EDMONTON, AB - Leading the pack comes naturally when you're the top dog.
Kirill Maksimov can confirm.
The Niagara IceDogs forward hasn't had to chase the puck to get his sniffs at the net this year. By piling nine goals and 14 points in the first eight outings of 2018-19, Maksimov's dogged pursuit to fill the cage has Niagara Head Coach Billy Burke allowing the 19-year-old to run free.
"We play him PK, PP, up a goal, down a goal," Burke said of Maksimov's usage. "He really does play in all situations for us."
For good reason. The Oilers 2017 fifth-round selection (146th-overall) has increased his output each campaign in the Ontario Hockey League, establishing career-highs in goals (34), assists (46) and points (80) in '17-18.
Maksimov's unleashed the offence this year, tying for first in power-play goals with six and chasing the League-lead in goal scoring by four. He sits tied for ninth in points with 19, being held off the scoresheet only once. Sniping by way of a 20.4 shooting percentage and 0.92 goals per game average has the right winger on pace to strike 62 times.
So, give the dog the bone.
"Offensively for himself, he's had a great start," continued Burke. "He's a constant threat to score and has one of the best releases in all of the Ontario Hockey League."
Maksimov's trigger has fuelled conversations in Oil Country since the prospect was drafted by the Orange & Blue. Oilers VP of Player Development Scott Howson hailed the Russian's flick of the wrist as elite at Development Camp this past June, then tabbed the winger as one of the organization's top-five prospects. Establishing his territory at the top of the left circle, Maksimov's release is one of the IceDogs' greatest threats on the man-advantage - which is saying a lot - given the club's top unit is a talented five-forward troupe.
"Our power play kind of runs through his shot," said Burke of his squad's 22 percent power play. "We find we're having the most success when we get the puck to Kirill, let him use his one-timer and that softens everything up. If his one-timer isn't just beating goalies, which he's shown that it does, teams will start cheating to him and by teams cheating to him, other things will open up.
"It's a great weapon and a great asset for us to have."
But Maksimov isn't solely relying on his shot for success. Burke admits he's had to remind the forward to shoot instead of pass when given cleans looks at the net and Oilers management noted Maksimov's skating as an area in need of improvement, providing the forward with guidance from Skating Coach David Pelletier to develop his footwork.
Unlike the saying, an old IceDog can learn new tricks.
"He's a pretty smart guy in the sense that he won't just sit there and take a thousand one-timers," Burke explained. "He's very good at trying to improve his skating and improve other aspects of his game that aren't quite as good, while still taking some time to ensure his shot is as good as it can be."
Maksimov isn't focused on his scoring prowess, however. There's a bigger bone to fetch this season for Niagara. Spoken like the leader he is, Maksimov's only concern thus far has been compiling wins so his team can compete for the J. Ross Robertson Cup and then, hopefully, the Memorial Cup.
"Points aren't the most important thing," Maksimov, now up to 72 goals and 86 helpers in 194 career OHL games, said. "It's more important to get wins. I get points almost every game, so that's good, but I'm not really thinking about it."
Don't misunderstand, Maksimov still wants to be the top dog. Of his League.
"I hope to go as far as I can and hope to win the Memorial Cup."