Gavrikov keen on crossing the ocean as a fully developed player

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Vladislav Gavrikov - Team Russia

Photo: Yaroslavl Lokomotiv defenseman and 2014 prospect Vladislav Gavrikov is ranked 17th among European skaters for the 2014 NHL Draft by Central Scouting (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

One of the top-ranked Russian defensemen for the 2014 NHL Draft, Vladislav Gavrikov, had an eventful season, culminating with his inclusion in NHL Central Scouting's draft rankings.

Just as he did the previous two seasons, the young defenseman spent the 2013-14 season in the MHL with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. In 45 regular season games, Gavrikov scored three goals and 12 points, adding two helpers in seven playoff clashes. The Yaroslavl, Russia native also skated with Team Russia at the Subway Super Series, where he recorded two assists in six games.

“Being included in the rankings was definitely pleasant”, Gavrikov said. “But it means nothing. You need to wait for the draft itself, and only by then can you say anything.”

Gavrikov is already in North America practicing for the NHL Draft at a Steve Saunders PowerTrain Sports Institute, and will take part in the draft ceremony.

“I’m going to participate [in the draft]. Right now, I’m practicing just a couple of hours by plane from Philadelphia”, Gavrikov explained. “I think that [Saunders’ camp] is good, I’m following an individual program working with a control trainer. It’s very good to have the chance to practice here.”

Gavrikov also declared not to be interested in being chosen by any particular team. “I don’t have any preference regarding teams. I just want to get drafted.”

This season has been good for Gavrikov on a personal level, although Lokomotiv once again failed to go deep into the playoffs, missing out on the being one of the final 16 teams.

“It’s hard to explain why we do not have a chance to advance much in the post-season; I think it has been a matter of details. It’s even more puzzling if you consider that each year we have a good team”, Gavrikov said about his team’s lack of success in the MHL, the Russian junior league built under the umbrella of the KHL and comprising two leagues of different levels, with a total of 70 teams from 9 different countries. This season, Lokomotiv was the top team in the regular season, but in the playoffs they did not make it through the final round of 16, losing to SKA St. Petersburg’s junior team.

Gavrikov noted that playing in the Russian MHL has made him a better player. “I feel like my play has gotten better, with each game going on you feel yourself [getting] better and stronger. I think that playing in the MHL made me a better player overall.”

The late ’95-born rearguard in the past was paired with Rushan Rafikov (CGY), but this year things changed a bit. ”This year it happened that I did not have a constant linemate. But I spent the biggest part of the season playing with Pavel Koledov”. Koledov is a 20-year-old defenseman who hails from Novosibirsk and represented Russia in the last two Subway Super Series and at the 2013 World Junior Championship.

Gavrikov still has good ties with Rafikov, however, saying that on the team Rafikov is nicknamed “Flame” and that he was very glad that he was drafted, and that right after last year's draft Gavrikov sent him an SMS with his congratulations. Gavrikov did not want to reply to the question about who’s better between he and Rafikov, though. “That’s something that other people should judge, not me”, Gavrikov replied with a smile.

Gavrikov and Rafikov were the last cuts of this year’s WJC team, a decision that baffled many people, considering the class level of the two defenders. “It was simply a coach’s decision. Anyway, it was great to be at the pre-tournament camp and go to Sweden. I thank them for the opportunity.”

The two players were both part of the Lokomotiv franchise on September 7th, 2011, one of the worst days in the history of hockey, when the airplane carrying Lokomotiv's top team crashed right after departure, killing the whole senior team along with most of the team’s personnel.

“I still think a lot about that day”, Gavrikov said with evident emotions. “After the first few minutes, when we got the news, it was just emptiness. I couldn’t understand what was actually going on, it was just an awful feeling. And it was even tougher because, when it’s with your friends like that… it has been one of the worst days of my life.”

But life has to go on and later that year, Gavrikov was a part of the team which won gold at the World U17 Hockey Challenge with a strong, ’95-born Team Russia. The same team, however, did not manage to repeat that strong result at the 2012 U18 World Championship.

“I simply think that we lacked a bit of luck [during the U18’s]. Especially in the semifinals game against Team USA, we were up 3-2 with 5 minutes to go, and literally, two minutes to the end of the game they scored a very strange goal… Then we lost after the shoot-out. We thought that we were going to play in the Gold Medal game, and then…”

Gavrikov traveled to Canada once again in 2013 to skate in the Subway Super Series. He said that he was already used to the small ice, so no adjustment was required. But he also highlighted many other aspects of that experience.

“The level of the game in the series is unbelievable”, said Gavrikov. “The atmosphere, the games, the struggle on the ice… awesome. I’m very glad for the opportunity to play there.”

The defenseman also said that he felt the three Canadian teams (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) were of equal quality. “Frankly speaking, it’s not easy to highlight a single team or player. All three were very good, with very good leaders. All three teams played at a very high level.”

The 18-year-old Gavrikov, who singled out former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom as his favorite player during his childhood, started playing at the age of six. Twelve years later, he faces a hard decision. While in the past there was almost no other choice than to develop in Russia before moving to the NHL (like the players from Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kovalchuk’s generation), nowadays there are more success stories of players who play major junior hockey in North America (like Kulikov, Yakupov, and Grigorenko), even if the more traditional path keeps on delivering good results (with players like Bobrovsky or, more recently, Nichushkin).

“I think that there are two different paths” Gavrikov said of his career choices. “You can go there earlier and learn how to play high-level hockey. Or you can wait a bit and go there as a fully-developed player, who can step up and show everyone how good he is. I think that this second variant is closer to me.”

Gavrikov, who depicts himself as more of a stay-at-home defenseman who can also contribute to the offensive game, in one detail is ahead of most Russian prospects who prepare for the NHL Draft: at 6’2” and 200 pounds, he has an NHL body, although he still feels the need to work on it. “You need to work all the time with your body, no matter what. Of course you need also to work on your technique, skating, stickhandling… It’s always necessary to become better and work on everything.”

Just like the majority of Russians, Gavrikov closely followed the 2014 Olympic tournament on home soil with the disappointing results recorded by Team Russia. “It’s hard to say what did not work”, Gavrikov noticed. “My opinion is that probably they lacked team unity. Moreover, those were the home Olympic Games, and the pressure was twice as hard as usual.”

If he continues to progress and goes on to play in the NHL, Gavrikov might have a chance to avenge the bad results in Sochi at a future edition of the Olympics. But it will be a long road, one that could begin in earnest next week in Philadelphia, PA.

Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso