruins’ most offensively reliable duos.
Eriksson expects that to continue if Khokhlachev joins their line on Tuesday.
“He’s definitely a skilled forward,” Eriksson said. “He can make plays out there, and he’s coming up with a lot of confidence. He’s been playing real well down [in Providence], so hopefully he can go in and we can make some plays out there tonight.
“It’s only been one morning skate with him, so we’ll try to do our best and try to help him as much as we can, and hopefully we have a good game.”
In turn, Khokhlachev is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to skate with NHL veterans of their caliber.
“[Krejci] is a great player, and he can the ice really well,” he said. “You can say lots of good things about him, and Loui is really good, too, so it will be a really good opportunity for me to play with these two guys.”
Khokhlachev has made no secret about the fact that he wants an opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level. Last year, in just three games — on the fourth line, and in limited ice time — he did not feel that he did himself justice.
This time around, if he plays, he will be skating in Boston’s top six. He will be skating alongside two of Boston’s most offensively skilled playmakers.
Never has he had an opportunity like this. Now that he has it, he fully intends on taking advantage.
“Everybody wants to play in the NHL,” Khokhlachev said. “If you play in Providence and play good, [you] just wait for your chance. Right now will be my chance. I just need to play good and show what I can do.”