Suddenly, Nik Antropov is the man.
The trade of Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe, the inability of Mats Sundin to decide whether he wants to play, a lineup stocked with youth, all these factors add to a greater workload than ever for the six-foot-six Antropov.
After a career largely defined by knee injuries, Antropov played 74 games last seasons. Three of the eight games he lost were the result of a suspension. Antropov’s 26 goals were only bettered by Sundin’s 32 and with the number one centre slot suddenly unoccupied, Antropov’s value to the Maple Leafs has never been higher. When asked what he had noticed most in his first couple of days working with the club, Leafs coach Ron Wilson said the quality of Antropov’s hands.
Mapleleafs.com senior writer Mike Ulmer spoke to the 28-year-old about the upcoming season. Ulmer:
You’ve flown under the radar for several years but last year you had a very good season. The Captain isn’t here. How do you approach this season?Antropov:
Same as every year. I come to camp, show what I can do, then it’s up to the coach.Ulmer:
You’ve said that it took you a couple of years to figure out what your body needed to play and thrive in the NHL. How long did it take until you fully understood?Antropov:
Obviously, not the first five or six years (laughs). Since (strength and conditioning coach) Matt Nichol got here, we’ve worked together. That’s three years. He put me on track where my body is supposed to be and I know what I should do after the season.Ulmer:
Was it a question of strength or flexibility?Antropov:
I guess it was strength. The core muscles are important. Once this part of the body is strong, everything else works.Ulmer:
How many years do you have to be around the NHL to be able to get comfortable?Antropov:
The on-ice part was always good. The only thing that held back my development were the injuries. I played on the smaller rinks since I was 15 and I liked it better. It was the off-ice part. I wasn’t sure what I was or was not supposed to do.Ulmer:
If a kid came in now, would they have more of an idea of what to do and how to take care of themselves?Antropov:
Oh, yeah. When I came into the league in 1999, we had a strength and conditioning coach. He had all the workouts. You could call that the old NHL. The guys were working on their own rather than with somebody else. After the lockout, it turned around 180 degrees. Ulmer:
My wife’s parents were Dutch and when they came to Canada, they would not speak Dutch in front of their daughter. It annoys her because she doesn’t speak Dutch. I remember you told me, when you came here, you didn’t have to speak English because you were around all these Russian guys, Dmitry Yushkevich, Igor Korolev, Danny Markov. Was that a good thing for you? Antropov:
It probably was a bad thing for learning the language. I was hanging out with them probably more than I should have instead of being with my Canadian teammates. I didn’t pick up the English. It was a good thing, they helped me out with everything else but I didn’t pick up any English. Ulmer:
There were years when you had knee injuries, when the call-in shows were full of people saying ‘we should trade Nik, we should trade Nik.’ Did that bother you at the time?Antropov:
First couple of years, yes. You’ve just a young kid coming in to the league, new environment, new everything and you don’t really understand what’s going on. If I had played junior hockey, I would have some idea. I tried to work through it. I had a good friend Anna Gorveyn, she worked with me. She worked with my agent Don Meehan. She taught me how to block out all the stuff that was going on off the ice so I could compete better on the ice. Ulmer:
The Leafs want leadership out of you. How much did watching Mats help that? Antropov:
Mats is Mats. You can’t say enough about him, on and off the ice. When the season goes on, I’m going to try to understand more (about leadership). I know what they want from me, but it’s a new environment for me right now.