Nikita Soshnikov doesn’t have the same hype attached to him as most of the young guns on the Toronto Marlies. He wasn’t a Toronto first-round draft pick, like a William Nylander, Frederik Gauthier, or Stuart Percy. He didn’t come as a big piece in a big trade, like a Brendan Leipsic or a Kasperi Kapanen. He wasn’t a local boy with local stories, like Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, or Zach Hyman. His signing flew under the radar when the Leafs melted into a fine ooze in March, and nobody paid him much mind in the preseason.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s not worth your attention. Far from it, really. Soshnikov is a real deal prospect, and tonight’s 3-1 win against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms was a good example of that.
Soshnikov came to the Marlies as a soon to be (as in, already happened) 22-year-old with two years of significant professional hockey experience, which is a rarity for many prospects. For the past two years, he’s played with Moscow Oblast Atlant (of Moscow Region; imagine if Mississauga had an NHL team), and been on the ice for 90 regular season games. That’s a lot of experience in the world’s second best league and a good foundation for a young talent to develop in.
His minutes were pretty limited as a rookie, averaging fewer than ten per game, but was over a point per game in the Russian junior and minor leagues in the occasions when the team didn’t keep him up. Last year was his true breakout year; his line got bumped up to a 13:52 per game, and they put up solid numbers with all things considered; his 14 goals (all even strength) and 18 assists averaged him at about 2.5 points per 60 minutes, and ranked him fourth in team scoring and tied for 77th league-wide.
All Situations Point Production, Kontinental Hockey League, 21 Years Old
|Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)||2012/13||31||14||18||32||1.03||4.19|
|Evgeny Kuznetsov (WSH)||2013/14||31||8||13||21||0.68||2.14|
|Viktor Tikhonov (CHI)||2009/10||25||14||1||15||0.6||2.07|
|Jiri Sekac (MTL)||2013/14||47||11||17||28||0.59||2.58|
|Nikita Soshnikov (TOR)||2014/15||57||14||18||32||0.56||2.43|
|Artemi Panarin (CHI)||2012/13||43||11||8||19||0.44||1.48|
It’s worth noting that no players in the top 100 played fewer minutes than him and that Atlant weren’t a particularly great team; they barely missed the playoffs, and had a negative goal differential. This all looks very good, and is a positive sign for his future efficiency, but it was obvious that he’d have to make an opportunistic leap this year if he wanted a shot at becoming a top-end player.
There were two routes for Soshnikov to take. He could sign with another KHL team; Atlant ran into financial difficulties and, at least for now, are out of the league. Or, he could take a swing at making it in North America. That’s exactly what he did, picking the Leafs because he felt that Toronto’s rebuild would give him the most opportunity to play.
In that regard, I feel a little bad for him; the “sign all the players” strategy has initially proven to be stellar asset management on Toronto’s part, but because of it, he and the rest of the Marlies are playing very even minutes, to the point where you wonder if he’s even playing more minutes than he was with Atlant.
But one thing’s for sure; he’s starting to look like a quality player. Admittedly, his opening weekend with the Marlies left a lot to be desired; he was often out of position, and seemed a bit nervous around the boards. But that’s normal for players who come over from Europe, even if they’ve played on North American ice in the past. The ice has different relative shape, which throws off a lot of timing and distance based estimations in your play. It takes a few serious games to get fully back in that groove.
Last weekend’s games featured a much improved Soshnikov. He was calmer when heading towards the boards, and while he wasn’t quite a bull in a china shop, he looked more confident in his ability to bump into an opponent or two. His pacing and positioning looked more in line with his teammates. Most importantly, though, he was starting to crash the net, dodging his opponents with ease and brushing them aside when he wasn’t. Pucks weren’t going in, but it was only a matter of time before they’d start.
This was something that he proved this weekend. He scored his first North American goal on Friday night in Toronto’s 8-2 assault on the Rochester Americans, and tonight, he looked confident from the get go. It was his line that did the dirty work, starting with Frederik Gauthier’s first pro tally at the four-minute mark. But if the Marlies were going to win this game, they’d need more than just one goal, and it would have to come from an unusual suspect; particularly with Byron Froese up with the Leafs and William Nylander, TJ Brennan, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, and Viktor Loov all up in the press box as part of Sheldon Keefe’s rotational experimentation.
Nikita Soshnikov puts the Marlies up 2-0 pic.twitter.com/5WLTZ9me34
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 25, 2015
Soshnikov was there to make it work. He banged in his own rebound four minutes after Gauthier’s tally; a situation created by Rich Clune distracting his opponents with the gritty things he does. Soshnikov had lots of time to get the puck across the line, and he did; though, he did it by millimetres. If he wanted to truly impress, he was going to have to score another goal that was a little more conclusive than that.
After Taylor Leier scored a shorthanded goal at the period’s midway mark to turn the tables, an encore became more of a necessity than a convenience. Thankfully, he went on another trademark rush into the slot, and pulled this out of his back pocket:
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 25, 2015
The speed he used and the confidence he had to find an opening in the Phantoms’ triangle on this one is staggering, and it made all the difference. Anthony Stolarz clearly wasn’t expecting it, and it gave Toronto the insurance they needed to run the rest of the game on cruise control. While Antoine Bibeau certainly held the fort with a 21 save performance, this eventually devolved into a neutral-zone game with more angry pushes than scoring chances. It was just what the doctor ordered after a disappointing loss to Binghamton, and helped the team end on a high note.
Soshnikov is one of just five Marlies to play in all seven games; perhaps indicating he’s due for his rotation moment soon (Sam Carrick, Richard Clune, Justin Holl, and Andrew Campbell are the others). But in the meantime, he’s averaging more than two shots per game, and now the goals are coming. He may not be the highest profile prospect in this group, but if this weekend is any indication, he might be worth some attention moving forward.
The Marlies return to Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday, when they take on the Syracuse Crunch.