There will always be a debate about the best development track for European – and especially Russian – hockey players: is it better to develop at home or in North America? While it is not possible to get a one-size-fits-all reply, there are some stories of success and failure in both cases.
The Russian side has tried to invert the trend of having most of their top-rated players leave for the Canadian junior leagues by creating a national team project similar to what the U.S. created with the NTDP club that competes against USHL and other competition.
With the project being less than one year, it is too early to draw conclusions from this Russian experiment, but the CHL is still a good way to get some much-needed ice time and, most importantly in many cases, better NHL Draft exposure. One Russian player that has chosen the CHL development path over continued development in his own country is Dmitry Zhukenov, a center for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and a Vancouver Canucks prospect.
“I’m happy to be here now,” Zhukenov told Hockey’s Future in his native Russian. “There are not many games to go in the regular season. We’re getting ready for the playoffs.”
Zhukenov is enjoying a good season in the QMJHL, having produced 52 points (15G, 37A) in 59 games with five games remaining in the 2015-16 campaign. With nearly a full season of QMJHL play under his belt, Zhukenov feels that he has become acclimated to the North American game.
“I think that I’m done with [the adaptation] now,” Zhukenov said smiling. “I’m in Canada for nine months right now, I was in America for the preseason camps, then I moved directly here [to Canada].”
The Omsk, Russia, native isn’t the only person in his family tied to hockey. His brother Samat, who is three years older, played defense in Omsk, then in Berdsk in the Russian junior league before being forced to quit hockey because of recurring concussion problems.
“Yes, he is an example to me,” said Zhukenov of his brother. “I started playing hockey after I attended one of his practices, and I loved it. Unfortunately, we never managed to play together. It would have been awesome to play with him, but it didn’t work out.”
Contrary to what other transplanted Russian players have said, Zhukenov doesn’t see a great difference between his coaches in Russia and the coaching he has received in Canada.
“I’m not sure [that Russian and Canadian coaches are really different]. You know, there are different kind of coaches [in both countries].” When asked about his current coach, Yanick Jean, Zhukenov appeared enthusiastic. “He is a great coach, working with him is a true pleasure. He knows when it’s the right time to joke or to be more serious.”
Russian players aren’t known for piling up the penalty minutes, so Zhukenov’s 54 penalty minutes this season is a figure that the coaching staff took note of early on.
“I got all these [penalty minutes] mostly at the start of the season, when I collected some unneeded ones,” admitted Zhukenov. “My coach didn’t scold me, he simply explained to me that I was much more useful for the team on ice, and not in the penalty box.” According to him, there is more fighting in the North American leagues, but he has yet to get involved in one.
The Chicoutimi Sagueneens currently have two drafted players on their roster, one being Zhukenov, and the other is Carolina Hurricanes prospect, Nicolas Roy. But despite his drafted status, Zhukenov doesn’t necessarily see himself as being above his peers.
“I don’t really feel myself with added responsibility because of that,” Zhukenov said of his status as an NHL prospect. “We only need to hit the ice and do our best for the team.”
Zhukenov indicated that the coach is still tinkering with the line combinations, even as the team is approaching the postseason.
“I play with [Jake] Smith, but there isn’t a definite left wing in our line yet,” said Zhukenov. “I play with [Marc-Antoine] Massé or [Nicolas] Guay. We don’t have much of a first or a fourth line. We have four good lines, and everyone can decide the game.”
The Canucks prospect thinks that the two best teams in the QMJHL are the Val d’Or Foreurs and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Regarding players, he highlights the strong play of 2016-eligible and fellow countryman, Vitaly Abramov.
Zhukenov attended the Canucks development camp this summer, and in numerous interviews he has been very vocal in his appreciation of both the high level of organization of the practices and the Canucks organization in general. He said that he is constantly in touch with the team now that he is playing in the CHL.
“Often, [Canucks] scouts attend my games,” said Zhukenov. “They are mostly satisfied with my game, although they are always asking me to work on my body. And they also give a lot of attention to different tactical aspects of the game.
“The [rookie] camp [in Vancouver] was unforgettable. I think I can call it the best period of this whole season. Being part of the Canucks’ system [is] nothing short of great.”
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitte via @AlexSerenRosso