Recently called up to Manchester from the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, the 23-year-old Russian has been given a somewhat unexpected second lease on life and he is determined to keep pushing ahead. After spending the better part of a year scratching and clawing to get back to the American League, Kitsyn scored in his first game with the Monarchs this season, as if to put everybody on notice that he is finally ready to show what he is truly capable of on his grandest stage to date.
To properly understand all that he has already accomplished is to comprehend that he has magnificently defied almost insurmountable odds, while still achieving very little at the same time.
His once promising career seemed to veer off track before it ever left the starting blocks. Originally selected by the Kings in the sixth round (158th overall) at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft held in Los Angeles, many simply looked at the numbers and couldn’t connect the dots. Kitsyn had just completed his second season in the KHL and scored a single goal for Novokuznetsk Metallurg in 21 games that year, missing part of the schedule with an injury. Yet, scouts were impressed by his “more North American” game. He wasn’t your typical finesse forward, as he loved to go into the dirty areas and was a rough and tumble power forward in the truest sense.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi agonizes over never wasting a draft pick, so his staff did plenty of research before taking Kitsyn. Fortunately for them, he shared the same agent as Slava Voynov, which made it easy for the group to do all the proper due diligence. Amid quite a bit of buzz surrounding his potential, a deal was reached where Kitsyn would come to North America with Team Russia for the World Junior Championships a few months later, then stay in Canada and play out the remainder of the junior hockey season.
"When he went to Mississauga [OHL], he excelled,” said Mark Yannetti, LA’s Director of Amateur Scouting. “He excelled beyond what people thought, even beyond what his strongest supporters would have expected. That OHL campaign was pretty special. He showed glimpses of what he could be. It was really intriguing and exciting.”
Kitsyn recorded 26 points (9 goals, 17 assists) in 32 games with the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in 2011. Then, he doubled down by notching 19 more points in 20 playoff games. However, per the original agreement, he had to return to Russia to fulfil his contractual obligations there.
“There are good development situations and bad ones in the KHL,” Yannetti continued. “Young players often get lost, which can derail someone's development or impeded it. He was more of a loss. I felt it was almost a vendetta against him in a way. It seemed like he was punished there at times, in terms of how he was used or not used. A poor development situation turned pretty much into a nightmare. It really became almost the perfect storm of regression for him. Having that success in the OHL, I also think he may have lost some of that internal impetus and drive. The combination of him maybe losing some of that hunger and just the absolute nightmare of what he had to go through with the team he placed for, I think it would have ended a lot of other people's North American careers before they even started.”
Kitsyn doesn’t hide that those final two years in Russia were absolutely dark days.
“I think it stalled my development because I had to play for some coaches that had never even played hockey,” he said. “Plus, the head coach was very close to the GM at the time, and I think the GM didn’t like me.”
Besides the lack of teaching he was receiving at a period that should have been some of his prime learning years, Kitsyn also says it was hard to dig out of the spot he was placed in.
“Most young players aren’t good in the beginning,” he explained. “I think I had three points in the first seven games playing on the fourth line, but they would never push me up. At the same time, I had a lot of minuses all the time and I think I ended up a minus-17. Yes, I had to work on my defensive game, but I was arguing with the coaches because I was so frustrated.”
Finally free of his KHL obligations, Kitsyn signed a three-year entry level contract with the Kings in the summer of 2013. Two years away had done him no favors, though.
"There was excitement when he finally came over, but it was painfully obvious, very quickly, that he was nowhere near where he needed to be,” Yannetti shared. “His strength was so far behind, his body, the physical makeup - there was no change from when he was a 17-year-old. Add in that he hadn’t been playing much and it was that perfect storm. He wasn't where he needed to be physically, he wasn't where he needed to be emotionally, and he wasn't where he needed to be hockey-wise. That's a pretty tough trifecta to overcome."
Kitsyn still managed to start last season with the Monarchs, but after only posting three goals in 20 games and spending many nights as a healthy scratch, he was demoted to the ECHL in January 2014. Undeterred, he went on to record 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 33 games. Despite those numbers, he was again assigned to the Reign to start this season and it appeared he was destined to become nothing more than a footnote in Kings draft history.
“It was pretty tough, but I still had to believe in myself,” Kitsyn remarked. “Every day I came to the rink and tried to get better. It was not easy.”
He also wanted to make one thing clear to anybody wondering.
“I never asked for a trade,” he emphatically stated. “It’s my career, not anybody else’s. Some people [suggested] that I should have. I am not an enemy to myself, so I don’t think about trading. I didn’t ask anybody; I didn’t think about it. You have to try to get better every day on any team or any league that you play in. So, I just tried to work hard every game, every shift. I always try my best to be positive. It’s not always easy, it’s not very pleasant. But I think I’m getting better and hope one day luck will come to me.”
Be ready for your opportunity when one presents itself – it is advice you’ll hear from many coaches, and Kitsyn took it to heart. When a roster spot became available in Manchester earlier this month, Reign coach Jason Christie firmly believed Kitsyn had more than earned his call-up.
“I think when we first got him in Ontario, the number one thing we noticed was his steps on the ice; his foot speed, and how hard he has to work in order to get himself around the ice,” Christie recalled. “I tell people, you really look at how strong he is with the puck and how he knows the game itself, he wills his way there.”
Known as a demanding coach, who has no problem benching players if he doesn’t like their effort, Christie nearly gushes when talking about the progress Kitsyn has made over the past 12 months.
“He's come a long way,” the coach continued. “Not too much really bothers him, or he doesn't show it anyway. I like what he's brought this year. Obviously no one wants to come down to the ECHL when they think they belong in the AHL. But you know what, the way he looked at it - you either turn a cheek and can sulk or get back on the horse and make yourself as best as you possibly can. He does that day in and day out. He works, he's mature, and he does the little things a lot of guys don't do. They think that they're just going to wait for their opportunity and it doesn't happen that way. They have to work to get to that opportunity, and obviously Kitsy has done that. It's good to see that he's having success."
Christie also just laughs when asked about all of Kitsyn’s fights in the ECHL.
“Kitsy just loves to play the game. It doesn't matter. All the altercations this year are just him going to the net. He's making other teams upset because he's creating space for himself and obviously guys don't like that and they get a little antsy. Especially with him being a Russian. [Trouble] finds him because he works so darn hard. That's the best way to describe it. He plays so hard that it comes to him because he goes to those areas that people don't like people to go to. He’s not a fighter, but Kitsy steps right up to them; he's willing to battle his way through each and every night."
It’s an aspect of his game Kitsyn simply shrugs off, almost as if he doesn’t understand why people find it so interesting.
“I’m not the toughest guy in the world but sometimes stuff happens where you have to be ready to protect yourself,” he said. “Sort of like, if you can’t score a goal, let’s do something else. Sometimes you have to do it.”
In just a handful of games with the Monarchs since his recent call-up, Manchester coach Mike Stothers has enjoyed having him on the team and remains optimistic regarding the road ahead.
“I like what I’ve seen in this initial stretch with our team,” Stothers said. “Max still has some things to learn in the game, but he’s a hard working kid. Any time you put the time and effort in, good things usually happen. He’s still a work in progress, but this is part of the process. Max is a bigger guy and it takes him a little bit longer to get going [on the ice], but once he gets himself in full flight he does a pretty good job. He’s been taking the body and he’s been physical, but there haven’t been any confrontations yet. We’re asking him to play and play hard. And he’s been doing just that.”
It’s far too early to predict what the future ultimately holds for Kitsyn. He may never achieve what was once hoped of him, or he may still find a way to exceed those draft day dreams that filled his head at STAPLES Center back in 2010.
“My journey has had a lot of ups and downs,” Kitsyn acknowledged. “But I still hope everything will pay off and I will get to play in the NHL one day.”
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).