Whenever a 17-year old makes the coveted Team Russia roster for the Subway Super Series, eyebrows raise and brows furrow.
“Who is this kid? I thought he had 11 points in 52 games last season and now he is skating on a line with Anton Zlobin (PIT 173rd overall ’12) and Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF 12th overall ’12).”
Instead of stumbling playing on a line with such highly touted NHL prospects 2013 draft-eligible forward Valentin Zykov dazzled onlookers, forcing their attention back to the program momentarily to identify the big Russian.
In the first game of the series Zykov scored a goal and had an assist, finishing with an impressive plus-3 rating. For those who did their research prior to the series, they would’ve noticed the Baie-Comeau rookie was bursting out of his shell as a rookie in the QMJHL.
Zykov may be Russian, but he plays like a Canadian. He may not appreciate that given his remarks about the Canadian squad getting favorable calls during the Summit Series. Yet, his translation to the CHL has been remarkably smooth and as a big-bodied 6’1 215-pound right-winger, Zykov is quickly learning to utilize his frame.
The place he works best is from the bottom of the circles down. He has a gritty, hard-nosed style that compliments his soft hands and strong puck control. Gifted with a large body at a young age, the Russian stood out in the MHL skating with CSKA-Krasnaja Armija Moskva.
Despite tallying just 11 points in 52 games played, Zykov displayed the physical style of play necessary to compete in North America, but is considered too severe in the European system. His 105 penalty minutes were more of a reflection of his tough, strong-on-the-stick mentality beginning in the corners. The Russian gameplay is largely finesse-based valuing artful movements and flow, rather than the hybrid North American brand. Once the Baie-Comeau Drakkar came calling with the 76th overall selection in the CHL Import Draft, Zykov had his opportunity to come compete in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Drakkar found a gem late in the import draft, with just seven players getting selected after they took Zykov. The Russian found vengeance early, taking the league by storm and sustaining his pace throughout the year. After finishing first among rookies in scoring with 40 goals and 75 points, the St. Petersburg native earned QMJHL offensive rookie of the year honors.
In true Russian fashion, Zykov appears stoic in interviews, rarely allowing emotion to escape the stone-cold stare in his eyes. Yet, he remains humble and focused on improving each aspect of his game. It is hard to imagine a young kid feeling unsatisfied with this type of rookie performance, but the resolve of this player at his age is impressive. He understands one good season doesn’t make or break his career, and he needs to continue building upon the success he found this year. People will question his consistency, raising talk of a one-year wonder label based off of his lack of production in Russia. But, the verbal cues and body language Zykov gave off when evaluating himself released a sense of modesty and desire to improve.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Zykov has improved immensely this season has been the play of teammate Petr Straka. Recently signed as a free agent by Philadelphia, Straka led the Drakkar in points this season, which is his first with the team. After playing with HC Plzen in the Czech U18 and U20 leagues, Straka came to North America in search of better competition. He played three seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic before being traded to Baie-Comeau prior to this season. The new additions of Straka and Zykov have brought in a total of 157 points. Although Flyers fans may not pay much attention to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Straka has made the team relevant in the fans’ eyes and if Philly drafts Zykov, fans may ooze over the chemistry coming south from Quebec.
Zykov is a first round talent yet given where the Flyers may end up after the lottery drawing, they may be wise to trade down and accrue draft picks in addition to targeting the Drakkar product. NHL.com had Zykov ranked 8th among North American skaters at the midterm ranking. Given this ranking, the right-winger is the top-rated Russian prospect playing in North America. In the most updated QMJHL rankings on TSN.ca Zykov was ranked 20th in the league, and 4th among 2013 draft eligible skaters.
His ascension in the rankings since coming over to the CHL has drawn his name into many conversations for mid-first round consideration. Given the Flyers’ past of trading away valuable draft picks, trading down a few selections would help bolster the prospect pool in the deepest draft in a decade. The prospect of pairing Zykov with Straka in the Philadelphia farm system would give one of the league’s most uninspiring farms a much-needed jolt.
Yes, the last time the Flyers drafted a European forward in the 1st round was 1996. That year Philly selected Dainius Zubrus 15th overall. Zubrus played for the Pembroke Lumber Kings and the Caledon Canadians prior to being drafted, but came to North America from Lithuania. Zubrus was born in Elektrenai, LTU yet holds duel nationalities with Lithuania and Russia. Zubrus was the closest Philly has come to drafting a Russian early in the draft. The Flyers have never drafted a Russian-born player in the 1st round.
The Flyers have never had great success with adding Russian players given the fact that the most points for a Russian in Flyers’ history is defenseman Dmitri Yushkevich. Philadelphia drafted him 122nd overall in 1991 and in 215 games played for the orange and black Yushkevich tallied 80 points.
Old habits die hard, but it’s time for Philadelphia to dip into the Russian waters for talented youngsters. Zykov’s experience in the QMJHL should encourage Philadelphia to target him, considering the team’s strong interest in players from the three CHL leagues. I could see Zykov and Straka both shining for the Flyers in the near future if they pull the trigger come draft day.