When you’re a highly regarded draft-eligible prospect, and the familiar questions you’re bombarded with night after night increase in their repetition in the lead-up to the NHL Draft, it’s only natural to sand off the edges of your responses and fulfill media obligations as efficiently and non-threateningly as possible.
Counterpoint: Valentin Zykov, the first player chosen by the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday afternoon at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Sitting behind the podium underneath the concourse in his first media availability as a member of the Kings organization, Zykov’s brash confidence was illuminated in a give-and-take session with reporters that included both regular pauses for laughter and a glimpse of the psyche of a gifted and confident young athlete who had fallen below his expected position in the draft.
“Just follow me, you will see,” he responded when asked if he hoped to lead Baie-Comeau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League deep into the playoffs once again, or whether he hoped to be a Los Angeles King in the fall.
Slow down there, Valentin. Are you really ready to attempt to earn a spot on an NHL team?
“I said we’ll see.”
A reporter observed that he sounded like a politician.
“I can’t repeat it enough,” he responded.
“This kid is a bright, enthusiastic young guy,” said director of amateur scouting Mike Futa. “He dropped more F-bombs on the floor today than we could ever think of doing. So he’s got a lot of personality.”
There are statistics and accolades to go along with Zykov’s confidence.
Named the Canadian Hockey League’s rookie of the year following a 40-goal, 75-point rookie campaign as a 17-year-old, the 6-foot, 208 pound left wing was selected in the 37th slot after Los Angeles traded picks 57, 88 and 96 to acquire him. The Russian winger was rated seventh amongst North American-based skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings and developed a strong relationship with the Kings’ scouting department in the lead-up to the draft.
“There’s a presence to him. There’s an honesty to him,” said Mark Yannetti, Los Angeles’ director of amateur scouting. “He moved away from his home as a 10-year-old. Everything he’s done in his life has been to develop and succeed in hockey, and in talking to him, success in hockey for him means winning in the NHL. He didn’t say playing in the NHL. Success to him means winning in the NHL.”
It’s why “alarms started going off,” as Futa described, when players started falling off the board early in the second round, with Zykov still present and accounted for.
Though the Kings had set their eyes on a pair of defenseman that would have required a smaller leap up from the 57th overall pick and “just missed,” according to Futa, a player that they had also tried to package picks together to acquire, in the end they were able to select a player they had already developed a strong relationship with, even though Zykov did not expect to be drafted by L.A.
The relationship between the Kings and the Baie-Comeau forward blossomed in a scheduled conversation at the Marriott hotel within the Montreal airport between Baie-Comeau’s five-game defeat to Halifax in the QMJHL championship and Zykov’s return to Russia.
“So we flew in, we talked for about an hour. There were a couple other guys I was meeting,” Yannetti said. “It was two hours before the meeting. He got up, sat back down, he goes, ‘Hey! We can talk.’ Just lounged out.”
There weren’t many stoppages of play in the conversation, as Yannetti recalled.
“There was a comfort level we had with Kyle Clifford. There was a comfort level we had with Drew Doughty. There was a comfort level we had with Nic Dowd, a seventh round pick. And you start to learn what they are as kids – you learn what they are in terms of character, and character can mean a lot of things. For me, character is the will to win. Being a nice kid – hey, that’s nice. But character for me is the will to win. So he shows that, and it comes out naturally.”
Though he acknowledged that the drop from his pre-draft rankings could probably be attributed to the “Russian factor,” assistant general manager Ron Hextall wasn’t turned off by a potential KHL return being used as leverage against the Kings in future contract negotiations.
“The kid’s playing here right now essentially for nothing, so you know he wants to play in North America. That goes a long way with us,” Hextall said. “I mean, we don’t care if they’re Russian, Finns, Swedes, Canadians, American. We care about the character, and all the checks our guy did on this kid, he’s got a lot of character.”
That Zykov was willing to play and subsequently excelled in a small QMJHL market is an indication of what appears to be an “all-in” attitude towards North American culture. He had studied English at school in Moscow after having left his home in St. Petersburg when he was a child, and felt comfortable in the league’s northernmost outpost.
“At home he was perfect. Very good kid. Very dedicated,” said J.P. Comtois, Zykov’s billet father in Baie-Comeau.
Apart from the culture, his skill set is also representative of the North American game. He goes into tough areas, he drives the net and excels in limited amounts of space. When a player scores 40 times in a season, goals are scored in a multitude of ways, and Zykov established a knack for finding the back of the net.
It does raise the question of why so many teams decided to pass on the player who undoubtedly would have been selected higher had his last name been Jones, or Gauthier, or Hartman – though it’s a question the confident Zykov wanted little part of.
“Ask them,” he said.