23-year-old winger Nikita Soshnikov enters the final year of his entry-level contract facing intense competition for regular NHL minutes.

2016-17 Season Summary

Coming into the 2016-17 season, Nikita Soshnikov was the forgotten one among the Maple Leafs‘ glut of rookies competing for spots due to an injury he picked up before training camp. Head coach Mike Babcock referred to him as an NHL player at the start of the season but said that the organization’s plan was to get him back to 100% health with the Marlies in the month of October.

Called up by the Leafs early in November, Soshnikov picked up a goal and an assist in his first three games while playing just 8:24 on average. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got for him offensively last season.

Soshnikov battled through a 23-game points slump in December and January, shooting the puck just 24 times over that stretch (11:34 TOI/g). He snapped that scoreless skid with three goals in six games at the end of January/early February before entering an 11-game pointless slump in February and March.

Soshnikov’s injury in late March came at an unfortunate time, as Babcock liked what he was getting out of his fourth line with Soshnikov next to Martin and deadline addition Brian Boyle. In his final five games of the season, Soshnikov averaged 12:48/game, which was his highest TOI segment of the season, and he picked up a goal and an assist in that span.

Overall, Soshnikov tallied just four more points in 45 more games compared to his short NHL stint in 2015-16. That is largely the product of opportunity or lack thereof; he played over 15 minutes a night during his NHL call-up in 2015-16, playing on his strong side with Kadri and Komarov as his most common linemates, compared to 10:51 per game alongside Matt Martin and Ben Smith/Frederik Gauthier on his off-wing in 2016-17.

For Soshnikov’s part, his shots rate was too low last season (1.2/game) and he missed the net quite a bit — missed shots accounted for 34% of his unblocked shot attempts, which was highest among the Leafs’ regular forwards. He has such a wild, hard shot, and he could be more productive if he put pucks in play more often by shooting low for tips and rebounds.

2016-17 Season Statistics

GPGAPtsPP PointsTOI/g5v5 Pts/60ShotsSh%CF%

One area not listed above where Soshnikov shows really well statistically is on the penalty kill. He played a limited role there (1:08/game), but his results were excellent — among players with a minimum of 50 shorthanded minutes played, Nikita Soshnikov’s 0.95 Goals Against Per 60 was the lowest in the NHL.

While a league-wide comparison of his shots against per 60 ranking at 4v5 (72nd in the NHL) versus his on-ice 4v5 save percentage (.977, 1st in the NHL) suggests there was a measure of luck involved, he was on the ice for the fewest shots per 60 on the team on the PK.

Stats aside, Soshnikov covers ice really well, he’s fearless and he wins his fair share of battles, which comes together to make him a useful player in shorthanded situations. This helped give him the edge for the final forward spot over Josh Leivo when he was healthy, but Kasperi Kapanen’s emergence while Soshnikov was out hurt — Kapanen has more talent upside and can also kill penalties — puts his roster spot in question entering the new season.

2017-18 Outlook

One concerning trend throughout Soshnikov’s young NHL career is his injury history: He missed 2016 training camp and started the season with the Marlies because of a hamstring injury sustained before camp opened, he picked up an upper-body injury in February, and his season was ended by a third injury in March.

Soshnikov also picked up a lower-body injury late in the 2015-16 season, forcing him to miss the team’s final 11 games. A question that has to be asked at this point is whether Soshnikov, with his physical frame (5’11, 185), is capable of staying healthy consistently while playing his fearless brand of hockey. With so much depth on the wings pushing through from around and below, Soshnikov can nary afford significant time on the sidelines – a lesson he’s already learned when Kapanen made the most of his opportunity during Soshnikov’s absence at the end of the 2016-17 season.

The Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby recently reported that Soshnikov has been skating in Toronto and appears “hungry” after a summer of rehabbing and conditioning as he prepares to face stiff competition at a position replete with organizational depth.

If he were to make the team, Soshnikov – Dominic Moore – Kapanen has the makings of a fourth line that would stack up very favourably against other fourth lines around the league as a well-balanced checking unit with offensive ability and speed to burn. It’s not difficult to picture that line earning enough trust from Babcock to serve as the Leafs’ de facto third line on some nights.

If Matt Martin’s spot is secure for all 82 games health permitting, however, Soshnikov will be duking it out with Kapanen and Leivo – as well as any training camp dark horses – for the 12th forward spot (Leivo isn’t waiver exempt; Soshnikov and Kapanen are).

Soshnikov, 24 in October, is signed for one more year at a good number — $736,667 — before he becomes an RFA. That makes this upcoming season make or break as far as his future in the organization and in the league is concerned.