SUNRISE, Fla. -- As Day 2 of the 2015 NHL Draft continued to progress on Saturday, Nikita Pavlychev was getting anxious in the stands.
“It was real hard. I was losing hope, already thinking about what to do to get picked next year, but it turned out to be good,” he said with a grin.
That’s because while getting drafted in itself is certainly a dream come true, what makes it even more special for Pavlychev is that the Russian native was chosen by his favorite team.
The 18-year-old forward, taken by the Penguins in the seventh round (197th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft, has a surprising amount of connections to Pittsburgh – starting with his two seasons spent playing bantam hockey with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights after being recruited by one of the team’s coaches, who’s also from Russia.
And in a crazy coincidence, one of those years was spent playing alongside Pens second-round draft pick Daniel Sprong – and the two of them won a national championship together that season.
“Pittsburgh has always been my favorite team and we always followed the Baby Pens, I’m so pretty happy,” Pavlychev said.
Pavlychev loved his time spent in Wilkes-Barre, and formed a strong bond with his billet family, who lives in Clarks Summit – about 30 minutes outside of Scranton. And even though he’s no longer with the team, Pavlychev still goes and stays with them before heading home to Russia every offseason – and they traveled all the way to Florida to support him at the draft.
“My mother and my billet family who I stayed with for three years in Wilkes-Barre are here,” Pavlychev said. “We got real close with them and they came to join me.”
Pavlychev went from the WBS Knights to Des Moines of the United States Hockey League (USHL), and it’s there that he met with a scout from the Penguins who gave him some good advice heading into this weekend.
“I met one of the scouts from Pittsburgh in Des Moines and we had a real good talk and shared some thoughts on the draft,” Pavlychev said. “He said maybe you won’t get picked, maybe you will, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you should (enjoy) it.”
Pavlychev will be returning to the Keystone State this fall, as he’s committed to attend Penn State University.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Pavlychev said. “Their new facilities are just unreal. Plus they’re part of the Big Ten, which is one of the best in college hockey.”
There, Pavlychev plans to work on filling out his massive 6-foot-7 frame.
“I had a growth spurt from like 6-3 to 6-7 almost in one year and it was hard to adjust,” Pavlychev laughed. “So one of my biggest things I have to really work on is my physical strength. With my size, I’ve still got to get stronger. Other than that, I would say I probably have pretty good hockey sense and I’m always trying to be a hard worker on the ice. Definitely my size will work good for me.”
The Pens see Pavlychev as more of a longer-term prospect, but as co-director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton put it, “he’s somebody that we have high hopes for.”
And when Pavlychev does make the transition to the NHL, he can’t wait to skate alongside his favorite player – fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.
“My favorite player is Evgeni Malkin, and I know it almost sounds strange that I got drafted by Pittsburgh, but I try to model my game after him,” Pavlychev said. “(Getting drafted by Pittsburgh) is really awesome. Words can't explain it. It's really awesome.”