Nikita Soshnikov was cooling down in the Maple Leafs dressing room after skating in his fourth career NHL game. He’d just finished playing nearly 20 minutes at the game’s highest level, and scored the second goal of his four-game career. And although the young Russian isn’t yet at a point where he can converse in English like his Leafs teammates can, he made a brief statement after that game when asked about his adjustment to the NHL that said it all:
“I feel comfortable,” Soshnikov said.
And his stellar play – which is turning heads, angering opponents and winning him more fans in Leafs Nation every day – is proving it. The 22-year-old didn’t have the hype or NHL lineage some of his fellow Leafs rookies came into town with, but since he was recalled from the American League’s Marlies late last month, his skill, physical play and willpower are earning raves.
“He just looks like a hockey player to me,” head coach Mike Babcock said Monday of Soshnikov, who currently has two goals and three points in five games as a Leaf. “He catches guys from behind, he forechecks, he runs guys, every team’s mad at him every night. I like that a lot. And I play him against the best players every night. That’s pretty good for me.”
“He brings it every shift,” added goaltender Garret Sparks, who’s seen much of Soshnikov’s development when both were Marlies for the majority of this season. “He doesn’t back down from anybody. He’ll run anybody if it’s the right play. Plays a hard-nosed game, he’s from a hard-nosed part of the world, and he’s a very honest hockey player, and we’re lucky to have him on our side.”
As Babcock noted, the native of Nizhny Tagil – the same Russian industrial town that produced former NHLer Alex Radulov – quickly has become a marked man. That’s because, more often than not, he’s gotten under the skin of whomever his opponent happens to be in the moment. Making friends with the opposition and/or operating in the shadows simply aren’t options for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger, and his take-no-prisoners attitude hasn’t just materialized in the past few days or weeks. He was the same way the very first time Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe saw him at the Leafs’ rookie tournament in London this past summer.
“My first impression of him was very similar to the impression he’s making now,” Keefe said. “Almost every shift, he was getting into it with someone. I believe he scored in that game and made a little bit of a gesture toward the other team’s bench, so you could tell he was a real competitor. He could barely speak a word of English, but was going back and forth with players on the other team regardless of that. So you could tell right away he had passion and was highly competitive, and had a knack for having the other team aware that he’s out there.”
Soshnikov, who’d spent the previous two years in the Kontinental League, began the current season with Keefe and the Marlies, and communication with the coaching staff and his teammates was an issue at first. He lived with fellow Russian Rinat Valiev and found some common words to help him get by, but had to prove his desire to play at the NHL level in all sorts of ways, and becoming more proficient in English was one of them. And he made strides in that department in large part due to a particularly charismatic teammate with whom he shared a hotel room on the road.
“Being on the road was really helpful for him,” Keefe said. “He roomed with (veteran winger Rich) Clune for a long period of time, and Cluner is the kind of guy that makes you talk. That was really helpful for him and I saw great strides with him. By Christmas, he and I were sitting down and having lengthy meetings together and having back-and-forth discussions.
“So he made a lot of strides there, and that’s a really big reason he was able to get this call-up (to the NHL). Learning the language was a big part of what they wanted for his development, and obviously they felt comfortable where he was at to give him the opportunity. He’s got a ways to go, but he’s come a real long way, and it’s been impressive for the work he’s put in to do that.”
Clune, who has spent time in the AHL and NHL this season and is one of the Marlies’ go-to leaders, used his playful personality to earn the trust of Soshnikov, and recognized in him a familiar fire and sense of self-sacrifice on the ice that was especially endearing.
“When I first met him, the one thing you can see is that look in his eye – he’s got a fire burning inside of him, and he’s got that aura about him that he wants it,” Clune said. “He speaks that language, and right off the hop, me and him have that common bond. We’re cut from the same cloth. And he lacks a little bit of self-preservation, which I love. I love guys that are fearless. They’re aware of the repercussions, but he knows we get paid a lot of money to do what we do.”
Clune began helping Soshnikov with English by using his trademark good humour.
“He couldn’t speak much, and I taught him a couple of the essentials,” Clune said. “Our captain is Andrew Campbell – “Soup” – who’s been my best friend the past six years since we played together in Manchester. So the first thing you teach him is ‘Shut up, Soup,’ and the second is ‘What’s up, Soup?’. Those were his first two phrases, and we went from there.”
As the season developed, Soshnikov played well and with versatility for the Marlies – mostly on a line with Clune and center Frederik Gauthier – and amassed 18 goals and 28 points in 50 games when the Leafs recalled him. But he had to learn the North American game – the smaller ice surface, the different systems, the subtle elements that set impact players apart from the rest – to be ready for his shot at the NHL.
“He’s a guy that can really skate, has a lot of energy, a lot of passion,” Keefe said of Soshnikov’s game. “He just had to learn the system and where to be. Little things like having his stick down on the ice; a lot of times you can get caught out of position looking for big hits, but we’ve really worked with him on trying to have his stick down on the ice, deny passes and try to create turnovers that way, as opposed to just finishing checks.”
That said, Soshnikov is especially driven to finish his checks and play bigger than his physical frame. That determination, combined with the skill that allows him to fire off a wicked wrist shot in the blink of an eye, or delicately drop a backhand pass onto the stick of a teammate to set up a goal, is what really makes opponents angry at him. And that’s great news for Leafs fans.
“You’re doing something right when the opposition is on you – especially when you’re a guy playing as much as he is and still being effective,” Keefe said. “It’s one thing just to be hated, but when teams really start to take notice and start coming at you after whistles, it means they’re also acknowledging you’re a productive player. It’s easy to just disregard players, but he’s doing enough in games that they’re taking notice.”
“When you have guys who are that competitive, who can play on the top two lines with skill, and they have that mindset, that’s when you get special things, that’s when you can build championship teams around players like that,” added Clune. “He knows what team he’s playing for, and he’s passionate.”
Soshnikov’s passion can’t be denied – and thus far in his NHL career, his impact can’t be denied. He can’t eloquently explain in English what his motivations are, but, as he said after that fourth NHL game, he is comfortable at hockey’s highest level.
And because of that, Toronto’s opponents are likely to be uncomfortable every time he takes the ice.