Add Sergei Ogorodnikov to a long list of 2004 draftees who are using the ECHL to adjust to the pro game. But coming from a puck possession hockey culture, the Russian native has had an even greater style adjustment than most players, along with in rink size and language.
“They told me they sent me down to get more ice time,” he said. “Get better in the D zone, play more power plays, get more shots. Get more comfortable here.”
Last year he played for Ufa Salavat Yulayev and CSKA Moscow in the Russian Super League.
“I’m still 20 years [old], that’s why I need more ice time, that’s why I came here.”
In Bridgeport, the 6’1, 185-pound natural center was playing fourth-line pivot, and sometimes third-line wing. He played on the power play, but rarely on the penalty kill, collecting two goals and two assists in 21 games.
Bridgeport told the rookie that his stay with Pensacola would be for a little while, maybe 10 games. It’s been 13 games so far, but things seem to be working out well.
Pensacola can sure use his help — their 9-26-1-1 record is the worst in the entire 25-team league. They’ve already gone through a head coach and are now lead by interim head coach Joe Clark. Their playing conditions don’t help matters. The Ice Pilots didn’t skate for three days last week while their ice was unavailable. They arrived on Friday in Gwinnett and skated for an hour in preparation for the game against the Gladiators on Saturday. Ogorodnikov said it was tough to keep their legs going under those circumstances.
But overall he is happy and feels more effective after playing and scoring with Pensacola.
“I feel more comfortable,” he said. “The coach trusts me. Today I had a bad game, but he trusts me. He gives me confidence on the power play.”
Obviously he’s not judging himself simply by his scoring. In his “bad game” on Saturday, he had a goal and an assist, playing on the top line with 24-year-olds Mike Wirll and Rob Rankin.
In all, Ogorodnikov has five goals and eight assists in 13 games. He’s also –1 on what is naturally a very minus team.
One thing the slick puckhandler was really good at in Bridgeport was the shootout, going two for two in October and two for three in November. But he was very coy in talking about his success, trying not to give away too much.
“Yeah, not bad,” he said smiling. “A couple goals.”
What’s his strategy? “Just score the goal, that’s my strategy.”
Does he have one move? Two? “It’s a secret,” he said. “Goalies can watch if they want.”
When pressed, he said only “A couple the same, a couple different. I just look at what the goalie is going to do and I make my decision.”
Ogorodnikov played in the 2006 Canada/Russia Challenge and World Junior Championships in Vancouver, so he did play in a North American rink a bit before he came over this year. He didn’t think this gave him much of an advantage in adapting though, since the national team was still playing Russian-style hockey on the smaller rink.
“I still went back to Russia after this tournament to play half the season there. Here the rink is the same but the strategy and the game is so different. Chipping the puck, the D zone. In Russian hockey how we play on the national team and how we play in Bridgeport and Pensacola is very different.”
Thankfully, Bridgeport and Pensacola play similar styles to him, so there was not much change between teams. The change was only in ice time and opportunity.
“[In Pensacola] I try play more by myself, try to muscle the defenseman, shoot more. That’s the game I like. I feel more comfortable because the coach trusts me here. I can do whatever I want and it helps me too.”
Indeed, with Pensacola, Ogorodnikov is trying moves like toe drags and dangling the puck. He has the puck a lot, a sign of good anticipation of the game. He covers back on defense, and given his good skating, covers a lot of ground in a hurry. He’ll go into traffic to make a play, but you won’t see him looking for additional physicality.
To look at him, Ogorodnikov seems to be blending in well, sporting a camouflage colored New York Yankees hat that he got at the stadium during an outing at Islanders Rookie Camp this summer.
The Irkutsk, Russia native really likes Florida so far as well. He went to the beach with teammate and fellow Russian Nikita Korovkin and his wife on an off-day last week.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said smiling. “I mean, I was at the ocean a couple days ago. It was like 25 (Celsius). My hometown, it’s like -30 (Celsius) in winter.”
Ogorodnikov began to learn English with a tutor when he was a young teen, but he said, “my agent (Paul Theofanous of IMG) is American and I spent a lot of time in Canada and the US, that’s why I can speak English. But it was tough for me to play the first game, tough for me in camp because I knew English words, but I didn’t know the hockey words. Now I do, so I’m more comfortable.”
A third-round pick of the Islanders in 2004, the organization was happy with him in his first NHL training camp this fall.
“Yeah, they just told me to work hard and you’re still young. Become stronger. I can feel myself when I play in the AHL that I need to become stronger – with the puck, without the puck. There’s more starts and stops here, and a more physical game because the rink is smaller.”
Ogorodnikov has some Russian friends playing in North America for the first time, like Alexander Radulov (NAS), a former roommate. He said with genuine feeling, “he’s doing really well, I’m so happy for him.” But Ogorodnikov seems to have made some North American friends on both teams as well, pointing out that they are all good guys and mostly young like him (he turns 21 this weekend).
Ogorodnikov’s goals for the rest of the season are applicable no matter where he is.
“I try to score every game, get better every game. Do something new every game. Score as much as I can. That’s my game. Play better in the D zone. Do more stops and starts, not just skating around. That’s the main thing this season for me.”
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorials staff.