Lucky number 38. That’s what Sergei Shirokov is hoping to become.
As of the end of the 2008-09 season there were 37 Russian-born players competing in the NHL, including the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.
Shirokov is far from a household name like that fab four, but in the eyes of the Vancouver Canucks, he could develop into one.
As part of the lopsided trade that brought Roberto Luongo and Lucas Krajicek to Vancouver in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld, the Canucks also received a sixth round pick in 2006, which former GM Dave Nonis used on Shirokov.
Many people questioned the pick as even though it was a late round flyer, chances were slim the 23-year-old would ever leave the Kontinental Hockey League, often regarded as one of Europe’s strongest leagues.
Taking that into consideration, Stan Smyl, senior advisor to general manager Mike Gillis, still endorsed the selection because of the tremendous upside Shirokov presented.
“We really liked his skills with the puck,” said Smyl. “He’s an offensive minded type of a player who's very creative with the puck and likes to make plays, but also is good at finishing. One thing he’s really good at is accuracy shooting the puck. It’s not the hardest shot, but he has good accuracy of where he wants to put the puck.”
The Canucks signed Shirokov, a Moskow product who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs in at 176-pounds, earlier this week meaning he’ll defect to North America, not from it, which if often the case.
Having watched Shirokov in person last winter, Smyl couldn’t be happier the Canucks inked this prospect.
“The KHL really put a lot of pressure on him to stay there, so under those circumstances, for him to decide he wants to play here really says a lot. That, to me, shows where the kid wants to play and that he’s ready to experience a new game and a new challenge for himself.”
One of the major reasons Smyl is buzzing about Shirokov is that he’s witnessed first hand the changes that this young sniper has made to his game.
“From the World Juniors to myself going in to watch him last year after not seeing him for a few years, he has gotten better. He’s taken on a little bit more of a leadership role, he was playing with a lot of older players but he was in the top six forwards on his team and he’s gotten a lot stronger.”
Like any potential diamond in the rough, much polishing is needed and Smyl leaned towards Shirokov’s defensive awareness as an area in need of improvement.
The longtime Canucks captain had to think long and hard before finding an aspect of Shirokov’s game that needs sharpening – “Whenever you talk about a player offensively and how creative he can be, you always worry about him defensively,” – yet Smyl’s biggest concern is how the forward will adjust to hockey in North America.
As Shirokov will soon realize, he ain’t in Russia any more.
One noticeable change will be the number of games played. The last time Shirokov hit the ice for more than 60 games in a season was back in 2003-04; he played 52 and 57 over the last two years, respectively.
Whether he can leech on with the Canucks or the budding right-winger earns his antlers with the Manitoba Moose this fall, Shirokov is looking at a grinding 80-plus game schedule.
If that doesn’t temper his style, Smyl cautioned that how the game is played in the NHL and AHL is drastically different than the KHL.
“Any player coming over to play the North American game knows that it’s completely different. I think the tempo will be a lot higher, more intensity, more physical type of games that he’s going to have to adjust to over here. Those things can be a major adjustment for players.
“How would I compare the KHL with the AHL? I think it’s right up there in a lot of ways. He has that experience now that he’s played at that level, a pro level, and that makes him closer to getting into the NHL. How he handles the intangibles will be key.”
According to HockeyDB, 12 Russian-born players have suited up for the Canucks since the team’s NHL inception, with the most recent being Artem Chubarov in 2004.
Hands down the most popular Russian to ever bring Vancouver fans to their feet was The Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure. Alexander Mogilny, or Alexander the Great, draws a close second and when pinned in a corner and asked to compare Shirokov to another player, whether with the Canucks or not and Russian or not, Smyl went with Mogilny.
“That’s an interesting question,” laughed Smyl, who was hesitant to compare the unproven Shirokov with any NHL player.
“I don’t know if I can really compare him to anyone, he just has his own game. He reminds me a little bit of, and I hate to put this comparison out there, but the Mogilny-type.
“I think he’s a guy who plays the game at his pace and he can make plays so he has a little bit of that element to his game like Mogilny really had.”
Lucky number 38 is what Shirokov is looking to become, yet if he develops into a mainstay for the Canucks upfront, he’ll likely be lucky number 3 – as in the third Russian to leave us in awe of his talent.