‘Devils in the Details’
By Sean Hartnett
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It was never a secret that 22-year-old Russian center Andrei Loktionov possessed high-ceiling talent. It was only a matter of when he would be given a chance to prove he was worthy of an important role at the NHL level.
That opportunity was never going to come in Los Angeles.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello is always sniffing around the market for ways to improve New Jersey’s chances of returning to the Stanley Cup finals. When Loktionov dug in his feet and requested a trade from the Kings, Lamoriello sprung into action. He took advantage of both the trade demand and Los Angeles’ wealth of depth at center and was able to pry Loktionov from the Kings for merely a fifth-round pick.
It’s a trade that’s already turning out to be a steal for New Jersey as Loktionov is enjoying rapid success at his new address in the Garden State. No longer is Loktionov one of those “potential players” stuck in the minors and buried on the organizational depth chart. Now he’s Devil — and an important Devil for that matter.
Loktionov finds himself surrounded by distinguished veteran linemates in all-world superstar Ilya Kovalchuk and big-bodied winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. It’s not just Loktionov who is reaping the rewards from playing with two established players, Kovalchuk and Ponikarovsky are also benefiting from Loktionov’s vision and shiftiness.
“He’s a smart player,” Kovalchuk stated after Wednesday’s 5-2 rout of the Flyers. “He never had a chance to play in LA, really. Here, he’s got real time on the power play and all different situations, he feels more comfortable.”
The game itself was a laugher for the men in red and black. New Jersey dominated all aspects in their commanding victory over the listless, unorganized and undisciplined Philadelphia Flyers.
While Kovalchuk’s shorthanded goal was probably the back-breaker for Philadelphia, it was Loktionov’s goal that drew gasps of awe from the Prudential Center crowd.
Loktionov was sprung by a pass along the boards from Ponikarovsky and undressed Flyers’ defenseman Braydon Coburn. This isn’t basketball, but Loktionov did the hockey equivalent of “breaking ones ankles” with his stunning toe-drag move before beating Ilya Bryzgalov stick side.
“He’s making good plays, he didn’t panic with the puck – that’s important,” Kovalchuk explained “You can see, the guy has skills and is willing to whatever coaches ask him, so that’s good.”
Instead of passing off to Kovalchuk, Loktionov pulled off the goal of the night — and one of the Devils’ best goals of the season.
“If he didn’t score, maybe we’ll have a little talk,” Kovalchuk joked. “It’s a good decision, a great move by him. He just put in between (Bryzgalov’s) legs, so it’s a great goal.”
Devils head coach Pete DeBoer likes the consistency he’s seeing from the 22-year-old Russian.
“He’s getting the opportunity to play with Ponikarovsky and Kovalchuk which is for a young guy, a rare opportunity to come to an organization and get thrown into that situation,” DeBoer said. “He’s also earned the right to stay there by producing every night. You wonder if it’s real, but he’s been consistent every night for us. That’s a good sign.”
Loktionov hasn’t seen a great deal of practice time, but that hasn’t stopped him from developing a quick understanding with his new teammates. When asked about his practice habits, winning goaltender Johan Hedberg admitted he hasn’t studied Loktionov closely due to the shortened schedule.
“It’s hard to say, we’ve had more games than practices,” Hedberg responded. “From what I’ve seen, he works as hard as he can and tries to better himself every day.”
“I didn’t know much about him when he came, but he’s making the most of his opportunity,” Hedberg said. “He’s strong on the puck, he’s strong on his skates, he makes plays, he’s confident – he’s been a great addition for us.”
As a whole, the Devils are appreciating what they’re seeing from their newest addition. Through 12 games as a Devil, Loktionov has scored four goals and found three assists for seven points. It was his quick-dish assist that allowed Adam Henrique to walk in on Bryzgalov and score a nifty backhanded goal. Henrique recognizes Loktionov as an exciting talent and gifted playmaker.
“He’s a very skilled player,” Henrique stated. “He came in here, and he’s played great since he’s been here. Obviously, he scored in the first three or four games that he was here. I think he likes it here, he’s fit in great and he creates chances out there for everybody. He’s an exciting player to watch and had a huge goal for us tonight.”
The player who couldn’t find his place in LA and was cast aside by the Kings is turning out to be the Devils’ treasure.
Devils fans, how impressed are you by Loktionov’s start? Was his goal on Wednesday the most exciting of the season? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.