What I remember most was the sound.
It was the third round of the AHL’s playoffs: the Conference Final of the Calder Cup. The Marlies were in a must win scenario, down three games to none. They were not letting any shot get past them, no matter if it meant physical consequences from blocking pucks. It was a win or die game.
That’s when I heard it. This dull, loud, smack, from the impact of a vicious slap shot on his body. He dropped to his knees, and then went down, prone on the ice.
I vividly remember that sound. Even way up in the press box, which is quite distant in Ricoh Coliseum. The whole arena winced and let out a collective gasp.
Seeing him sprawled on the ice, I rose from my seat, taking in the magnitude of the shot and block, and wondering what would happen next. Was he going to get back up? Was he OK?
Of course he was. It was Nikita Soshnikov. A simple blocked slapshot wasn’t going to stop that little hockey beast.
Soshnikov got back on his skates in one second flat, noted the Bears’ player who took the shot had since retrieved the puck, and he skated directly at him like he had on a pair of rocket boosters.
Soshnikov finished that check, recovered the puck, and then started a rush back at the opposition net.
I liked what I saw of his play all season. It’s no secret my favourite Leaf players are the in-your-face-wingers: Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk. They are physical players who get themselves into the play to drive it, as opposed to respond to it.
Where did he come from?
You can be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of Soshnikov before this season.
Soshnikov was not drafted by an NHL team. He played through the Russian development league, the MHL, with the affiliate of Atlant (Atlas), and eventually made their KHL team. It was there a scout from the Maple Leafs saw him and talked him up to team management. They came to see his play, and liked it. They liked it so much, they told absolutely no one about it. Why?
Atlant was rumoured to be suspending operations at the end of that season - and they eventually did - essentially making all their players available to other teams. Soshnikov was a hidden gem, and the Leafs didn’t want to shine a spotlight on him attracting the attention of other NHL teams.
On the evening of March 20, 2015, the Leafs quietly announced he had signed a three year contract.
We actually did have him in last year’s Top 25, ranked at 18. His jump all the way into the top 10 was the largest move up in our rankings of any player.
I think it’s well deserved.
Soshnikov earned this ranking with his production in 2015-16, both with the Leafs and the Marlies. He was a constant presence in the playoffs, playing in 11 of the 15 games. Keefe had an enormous list of players to choose from, and had no hesitation about scratching players, or changing up the lines. That shows a lot of confidence in his ability.
Let’s take a look at his first NHL goal; nice clean shot, bar down, good celly. I do have to give credit to the Caps for the assist by sticking 3 guys on Holland and leaving all the other Leafs wide open.
Then there was his game winning shootout goal.
Mike Babcock was also impressed, singling out Soshnikov and Hyman as "real players."
He's not intimidated by anything. He plays with speed. He plays without the puck. He's hard. Looks like he can score. He's good.
Soshnikov’s time with the Leafs was cut short by one of the many undisclosed injuries to hit the team. He was out until their season was over and finally returned to the Marlies.
This is where some stats would be handy, but I am leary of using them since his first NHL season had so few games, though they look good from a possession point of view. There’s also the fact he was often playing on the top line with Nazem Kadri, getting 14 minutes of even strength ice time per game; that’s 7th of all rookie forwards in the league last season. He also had some power play shifts each game too. Given the anticipated arrivals of draft picks, and returns from injuries, he will likely not have an opportunity like that again this season.
I would describe Soshnikov’s game as a hybrid of three other Maple Leafs wingers: Kulemin, Komarov, and Grabovski. He gives big hits, he takes big hits, he blocks shots, he plays the puck well, and he pisses off his opponents.
From what I saw of the puck playing and passing part of his game, he connected well with his linemates, whether Clune, or Kadri. He has an ability to anticipate what is going to happen, but his execution of a play in response is, on occasion, cumbersome. No one is going to get it right, or make a play fast enough all the time, but his abilities aren’t top line NHL, despite him playing there this past season.
With respect to giving and taking hits, and playing grinding minutes, he reminds me of Grabovski because some of his plays were a bit reckless. He’s gone out of position to chase the puck, or tried to carry it in to the attacking zone, and then promptly been flattened with a hit by opposing players you could easily see was coming. He needs to develop patience, and remember that he’s not a massive truck like Kulemin who could take that beating and play through with the puck. Indeed, hockeydb has Kulemin listed as 40 pounds heavier.
The lowest ranking given to Soshnikov came from Scott Wheeler. Why? Here’s what he had to say:
Much like with Hyman, I had Soshnikov lower than the Leipsics of the world because they still have more room to grow, a wider range, and ultimately a higher upside. I like what Soshnikov brings as a skater and forechecker, but I'm not in love with his upside offensively. I would argue he tops out as a bottom six forward, and doesn't have the tools to play, or at least make an impact, higher in the lineup.
- Scott Wheeler
Arvind agrees with me that his NHL readiness is a factor worth of a high ranking, noting that you don’t need to be a top line NHL lock to be a great asset worthy of this kind of rank.
I see Soshnikov in a way similar to Hyman, with the benefit of being a couple years younger. He's basically an NHL caliber player right now, and young enough that he has plausible room for growth. His AHL numbers are a little depressed because of his minutes, and who he was playing with.
When paired with Komarov and Kadri in the NHL, he exhibited the ability to keep up with them, play on a skilled line as a defensively sound grinder, with enough offensive tools to not be a liability. He's also going to have PK value, which helps as well. Babcock seems to like his game and his style, which is definitely a positive sign.
The caveat, of course, is that Soshnikov may not have the 'upside' of a guy like Leipsic, or Bracco, or Timashov or (insert prospect here). One problem with this caveat is that outside of the elite NHL scorers, most players are pretty clumped together. I wrote about this a while back, actually. People tend to say that if a guy doesn't have top 6 upside, he's pretty replaceable. When it comes to scoring, that's too kind. A 'good' 2nd line scorer and a 'bad' 3rd line scorer are way closer in scoring ability than people realize.
So, unless you're projecting meaningful upside for those prospects to be an elite scorer, I think leaning heavily towards NHL readiness, and other skills that Soshnikov has (PK ability, defensively sound, penalty drawing, etc.) is the logical way to go.
Will he make the Leafs out of training camp?
Given he has proven he can play at the NHL level, and that Babcock likes his play, I say, yes, he will. He can prove he has upside to his game this season, as long as he is not shunted to a fourth line role.
Unfortunately, that could be what happens. We know there’s a log jam in the depth charts on the wings, and the still open question of at which position William Nylander will be slotted by Mike Babcock to start the season.
Taking all that into account, I am happy with my overall ranking at 7. Soshnikov is about to turn 23, and has some development and learning ahead of him. Remember that this was only his first season playing in North America, yet his game is clearly NHL ready today. This is the definition of a great prospect.
Not to mention you have to respect a kid who is willing to challenge Rich Clune to a fight.
|Scott Wheeler||67 Sound||Birky||Arvind||Elseldo||Gunnar Carlsson||Achariya|
|JP Nikota||Species 1967||Steven Burtch||Katya Knappe||Fulemin||50 Mission Cap||Chris H|