EDMONTON, AB - Ostap Safin came to play in his first full professional season.
That's why, when given the chance to play regular minutes with the ECHL's Wichita Thunder, he's taking every opportunity as it comes.
The Prague, Czech Republic product posted a strong QMJHL debut season in '16-17 of 26 goals and 32 assists in 61 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs and being drafted in the fourth round, 115th overall to the Edmonton Oilers at the 2017 NHL Draft.
But a shoulder injury the coming campaign derailed his ability to keep the ball rolling as a member of the Memorial Cup host Halifax Mooseheads. In only 42 games across the regular season, playoffs, and Memorial Cup in '18-19, the 6-foot-5 winger mustered three goals and 10 assists as he nursed the remnants of the lingering injury.
Safin arrived at Oilers Development Camp the following summer with a literal and figurative chip on his shoulder as his right one protruded unnaturally unlike his left.
"I feel way better than I did at Development Camp in Edmonton for sure," Safin said. "It was kind of different to play in Edmonton than here, so I think I'm playing differently right now and the coach and the players are helping me a lot. Everything is good right now."
Nine games into his first full professional season, Safin's production and ice time have been slowly trending upward after dipping his toes into the ECHL with Wichita in his early experiences with the Oilers affiliate.
"The first two games, I think I was watching more because it was different hockey than in junior," he commented. "But the last games I've felt way better for sure, and with the guys we've found some chemistry. I think they were really good games and I'm feeling better every game."
So when it came time for this past weekend's three-game 'Independence Cup' set for the Thunder against rivals the Kansas City Mavericks, the Oilers prospect began to hit his stride. Safin notched two goals and three helpers as Wichita took five of a possible six points.
The ideal situation for Safin's assignment to Wichita was to get back playing, and playing regularly.
"I needed more ice time right now because they didn't want me sitting on the bench and playing fourth line," he said. "So I'm happy to be here right now to play because I didn't play much last year. Right now, I'm getting a lot of ice time, so it's really nice to be back and playing a lot. It's something that's a lot different than just sitting on the bench and watching the other guys play."
Playing three games in three nights definitely satisfies that criteria, and it's something the forward is happy to get reacclimated to since having his game time limited due to his ailment.
"It almost went to overtime in the last game as well, so they were close games and interesting games," Safin said. "I like to play against them. They were pretty physical. It's not easy for sure, but it was good after the second game. I thought I'd be worried to play the third game in a row."
The 20-year-old got a nine-game taste of life in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors in 2018 where he assessed the talent and physicality levels needed to thrive at the next level. For him, the gap in skill and size between the two leagues aren't far off.
"I was expecting it to be more physical here and the guys were saying it's more physical than the AHL, but I don't feel that right now," Safin said. "Maybe there are certain things that are playing a bit more physical, but the AHL I think is more physical. There are good players here as well, and it's a different level for sure. I think it's good hockey and they play hard."
After playing junior hockey with the Mooseheads, Safin is drawing a lot of comparisons between Halifax and Wichita for its deep hockey roots and ravenous followings.
"I think it's good hockey here. Especially in Wichita, because they have a great rink and great fans. I feel it on the ice when I'm playing here, so it's the same as when I was playing in Halifax. I think the fans are even crazier I think, so it's great when fans are cheering for you and they're helping you."
Photo credit: Ed Bailey