Saving Private Svitov

By Pete Choquette

Kudos to agent Jay Grossman for finally getting Alexander Svitov out of Russia. After a year long struggle which took the young center from the isolated extremes of Siberia, to the courtrooms of Moscow, Svitov finally has finalized his NHL contract and will be free to begin his career in North America. At the conclusion of the lengthy saga, Lightning fans and even the front office seem enthusiastic on seeing Svitov begin the year in Tampa at the start of the 2002-2003 campaign.

But let me interject some realism into this situation. It may be icy pragmatism, but it could save the Lightning considerable trouble down the road. In the span of the last year can you guess the number of competitive hockey games Alexander Svitov has been able to play? Answer: twelve.

Twelve

True, Alexander Svitov may have been considered the most NHL-ready pick at the draft a year ago, but that was a year ago. Since then, the most action Svitov has seen were his five contests at the 2002 WJC’s where, alleged spitting and sucker punching aside, Svitov posted two goals and an assist along with 43 penalty minutes (and a suspension to boot). Before that, he appeared in a mere three contests with his club team, Omsk, before being transferred to a military unit in Moscow. In those three games he saw exceptionally limited ice time on the fourth line. Late in the year, he saw four games of action at the Big Prize tourney in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was among offensive leaders with five goals and an assist in four games. He also chipped in 33 penalty minutes. In the mean time, Svitov has only been able to practice regularly with the Russian army’s upper league team, CSKA, of which last year’s Lightning second round pick Alexander Polushin is a member. So, before fans and management alike become too preoccupied with clambering for young Svitov’s NHL debut, let me suggest a more logical alternative — an open plea to Jay Feaster and the Lightning front office.

Start Svitov With Springfield in the AHL

365 days ago Svitov already had to tackle the problems of learning a new language and culture, a task doubly difficult than that of the usual adjustments needed for foreign players because of Alexander’s remote origins in rugged Siberia. Taking him from that environment straight into the relatively glamorous life of an NHL player touring the major metropolises of North America was going to stand as challenge enough, on top of the adjustment to the smaller rinks and the speed of the NHL game. After all he’s been through, adding a potential slow start to a pressure-driven NHL season could cause serious harm to his development.

Springfield Right for Svitov

Rather than throwing Alexander Svitov into the bright lights and big cities of the National Hockey League, perhaps the smaller town of Springfield, Massachusetts and the other AHL markets around the continent would better lend themselves to a gradual adjustment to the North American lifestyle and culture. More than that, with greater ice time available and a slower pace than the big league club, playing for the Springfield Falcons for at least a half a season would allow Svitov to ease back into competition without harming his psyche or outlook on the game. It also bears mentioning, somewhat tongue in cheek, with the recent hiring by the Phoenix Coyotes of a similarly colorful and physically spirited person like Marty McSorley as head coach of the Falcons, the environment could be just right for the center to cut his teeth on North American hockey.

Alexeev Should Be There Too

Also in attendance at the press conference celebrating the signing of Svitov was the previous year’s first round selection Nikita Alexeev. Alexeev came to North America to play junior hockey for the Erie Otters and, in the process, made a strong adjustment in learning the language and culture. He could become a key in helping Svitov make a similar leap in learning everything from the English language to finding places to eat. For different reasons than Svitov, I believe Alexeev should begin the year in Springfield as well. The fact he could become a good friend and role model for Svitov is a bonus.

Alexeev tantalized Lightning fans in forty-four games with the big club last year tallying four goals and four assists. The native of Morminsk boasts the type of game-breaking speed that makes opposing defender’s knees buckle, as we saw many times this past playoff season with Carolina winger Erik Cole. Yes, the 6 foot 5 Alexeev has that kind of speed, and towards the end of the 2001-2002 season he showed the ability to blow by defenders for partial or full breakaways about once a game.

As wonderful as Alexeev’s speed and considerable frame is on paper, his offensive instincts and finishing ability haven’t quite caught up yet. His finishing, much maligned by many, has seen incremental improvement over the last two seasons and must continue to do so if he is to grow into an NHL level goalscorer. The question is would that development come more quickly playing twelve minutes a night on a checking line with the Lightning or eighteen minutes a night on a top line with the Springfield Falcons? With such a minimal budget and the emphasis on making the playoffs this season, the temptation is to rush former first rounders Alexeev and Svitov. But do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Can they do their respective jobs that much better than veterans like Brian Holzinger and Tim Taylor, or wingers like Ben Clymer, Sheldon Keefe, or Jimmie Olvestad? If the team simply allows them 30 to 40 games to continue to grow at the AHL level, they will be rewarded, in my opinion, with much stronger and NHL-ready players who will be up to the test of a potential playoff stretch run. Patience, as they say, is a virtue. Lightning fans should collectively hope Jay Feaster is extremely virtuous with Alexeev and Svitov.