Nik Antropov was sitting at his stall at Lakeshore Lions Arena the other day, torturing Matt Stajan.
“Staj…Staj!” Antropov shouted to get Stajan’s attention. Then Antropov ran his fingers through his long hair and let it fall over his face.
Stajan, who is forever and prematurely losing that option, narrowed his eyes for a second and returned to his interview.
See, you can still be six-foot-six and make the subtle play.
This is the season of Nik Antropov’s life, the evidence that there was much, much more to him than the 78 goals and 189 points he turned in over seven seasons. He is as great as once predicted, and he still has all his hair. All will be on display when the Leafs play in Atlanta, Friday night.
Seven seasons, of course, is twice what is said to be the average NHL lifespan. Antropov’s story is one of multiple incarnations: the heir apparent, the disappointment and now, something new.
Drafted 10th overall in 1998 from the hockey backwater of Kazakhstan, Antropov was a jaw-dropping combination of size (six-foot-six), reach and hand skills. When he scored a dozen goals in his rookie year including a hat trick in Florida against the Panthers, his future looked unlimited. Here, some supposed, in stature, in raw skills, if not in skating, was the player to eventually succeed Mats Sundin.
These days, Antropov is making those early assessments look, well accurate. He plays with an edge and casually disrupts a game by knocking down passes all over the ice. Playing on a line with Sundin, he has logged 19:42 a game, a high among forwards. His 15 goals are tied with Sundin for the club’s high. His 31 points is second best on the team, again behind Sundin. A recent hat trick, his first since his rookie year, was a showcase of virtuosity, two deflections and a shot from the slot.
But Antropov has endured a seemingly unending slate of disappointments and in recent years, fan discontent. He has missed an average of 30 games a year with injuries.
He says he gets it now, but it took time.
“It took me four or five years in the league to really understand what happened to me,” he says now. “I didn’t really know anything about the NHL or anything about what it took to be a Maple Leaf.”
He arrived to find a team that already had a distinction Russian flavor. “It was a great time to be here, with Yushky (Dmitry Yushkevich), Igor Korolev, Sergei Berezin and Danny Markov. They made me feel welcome but it might not have been a good thing because I didn’t have to learn English.”
Learning how to be an NHL player meant learning how to condition, really condition, his body against injury. The difference between the healthy Antropov of this season and the hobbled ones of years past, isn’t just luck. It is not necessarily easy training a six-foot-six, 240-pound body to withstand the constant undermining that comes with nightly contact.
“I know he worked really, really hard to get ready for this season,” said Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice. “That’s not the only reason why he’s been able to stay strong and healthy, but it’s a big part of it.”
Married with a son, seven-year-old son Danil and a daughter, five-year-old Nicole, Antropov’s influence in the dressing room deepens as his role increases. He is now one of the veterans, as evidenced by the verbal hazing he inflicts on Stajan.
Antropov said he never considered leaving Toronto this summer as a free agent despite the sporadic boos of Leafs fans who felt they had waited long enough.
“I didn’t even think about leaving,” Antropov said. “I’ve been here long enough to realize, if you play good here, things are good. What I’ve worked on is preparing myself mentally to play as well as I can that night, every night.”
So is Nik Antropov destined for the C, an all-star spot and all the things predicted of him when he broke in seven years ago? He could, conceivably be good for another 10 years at this pace, minus some for wear and tear… “Boy, there is no middle ground here, ” smiled Maurice when asked about whether Antropov would someday succeed his captain. “You are either every bit of what they promised you would be, or you’re not achieving it. Nik Antropov does everything you would want, he works hard. In the dressing room he is a welcome part of the fabric of the team.
“Let’s see where it all goes.”