So, Brendan Shanahan signs this high-end, goal-scoring, young Russian prospect.

Intense kid. He’s got some speed and a nice shot, but mostly he’s a real puck predator. He wants the puck, he wants to take it to the net, and he wants to shoot. He’s not afraid to hit people, work on the boards, or drive into traffic, either.

Name of Nikita Soshnikov.

Shanahan signs him for three years, over the heads of the other NHL bidders, and that hasn’t happened in Leafland in a while. Targeting a high-scoring young Russian is an enormously big break from former Leaf managements.

So how did Shanny find this kid? And just how good can he be? Let’s go to Moscow.

***

Slava Kozlov was Shanahan’s teammate in Detroit for years, including two Cup wins. The youngest of the Russian 5, he eventually moved back to the KHL and played last season with a Moscow-based team, Atlant Mytishchi.

Alongside a young winger named Nikita Soshnikov.

Now, that’s a pretty direct connection. Soshnikov to Kozlov to Shanahan. Boom. And it’s a high quality connection as well.

As an old Detroit teammate, for instance, Kozlov will know precisely the kind of puck possession game Shanahan wants. Having scored 853 NHL points, Kozlov knows what NHL success requires. Plus, he just spent the entire season playing and practicing alongside Soshnikov. And Kozlov has a great hockey mind — he retired this year and has stepped into coaching already.

His views are likely to be a pretty big upgrade over the kind of thing you’d get from a scout sitting in the stands and watching a few games.

Now, officially, the Leafs say the tip came through assistant coach Evgeny Namestnikov, who they’d hired. Okay, sure, that could be the case. After all, Namestnikov’s son played junior for the London Knights, so maybe he knew Mark Hunter and the connection came in that way.

But it’s worth noting that Namestnikov is also the brother-in-law to… Slava Kozlov. He may have just been asked to be the official contact for a Kozlov-Shanahan link.

Anyway, perhaps it came through Namestnikov. It’s hard to tell, but regardless of who initiated the contact, that’s two top-notch information wires in a network that runs back to the Leafs. And Shanahan’s Russian network goes well beyond this. For starters:

Slava Fetisov: Just elected to the KHL board, Shanahan played with him on his first NHL team, and then on his first Cup-winning team in Detroit. Lou Lamoriello famously brought him over to the NHL.

Sergei Fedorov: General Manager of the Red Army team, Shanahan played with him, and Babcock coached him in Anaheim.

Igor Larionov: A high-profile agent for numerous Russian players, Shanahan played with him, and he ended his career in New Jersey with Lou.

Just on their own, these three former players likely have connections to about three quarters of Russian hockey. They’re enormous names to know.

Plus, Kozlov is now assistant coach at Spartak Moscow. Evgeny Namestnikov is now assistant coach at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Andrei Nikolishin – a young player on the Hartford team Shanny Captained – is now head coach at Traktor Chelyabinsk.

The network goes on and on, and even includes a surprising number of Shanny’s old teammates still playing in Europe, from Nigel Dawes in the KHL to Marcel Hossa in the Czech Republic. Interesting that Hossa [who played with Shanahan for two seasons on the Rangers] spent last year on the Riga team in Latvia — a Riga team with a junior arm where a kid named Martins Dzierkals starred last year.

In fact, I suspect Brendan Shanahan’s network could pull detailed information on an individual prospect out of almost any rink in Russia, which is yards ahead of a lot of other NHL executives who are still making decisions based on generalizations like “the Russian factor.”

Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com
Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com

So what information got Shanny excited enough to reach into Russia to sign Soshnikov?

When you look at him this year, in pre-season and then in the AHL, Soshnikov has been reasonably strong. He’s on pace for almost 25 goals and Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe has stated that he’s been the team’s best player on several nights. And he’s having to do this while learning a new language and adjusting to smaller rinks.

Plus, he’s doing this while usually playing with very defensively-minded linemates, such as Freddie Gauthier. Clearly, the Leafs are working on Soshnikov’s defensive game, and letting him settle in.

The real question becomes: Can a kid with his speed, shot and aggression on offence actually turn into a solid NHL’er? After all, that’s why a Shanahan would have reached into the KHL for him. Let’s briefly look at what he did in the KHL last year.

What jumps out immediately is that Soshnikov went through exactly the same transition last year — from bottom liner to top liner.

At first glance, just on paper, looking at the usual stats, Soshnikov’s nothing fancy.

He just turned 22, and originally went undrafted. He’s not big at 5’ 11” and 185 lbs. He’s got no international pedigree. Last year in the KHL, he put up 32 points in 57 games, good enough for just 81st in scoring.

Now, to your average, deep-dish disillusioned Leaf fan, getting the 81st-best Russian forward smells about as exciting as a damp bag of hockey gear. So why would Shanny go through all the hassle to pick this kid?

Well, it turns out Soshnikov’s boxcar stats carry some interesting freight, and once they’re unpacked it’s clear what Shanahan was hearing.

Compared with other players his own age – KHL’ers 21 or younger – Soshnikov ranked second in goals and points last year. That’s not bad.

Plus, every goal Soshnikov got was at even strength. That’s even better.

Most importantly, when Soshnikov’s KHL team began selling off its veterans partway through the year, kids like Soshnikov were given a lot more minutes, and bigger roles. Faced with opportunity, Soshnikov didn’t just step up….

Nikita Soshnikov TOI
Nikita Soshnikov TOI

He lifted off.

His scoring exploded from 0.3 PPG to 0.85 over his last 26 games, and then on up to 1.0 PPG for the last 15. Scoring at a point per game in the KHL puts you in the Top 10 in the league.

Soshnikov was scoring at that pace at age 21.

As he took off, all of his stats doubled – goals, assists, points per 60 – across the board. His shooting percentage rose to 13.3% — closer to his 15.4% shooting in junior.

Soshnikov’s KHL boxcar stats — once broken down — show us that he can turn it up when given the chance to play with higher-end offensive talent.

To see what his potential is we’ll compare him with some other Russians, but we’ll use both the stats from his full season  and his pace over the last 26 games.

Here’s Soshnikov versus some Russian Leafs at similar ages.

NameAgePPG
Nikita Soshnikov - Last 26 GP21.20.85
Nik Kulemin21.30.58
Nikita Soshnikov - Full year210.56
Mikhail Grabovski21.70.56
Leo Komarov22.80.34
Nikolai Borschevsky23.70.34
Sergei Berezin20.90.32
Alexei Ponikarovsky24.50.32

Soshnikov scored at least as fast as Grabovski, and miles ahead of Komarov.

Which is worth noting when you hear he’s “just another, younger Komarov.” He scored twice as well.

Here’s Soshnikov vs. other Russian free agents coming to the NHL this year.

[These are 5v5 Points/60 that I broke out from last season, but note that the KHL doesn’t break out PP TOI.] [And a special thanks to @CurtisMMorrisson for the KHL stats!]

NameAge5v5 P/60
Nikita Soshnikov - Last 26 GP212.77
Artemi Panarin - Chi Free Agent232.36
Nikita Soshnikov - Full Year212.05
Anton Slepyshev - Edm 21 Pick20.41.83
Sergei Plotnikov - Pitts Free Agent24.31.61
Viktor Tikhonov - Chi Free Agent26.41.3
Kirill Petrov - NY Isles Free Agent24.51.12
Alexander Burmistrov -Wpg 1st Rd231.1
Sergei Kalinin - NJ Free Agent23.50.97

Russian hockey is low-scoring, and a lot of players rack up their points on the powerplay. With Soshnikov, once you focus in you can see just how much he was tearing up the league in 5v5 play. Again this year with the Marlies, all but one of Soshnikov’s points have come at 5v5.

But last year, at 5v5, Soshnikov scored far faster than Chicago’s Tikhonov, the Pens’ Plotnikov and Jets’ Burmistov, and, in addition, is two to five years younger.

If you’re Shanahan and thinking of where you want on the Leafs to be three-to-five years from now, Soshnikov could be your best choice.

Of course, Artemi Panarin looks like this year’s best new Russian, a skilled kid who could go big-time in Chicago. But he’s only 160-170 pounds, has been hurt before, and is going to have to prove himself over the long haul.

[Interesting here that Panarin’s agent specifically short-listed NHL teams with histories of knowing how to support Russian players in making the transition, which likely left the Leafs out. But I’ll bet Shanny noted the value of Chicago having special support for players transitioning into North America]

Just for fun, here’s Soshnikov’s 5v5 goal scoring versus some other NHL’ers in the KHL, just to get a sense of how he looks with some high-end goal-scorers.

NameAge5v5 G/60
Nikita Soshnikov - Last 2621.21.46
Vladimir Tarasenko20.81.18
Nail Yakupov191.13
Alexander Ovechkin271.12
Nikita Soshnikov - Full Yr211.06
Ilya Kovalchuk31.40.97
Pavel Datsyuk34.10.95
Mikhail Grabovski28.70.95
Evgeny Kuznetsov20.30.91
Evgeni Malkin26.20.87
Jiri Sekac21.30.73
Alexander Semin28.50.7
Jori Lehtera24.80.68
Nick Backstrom24.80.61
Nik Kulemin26.20.6
Leo Komarov26.70.43

Just to be 1,000,000% clear, I don’t believe Soshnikov is in the same league as an Ovechkin or Malkin or Tarasenko [please reread that a few times].

But what is striking is that those numbers — on the full year, or the half-year when he moved up to the top-line — show a lot more upside potential than I’d ever imagined.

Once Keefe and the Leafs have taught Soshnikov the system, and have given him some time to adjust and learn the language a bit, maybe they’ll start to play him with some scorers, and we’ll see if Soshnikov’s talent can carry him into a top six slot on the Leafs.

Sure, he’ll be up against Kapanen and Brown and maybe Marner and Andreas Johnson and Bracco and Timashov and others to come, but I wouldn’t bet entirely against him. He’s got a lot of skill, and a lot of hunger.

***

Style-wise, we’ve all now seen Soshnikov in at least a few games on our smaller rinks. He’s looked strong, even for his first time on smaller rinks, and even with low-offence linemates.

But it’s worth a look at how he plays when he gets comfortable. Here he is last year in full-flight, against Ilya Kovalchuk and Artemi Panarin and the top CKSA team. Watch the way Soshnikov goes to the net, the way he wants the puck.

Say what you will, this kid looks to me to have that Ovie-style enthusiasm, that ferocity that some goal-hunters have.

Mark Hunter says:

“Soshnikov can adapt quickly to the North American game. He plays our style of hockey.”

“Our style of hockey” — that’s music to my ears.

And here is Soshnikov talking about Leo Komarov.

“I like his style. He leaves everything – his soul – out on the ice.”

In Soshnikov’s interviews, you actually get that same sense of hunger. One reporter listed off a series of downsides and risks, like taking a pay-cut and having to play in the AHL and Toronto’s “hypercritical” media and “famously passionate” fans, and Soshnikov said:

“I’m scared of nothing.”

So, I like Soshnikov’s stats. I like his attitude, the joy he takes in goal-hunting, and that little bit of crazy edge he plays with, like Danny Markov had.

And, obviously, I like that Shanahan and company got him without using a draft pick — by using their network. To me, this kid’s a dynamite pick-up.

Soshnikov. Scared of nothing.

[wherein: crowd noises] [RUBLESRUBLESRUBLES!]

Of course, when it comes to free agents, Brendan Shanahan doesn’t have nearly the financial voltage of the KHL’s billionaires.

But, if a KHL team wobbles, the Leafs are now in a position at least to pick up talent – which they haven’t been in for years.

Just like in Soshnikov’s case, where his team went into financial collapse last year and by Christmas was selling off veterans. That meant Kozlov, Namestnikov and Soshnikov had to make plans on the fly. Even though a number of NHL teams bid on Soshnikov, Shanahan and the Leafs were in quick, up close and strong, and signed him.

At times like that, when potential free agents spring up that can be signed, it doesn’t hurt that the Leafs are the world’s wealthiest hockey club.

Make no mistake, Brendan Shanahan targeting a high-scoring young Russian like Soshnikov — something the Leafs hadn’t attempted in decades — would have signalled to many that the Leafs have entered the Russian game.

Now, Shanahan obviously knows that the Leafs need much more of a systematic approach than just occasionally poaching a kid who pops free. Luckily for the Leafs, while the salary cap constrains many uses of the team’s wealth, spending in Europe and Russia is a much freer area.

So Shanahan has gone to work.

For example, the Leafs have started constructing a world-class European scouting system. Given the Leafs decades of organizational inability to pull out top young European talent — beginning during Ballard’s years of white-hot hatreds and running down through Burke’s near-closure of the team’s European arm — Shanahan decided to start by cleaning house.

So, he fired all the European scouts except two — Thommie Bergman, and Ladygin from Russia. And then he and Mark Hunter hired in Ari Vuori – a Finn, with 20 years in Detroit’s top-notch European scouting system. And Robert Nordmark, with seven years in Phoenix and Edmonton. Two scouts who come with enormous, built-in, European networks.

That house cleaning marked a second, very clear, statement of intent by the Leafs.

The Leafs have also made clear that they’re interested in picking up more than just the one young European and Russian free agent, as we’ll see in the next post on Nikita Zaitsev of the Red Army.

Since sometimes these kinds of international signings can be delicate, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Leafs develop an extended network of intermediaries – beyond the usual team scouts, and a bit like with Kozlov/Namestnikov — to help with the intricate in’s and out’s of making arrangements inside Russia; people who can also work through the key personnel at each club, and who can perhaps provide a means of handling payment of any formal fees or informal… “transaction costs.”

All of which also means, should another KHL team stumble, the Leafs will have in place the kind of machinery necessary to scoop up any talent.

***

To me, it looks as though – for the first time in decades – Brendan Shanahan has the Leafs actively and aggressively engaged in searching Russia for serious talent — top-line talent, not roster filler, and that’s key.

Okay, Soshnikov isn’t Ovechkin, nor are we somehow going to magically sign one half of the Russian national team.

But Shanny’s Leafs are already breaking 40 years of bad patterns in Russia, and completely restructuring their European scouting. For once, they’re signing high-end kids, not filler. All good things.

Somewhere in the back of Brendan Shanahan’s mind, I’ll bet he can’t help but dream about hunting down the sort of top-end talent he’s seen come out of Russia before.

Maybe even a new Russian 5.

Only this time, for Toronto.

In fact, I’ll bet you rubles to ponchiki that’s exactly what Shanny’s working on.

P.S. Look, let’s admit it Leaf fans: Beyond the speed and skill and all that, wouldn’t it be a blast just to have some of that Russian colour and craziness around?

SHAIBU! SHAIBU!

Read the rest of the series here:

  1. Brendan Shanahan gets “puck possessed” – Part I
  2. Reversing the curse – Part II
  3. Shanny listens to his Leaf gut – Part III
  4. Nylander, Kapanen and Shanny’s Fancy Foreign Friends – Part IV
  5. Shanahan and Soshnikov – The Kid Who’s Scared of Nothing – Part V
  6. Nikita Zaitsev: Part of the new Maple Leaf Russian 5? Part VI
  7. Brendan Shanahan: He’s Changed – Part VII