"I want to be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs". Yeah, yeah, sure, every prospect says the same thing. They want to be a member of their NHL team. Of course they do. Through his interpretor, Nikolai Antropov said these words and there was much more than a hollow ring to them. "My goal is to play with the Maple Leafs in the NHL, now", he said. You look into those eyes as he says these words. You listen to that soft, deep, but determined voice as he says these words. There is definitely a sound, a look, a determination that makes you believe what he is saying.
At the end of every shift, you can see it in his eyes. Off the ice, you cannot find a more pleasant young man. As he goes over those boards on the ice, you can see the expectations he has for himself. You can see the seriousness. This is a young man who knows where he wants to be.
To say that opinions as to Nikolai Antropov's skills and NHL potential are widely varied is an incredible understatement. Some, including some writers here at Hockeysfuture, feel that he will be a complete bust. Others, feel that he has the skills and potential to be a top-flight, #1 line forward in the NHL.
When one watches Nikolai, as with any player, it brings to mind that age-old question: Does a coach fit the player(s) into his philosophy of play or does a coach attempt to alter his philosophy or style to best meet the unique skills of the player(s)? At the age of 19, Nikolai is still on the upswing, without question. He is still trying to discover himself, still trying to figure out what he does best.
"All aspects of my game need improvement. My skating is what I have been working on the hardest", states Nikolai. "Playing with the Dynamo last season was a big help. A trainer there set up a plan for me to improve all of my skills", he adds. "I have been working in the weight-room regularly as well in an attempt to improve my size and strength."
"When you watch him play, you can see the exciting potential he has", says St. John's coach, Al McAdam. "He makes some plays in a positive way that has you shaking your head wondering, 'Where did he come up with that?' ", stated Chris MacDonald, former Leafs' prospects coach, who had a full year to watch him grow.
It is practice time, on the morning of the last Maple Leafs' rookie tournament game against the Sabres. Watching Nikolai on the ice gives one the same impression that MacDonald related to. As the team practices breakouts, 2-on-1's and 3-on-2's, the creativity of Antropov's game is quite apparent. On more than one occasion, he demonstrates the ability to "see" the ice. Pass after pass is right on the tape, often surprising an unsuspecting teammate who is not yet accustomed to his playmaking ability. Frequently, those passes come from a "blind alley" and create quite a few scoring chances.
"Nikolai's best weapons will be his strength on his skates and his incredible reach", stated MacDonald. That becomes very important when you watch Nikolai on the ice. During game action in the Leafs' tournament in Kitchener in early September, you see the effect he will have. His long reach in the offensive zone created many a turnover, or at the very least disrupted the opponent's normal passing outlets.. First the Rangers, then the Sabres' defensemen had a hard time clearing their own blueline due to the relentless reach of Antropov as many a pass was deflected. His committment to the defensive aspect of the game was impressive as well. There he was, consistently backchecking, battling behind his net for the puck and covering his man out front. Despite his youth, there is already solid development to this part of his game.
Questions have arisen as to his skating. Time after time, with the opponent's forwards bearing down in the Leafs' zone, Nikolai stayed stride for stride against his defensive assignment. He was not "beaten" down the ice by the player he was shadowing. His long stride, once he gets going on his skates, is reminiscent of the stride which eats up a lot of ice in a short time of another Leafs' center, Mats Sundin. Where Nikolai needs his work on his skates is clearly in his acceleration and change of direction. The still "skinny-as-a-rail forward" will improve in those categories as he gets stronger and matures, physically. He is still very much a "Bambi" on his skates as he grows into that long body.
Not every aspect of his skating is weak, however, not by a longshot. Once or twice Nikolai took a tumble on a late-period ice surface, all on his own. Opponents had no luck knocking him off his skates, no matter how hard they tried. For a player who looks more like a Toronto Raptor, rather than a Maple Leaf, he has incredible strength and balance on his skates. Along the boards, in traffic in front of the net, behind the net he is one tough, strong hombre. Watching him setup in front of the opponent's net brings back memories of the productive years which Dave Andreychuk had renting that space for the Leafs. Jack Todd, of the Montreal Gazzette, stated in a series of articles on the Moscow Dynamo earlier this year that Nikolai was like a "man amongst boys" when describing the strength he already exhibits. "The player who appeared most ready for the NHL", he stated in that same article.
On the night the Leafs' rookies played the Rangers, Nikolai planted himself like a tall-redwood in front of the Ranger's goaltender. He expertly deflected a Peter Reynolds' drive from the point past the netminder for a goal. For a Leafs' team which desperately needed a player who could plant himself in the slot on the powerplay last season, that one play may have been "sweet music to their ears".
For every positive to his game, there are still other negatives, as well. Despite the excellent work in tight, he does need to work on his shot, particularly its release. Nikolai came open near the left circle in the game against the Sabres. He received the pass and let go of a big slapshot. The big windup and slow release allowed the defense to block the shot before it went on net. The "sculpture in progress" which is Antropov's game still needs some chiseling around the edges.
Nikolai's history has been well-documented. "My father was my earliest influence in hockey", states Nikolai. The kid is from the poor country of Kazakstan, whose team had mismatched skates and borrowed sticks during international competition. His move to Moscow Dynamo last season was a stroke of genius as it allowed him a gradual transition toward his ultimate goal of the NHL. "The program there helped all aspects of my game", adds Antropov. It also allowed him to stay nearer to home than a move to North America might have. It appears that Nikolai is ready for that next step.
Where Nikolai's next destination will be is still up to debate. He has already drawn praise from Leafs' head coach and GM, Pat Quinn, for his work in the Leafs' training camp this past week in Barrie. The organization has some questions as to whether another year with the Dynamo is in his best interests. It is possible, however unlikely, that he might make the NHL club this season. A move to the AHL and the St. John's Maple Leafs is also a possible destination. The Brampton Battalion hold Antropov's CHL rights currently, but are already committed to their allottment of two import players. They would have to trade Antropov to another team to allow him to play in the OHL this season. Whatever the destination, the Leafs seem determined to keep him closer to Toronto this year.
What impact will Nikolai Antropov ultimately have in the NHL someday? He will not be a Pavel Bure, who races up and down the ice with breathtaking speed, often controlling a game with his speed and skating ability. He will not be Brett Hull, whose trigger-like release and cannon of a shot threaten many a netminder.
He will be an impact forward on one of the top two scoring lines. His excellent forechecking ability and work along the boards might just facilitate a move to the wing. That work, along with his creative playmaking, will set up many a teammate for a scoring chance. He will have not only the capabilities, but the courage to set up in front of the net for numerous chances for rebounds and deflections, particularly on the powerplay. That is how he will score a great number of his goals. He will also contribute in the defensive end as well, a trait he already exhibits. Best of all, Nikolai seems to have the desire and the work ethic to make this "dream come true", someday, maybe even someday soon.
Expect a 25-goal, 50-assist man once he is established at the NHL level. But remember, a square peg does not fit into a round hole. Nikolai will be what he will be, utilizing his own unique brand of hockey.
Special thanks to Nikolai Antropov and his lovely interpretor for their time in conducting this interview.