“I don’t have plans for KHL. I have plans for NHL,” a rather loose Evgeny Svechnikov exclaimed during a Sunday morning interview, prior to a clash with the Saint John Sea Dogs.
The Russian, who was picked second overall in the 2013 KHL Draft by Ak Bars Kazan, is in his first season with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. With 49 points in 38 games, he is one of the team’s leading scorers, and has been one of the more dynamic players in the league this season.
His comfort level both on and off the ice gives the impression that he’s played the North American style of hockey for years, or at least, he’s been immersed in the culture for some time. But that’s not the case; rather, Svechnikov arrived in Cape Breton in late August as a fresh-faced 17-year-old rookie with no experience on the smaller ice surface and no handle on the English language whatsoever.
“No, I come to Canada not knowing nothing, zero,” he said, with a self-aware grin. “Learning English with teacher, big progress I think, and I’m excited about how I know English right now.”
It’s often the case that Russians will come to North America with an eye on the NHL, but the language and cultural barrier can be troublesome. It may – and sometimes does – take years for some to speak English with the relative ease Svechnikov does now. And though his grasp of the English language isn’t exactly the be-all, end-all for his 2015 NHL Draft stock, it’s certainly representative of his dedication and drive to succeed in his dream of playing in the NHL.
It’s something that’s not lost on his coach, Marc-Andre Dumont, either.
“Absolutely,” said Dumont. “There’s not even a doubt in my mind that he’s here to play hockey in the NHL and nothing else.”
And while his commitment off the ice has been impressive, it’s his play on the ice that has scouts talking. Svechnikov is ranked 21st among all North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting and 18th by ISS Hockey. Almost every scouting outlet agrees that he’s a first-round talent. But Svechnikov, by his own admission, has higher hopes for himself.
“Of course I want to go first round. I want to go top 10,” he said. “Everyone wants to play in the NHL, the best league in the world.”
The Screaming Eagles selected Svechnikov with their second selection in the 2013 CHL Import Draft, the same year Ak Bars Kazan took the slick winger second overall in the KHL Draft. A high honor indeed, Svechnikov stayed in Russia that season, hoping to log minutes in a professional league. Instead, he played just three games with the team and was often a healthy scratch. He did, however, play in 29 games for Kazan’s junior team, where he posted 29 points. He also suited up for his country in the U18 World Championship, posting seven points in five games.
“I try last year playing in KHL (but) I played just three games and I was not all season with the team,” he explained. “That’s tough for a young player; it’s like NHL league, not really, but kind of. That’s why I came to Canada, it’s a lot of games here (and) more chance to play in the NHL.”
He admits to noticing a big difference in the size of the ice surface – “First time when you come into Canada, it’s tough. Keep your head up, you need to learn forecheck and the physical game, it’s very small ice.” – but taking a look at his statistics, you wouldn’t get that impression. In fact, the month of September was the Russian’s most productive month offensively.
He scored a goal and added two helpers in his QMJHL debut against the Moncton Wildcats, and in seven games total posted 14 points.
It didn’t take Dumont long to realize what kind of talent he had in Svechnikov.
“His offensive hockey sense is outstanding, as well as his shot,” the coach said. “Both are equal assets. He’s got an amazing wrist shot and one-timer, but he’s also able to distribute the puck tremendously well.”
There are a number of factors that can be attributed to the Russian’s comfort level and early on-ice success. Cape Breton, and Dumont specifically, has a history with coaching and developing Russian players. With the Val d’Or Foreurs, prior to his joining Cape Breton as head coach, Dumont coached Arteem Sergeev (TBL), a player he remembers fondly.
It doesn’t hurt that Svechnikov, since arriving, has been extremely receptive to the Cape Breton coaching staff.
“I love the passion level in the gym, on the ice, at practice. He wants to be coached,” Dumont said.
But the biggest factor may be Svechnikov’s Russian teammate, Maxim Lazarev, whom the Screaming Eagles selected in the first round of the 2013 CHL Import Draft. Lazarev came to Cape Breton the following season. As a second-year player with the team, he has been able to assist Svechnikov in his transition to the North American game and lifestyle.
“He helped me first (when) I came to Canada, translated things, told me things, and we played together before (coming to) Canada for years. I know him so good,” Svechnikov said.
Ironically enough, however, Svechnikov’s first game with the Screaming Eagles was played in Ufa, Russia, where it was his Canadian teammates who had to deal with language and cultural barriers.
The Screaming Eagles represented Canada in the Junior Club World Cup in late August, where Svechnikov first met with his future teammates.
“It was really cool for everyone on the team. Just with Canadian players going to Russia … It was really fun and nice.
“It’s funny,” he added, laughing. “Just remembering everybody being excited to see Russia, Russian people, stores and malls.”
Now, Svechnikov is a big reason why his team is currently enjoying a strong start to 2015. The Screaming Eagles are 8-2 in their last 10 games, and the 6’3” winger has 12 points during that span. He also recently took part in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game; suiting up for Team Cherry, he was held pointless, but his skill and hockey sense stood out.
“It was really nice experience,” he recalled of the event. “It was a fun game, important people there, you know, like Don Cherry, Bobby Orr. Nice atmosphere and the game was good. A lot of good players, top-5, top-10 (projected).”
It was the first glimpse of national exposure for Svechnikov who, when pressed for the strongest asset of his game, pauses for the first time in the interview, searching for the words.
Finally, grinning, the Russian opens his mouth – “Big time … Big games, I’m good.”
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7