Alakazam, the guy from Ak Bars Kazan makes forecheckers miss.
“There is an escapability about him,” says Coach Dave Hakstol about Evgeny Medvedev.
Too often in recent years, the Flyers have been prisoners in their own end. So Ron Hextall, not waiting to be paroled by three defensemen the Flyers have selected with the seventh, 11th and 17th picks in the last three drafts; or Shayne Gostisbehere, the 2012 third-round pick who likely will beat all three of the above to the NHL, slipped a saw into a cake and, voila, sprung a Houdini.
“You think you might have a step on [Medvedev] and he’s back in position,” says Tim Brent, a Flyer depth signee headed for Lehigh Valley who helped Mike Keenan’s Magnitogorsk team to a Kontinental Hockey League championship two seasons ago. “He can get back, important for a defenseman who plays the way he does.
“He’s pretty smart the way he jumps into the play. Over there, he seems to create a lot in the O zone, especially on the bigger ice, not only for himself but his teammates.”
Over here, the rinks are smaller, and, as Medvedev noted, the arenas larger. The schedule is more compressed too, and he joins a team compelled to get off to the good start that has eluded it three straight seasons, two of which it missed the playoffs. At age 33, he does not have time to ease into this, but we’ll see how much he needs. On display for the first time Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center during a 5-3 win over the Rangers appeared no accidental tourist.
“He had a highlight reel goal tonight but the biggest thing I like about him is his presence and ability to make plays,” said Hakstol. “He is an intelligent young man with excellent hockey sense.”
The Flyers’ instincts tell them this is a top-four caliber defenseman who provides an immediate upgrade to a team with some decent pros on its defense, two of the best players on the league on its top line, solid goaltending, and multiple good soldiers. The organization is prepared to compete for a playoff spot this season, unprepared to blow it off by suffering with kids on overload. As expected, on Wednesday they returned Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim to their junior teams.
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Gostisbehere, coming off an ACL tear that robbed him of a season of AHL development, scored on two dazzling one-timers Tuesday night that begged for his arrival in Philadelphia in double time. But with eight pros under contract, including Michael Del Zotto, who a season ago showed the wheels and increasing sense that can help modernize this defense, the Flyers are not going to hurry along their promising new order for two reasons:
1) That never works. 2) Medvedev is the more immediate upgrade.
Granted, against a bunch of strangers, not the real Rangers, the pace Tuesday night was nothing like it will be October 8 at Tampa Bay. A cautionary tale: In 2001, the Flyers signed the acknowledged best player in Europe, center Jiri Dopita, at age 32, but it turned out he didn’t have a game suited for closer quarters, nor a desire to assimilate himself with anyone one besides countryman Roman Cechmanek.
The experiment ended with Dopita’s trade after one season. He was released by the Oilers halfway through the next.
Picture yourself dropped in Taristan in mid career to give yourself only the barest idea of what Medvedev faces. Brent has lived it.
“I didn’t quite understand how hard it is to do until I went over and did it myself,” he said. “But he seems to know a little bit of English which helps.
“I’ve been able to make him laugh with my Russian.”
Medvedev meets with a tutor for more than an hour at the practice rink three times a week. His homework is to watch the television news, so he knows the Pope is coming, but in a couple weeks Ryan Callahan will be coming, followed by Brad Marchand, the kind of trouble Medvedev didn’t see in the less physical KHL.
“Everything just happens faster here,” said Brent, who played full NHL seasons in Toronto and Carolina, “Over there, there is a lot more control to the play, a lot more controlled breakouts, almost like football plays.
“Here. It’s a lot of short passes, and use the middle a lot more. But the biggest adjustment is just the speed of the game.”
The Flyers need Medvedev to adapt a lot faster than they need four prized prospects to prove they drafted well. Personnel evaluators around the league seem to think they did, so it will be fun seeing these kids integrated in due time over the next four seasons, a lot more fun that it would be watching them struggle and their team with it.
The trick is to rebuild on the fly, which is why this Russian knows he is here.
“He says he’s not the guy who will look and see how other guys are playing,” Medvedev said through interpreter Slava Kouznetsov. “He will be doing anything possible to be on top and help the team to win the games.”
He understands and so should you: The Flyers didn’t bring him here as a placeholder, but to get them back to the playoffs.