GLENDALE - Less than three weeks before he begins his first training camp with the Coyotes, Russian defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin is in Arizona, getting acclimated to a place he's never been and eagerly trying to expand his English vocabulary.
Lyubushkin, whom the Coyotes signed to a one-year, two-way contract in May, has been skating and working regularly with a language teacher since arriving in the Grand Canyon State two weeks ago. He insists the language barrier won't be an issue once training camp begins in mid-September.
"I think I can play for Coyotes now," Lyubushkin said recently, after skating informally with other NHLers at the Ice Den in Scottsdale. "This is my life. (The language is) not a problem."
Lyubushkin, 24, is a right-handed, stay-at-home, physical defenseman who played the past five seasons for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Kontinental Hockey League. Some of his teammates and coaches there, including former Coyotes Assistant Coach Dave King, spoke English and Lyubushkin communicated with them through translators. He also managed to pick up some English words and phrases over time.
When it was over, Lyubushkin smiled and said the interview for this story was his first conducted in English without a translator. It went well, with a little help from an English-to-Russian translation app on his cell phone.
Lyubushkin notched 12 goals and 24 assists in five KHL seasons, and his plus-minus rating was a "plus" all five years. Last season, he was plus-14 and led Yaroslavl Lokomotiv with 73 penalty minutes in 50 games.
Coyotes scouts Brett Stewart and Sergie Kuznetzov played key roles in signing Lyubushkin.
"Brett and Sergei do a great job identifying targets for us to track over in Europe," Coyotes General Manager John Chayka said. "Sergei had actually coached Ilya in the past and knew the person very well. He's a competitive player who has a physical presence, but also has the ability to make plays to all areas of the ice. I think he will add an element to our back end, but also fit our style of play."
Assuming Jakob Chychrun has recovered completely from off-season knee surgery, Arizona's top three defensive pairs will be set when camp begins. But Jason Demers is the lone right-handed shot among the six, thus Lyubushkin has an edge as he competes with others vying for the seventh defenseman spot.
The Coyotes did not re-sign defenseman Luke Schenn, who led the team with 219 hits last season, 59 more than Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who ranked second among the defensemen with 160. Enter Lyubushkin (6-foot-2, 201 pounds), who was known as a big hitter in the KHL. (Check YouTube for verification).
"I play hard and I like to hit, "said Lyubushkin, who first starting playing hockey, at his mother's suggestion, as a five-year-old in Moscow. "Offense is fun but my first love is to play defense."
Others who will compete for the seventh defenseman job during camp include left-handers Jordan Oesterle, Kyle Capobianco, Trevor Murphy and Dakota Mermis, and right-hander Robbie Russo.
"We think Ilya can help our NHL team," Chayka said. "There will be a transition for him, like any European player, but we think he will be quick to adjust. I think his game is better suited for the smaller ice surface (in the NHL)."
"In the KHL, there are a couple teams who have smaller rinks and I like it very much," Lyubushkin said. "I don't like the bigger rinks because there's too much skating. Here you need to skate more quickly."
Lyubushkin is in Arizona by himself, staying at a hotel, for now. His wife and two sons are planning to join him here soon. While he misses them, and Russia, he and his family understand the temporary separation is all part of his plan to hopefully play in the world's top league.
"I want to play in the NHL," Lyubushkin said. "All guys who play hockey want to play in the NHL. This is my dream, too. I'm happy to be here now and I want to make the Coyotes team."