In the middle of a Sudbury Wolves home game this past season, head coach David Matsos made his way up-and-down the bench, but stopped to have a quick chat with Dmitry Sokolov.
It was a close game, and Sokolov, like he had so many times during rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, Matsos said, had been ringing the post like it was a doorbell with no one answering on the other end.
"And I said to Dmitry, 'Can you please hit the post and in? Help us win a game here. You hit post-and-out every time,'" Matsos said.
Sokolov went back out for his next shift, hit the post, had the puck careen wide, and then skated to the bench.
"And he looked at me, and he kind of closed his eyes and shook his head and said, 'Sorry,'" Matsos said. "And I'm like, 'Sorry for what?' He goes, 'Post-and-out again. I'm so sorry.' And I'm like, 'Really?'
"You have to appreciate his heart, and everything that goes with him."
Such is the player Matsos became familiar with over the past year. The leading rookie goal-scorer in the OHL, a 17-year-old Russian import, and a seventh-round selection by the Minnesota Wild in the 2016 Draft, Sokolov has dreams of making it in the NHL.
He loves to score goals, and a year that Matsos described as bizarre saw him fall from a bona fide first-round selection about 180 picks down the draft board to the Wild at pick number 196.
"Coming into this season he was a top-15 pick," Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "This year, due to injury and conditioning, he fell. So he's a kid that, we think if we can get him on the right track, and get him committed to the conditioning side of the game, he's a top talent."
But Matsos said, though Sokolov started the season out of shape, by the halfway point of the OHL schedule, Sokolov was working out three times a day. When Matsos told his players to rest up on Mondays following a stretch of three games in three days, he was getting calls from Solokov, asking Matsos if he would be at the arena, and if Sokolov could come in and use the weight room.
"Those are things the general public never saw," Matsos said. "Dmitry never took one day off."
Transitioning To A New League
Sokolov had dominated at every step of his youth hockey career, competing against players his same age. Born in Omsk, Sokolov spent his whole life in Russia before moving to Canada to join the OHL.
After he was drafted by the Wild on June 25, Sokolov said the decision he made to leave Russia and go to Sudbury was made to challenge himself.
"The OHL is better than the Russian league," Sokolov said. "It's a small rink, and I want to play in the NHL."
Matsos said it's hard for most European skaters to grasp just how good the OHL is, which in part led to Sokolov's difficult transition.
"He came in expecting to run the league because he was that good with his peers in his age group, and he realized how good the [OHL] is," Matsos said. "His conditioning wasn't great.
"You're dealing with so many elements, and so many things: billets, a new school, new teammates, being homesick; there are so many things that come in to play when you move away at that age. He came in, and he spoke very little English."
Still, in his first 20 games for Sudbury, Sokolov had five goals and eight assists. In his 14th game, he scored two goals. In his 18th game, he registered eight shots on goal.
His transition, though not without its bumps, wasn't exactly unproductive. Sokolov also dealt with a shoulder injury throughout the year that required offseason surgery.
"We're obviously hoping that we're buying a quality stock at a low price," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "Time will tell, but at that part of the Draft it was, to me, a very logical gamble to make.
"He's a young man with great talent, a talent certainly worthy of a selection much higher than when he was selected."
It was April, and Matsos' phone began to ring. He looked down, and saw Sokolov's number.
After coming over to Sudbury, Sokolov bounced around between a few different homes before settling in with his full-time billet family. He lived with Matsos for a week, and became very close with his three children, George, 5, Charlie, 8, and Josephine, 9.
"Dmitry calls me the one day, and he's like, 'Does your boy have (hockey) tryouts?' … and I was like, 'Yeah, actually, he's got tryouts on Wednesday,'" Matsos said. "And he said, 'Ok, can you pick me up?' And I said, 'Yeah, no problem.' I pick him up, and it's not one of those things where he's appeasing or trying to please the coach or anything, he genuinely wanted to come and watch my kid in tryouts. And my kids were over the moon."
Matsos' three children started choosing Russia when it came to the subject for their school projects. After every home game, Sokolov would find George, Charlie, and Josephine in the stands, and give them a stick-salute from the ice.
"He would go over, whether it was a win or a loss, and salute the kids," Matsos said. "And it made their night. I don't even know if he knows how much that meant to my kids, but he would just go and salute them."
A Natural Goal Scorer
There were plenty of moments that left Matsos in awe over the past year. He was convinced he was watching a future NHL player in practices, in games, and off the ice.
"His brain is on a different level when it comes to skill set and decision-making than a lot of players," Matsos said. "I'd talk to our goalies because he would come in and he would just open our goalies in practice.
"I would talk to our goalies and say, 'It's effortless. We have no idea what he's doing.' Some players come in, and you always know what their move is, you know what they’re going to do, where Dmitry, we have no idea what he's doing. That sort of creativity doesn't come natural. It's a skill set and it's a gift, and he has it."
Sokolov played 68 games this season. In 33 of them, he took four or more shots on goal.
"He has four or five shots a game, and when you look at his four or five shots and where they're coming from, he's giving your team a chance to get on the scoreboard every night because he's shooting in the Grade-A scoring area, and he has the puck on his stick," Matsos said. "There are certain players in the NHL that I watch, and as far as natural scoring ability, he is a Joe Pavelski. All of his goals are scored in a really tight space. He doesn't shoot pucks from the outside. He always finds a way to make it into that Grade-A scoring area. He's slippery that way."
Part of Sokolov's personality, Matsos said, comes out when his teammates succeed.
"When he scores, he's so excited, because he loves to score goals," Matsos said. "But when his teammates score, he's just as excited. It's almost funny because the celebrations when his teammates score are just as exciting as when he scores, which I think is very cool for a kid."
Still, enough happened over the past season to dissuade a hoard of NHL general managers and operations staffs that, months after his name was supposed to be called on the first night of the draft, Sokolov nearly went undrafted.
"A lot of people were leery about his shoulder," Matsos said. "I was talking to teams and I was like, 'If you draft him in the second, or in the third round, it's an amazing pick.'
"When you get to know Dmitry, there's a lot more than just his skill set."
That's what Fletcher, Flahr and co. are hoping is the case: A low-risk, high-reward and ceiling seventh-round steal that provides untapped value from one of the last picks of the 2016 Draft.
"It's not just one thing for me," Matsos said. "In order to make it, you have to tick a lot of boxes. It's a character thing for me, it's a commitment thing; it's a bunch of things.
"This guy here … what a human this kid is."