For a few short hours in October of 2011, it felt like Slava Voynov had finally arrived in the NHL. The Kings’ rookie defenseman had made a major impact in the Oct. 27 victory over Dallas, registering the game-winning goal and finishing with two goals and an assist. The roller-coaster like journey from Chelyabinsk, Russia and his four seasons in the minor leagues appeared to be over.
But just two days later, frustration set in again as Voynov was optioned back to the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL with the return to the lineup of veteran star defender Drew Doughty, who had been sidelined due to an injury.
“I know he was upset,” Kings Assistant Coach John Stevens said. “I think he felt, probably for a long time, that he was ready for the NHL and he didn’t want to go back down. We knew it too. He showed us enough at that time, and we just needed to find a roster spot for him. I know it was tough for him.”
It was a frank conversation with Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi and the coaching staff that helped Voynov stay focused.
“I know Dean and everyone was very honest with him,” Stevens said. “We told him that he was good enough to help the team, that we wanted him up there and that he would be back.”
Voynov returned to Manchester, where he was a 2011 AHL All-Star, and had starred since being drafted by Los Angeles in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but was back with the Kings soon enough, re-joining the club on Nov. 14 and playing a total of 54 regular season games with L.A.
“Especially for a rookie, when you look at what he has done, it is impressive,” Kings 12-year veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell said. Known as one of the toughest defenders in the league, it was Mitchell who most often paired up with the young Russian on the Kings’ backline.
“He just brings a lot of ability and flexibility to the team,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, the way he attacks, the way he moves the puck is his biggest strength, but once he got his opportunity he really seized it. Sure, he made a few mental, rookie mistakes like everyone else, but he really makes this team better.”
It was Voynov’s emergence and solid play throughout the middle stretch of the season that allowed the Kings to make a major trade which provided even more of an opportunity for the 23-year-old.
“He basically played an Olympian right off our team,” Mitchell said. “I don’t mean that as a slight to anyone and with no disrespect because [Jack Johnson] is a great player, but the way Slava was playing basically forced the team to make a move.”
Four days before the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 23, 2012, the Kings sent U.S. Olympic defenseman Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for some much-needed offensive scoring punch in Jeff Carter. It was the roster move Lombardi had talked about to Voynov back in October, and it provided the rookie with a massive chance to prove that he was NHL worthy in the spotlight of a playoff hunt.
“It could have been considered a risk to put a rookie out there like that,” Stevens said. “But that is the confidence we had in him, that is confidence that he gave us by his play. I think you saw in the playoffs, he kept raising his game and making a difference.”
After establishing himself as perhaps the best rookie defenseman in the NHL by scoring eight goals and registering 12 assists during the regular season, Voynov added a goal and two assists in 20 playoff contests during the Kings incredible run to the Stanley Cup while also providing a major boost to the penalty killing unit.
And Voynov did it all while struggling to learn English, skating with the Kings just three-and-a-half-years after starring for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Russian League, where he started his career as a promising NHL prospect.
“I think when you take into account the language barrier, that makes what he did last year even more special,” Mitchell said. “He knows the game well; he understands the language of hockey, so communicating was never a huge issue. But still, it can be difficult if you don’t always understand the language. Slava is a great guy; he really is a great guy to have in the locker room.”
With a successful rookie season behind him that ended with him triumphantly bringing the Stanley Cup back to his hometown in Russia, Voynov and the Kings are looking forward to an even better second season in the NHL.
“They say that your second season is always tougher in this league,” Mitchell said. “People know what to expect from you the second time around, they are on to you a little bit more and you’ve got the pressure to perform and top what you did in your first year. But I am not worried about Slava. I know he has been working hard and that extra experience is only going to help him.”