On Sunday I drove out to Mississauga to cover game three of the first round playoff series between the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads and the Belleville Bulls. As you probably well know, Oilers prospect Daniil Zharkov plays for the Belleville Bulls and I chatted with him post game. I figured I’d share some of my game notes and some of Zharkov’s post game comments with you, or at least with those of you willing to read my work after I took that massive run at your sacred cows a couple of months back.
Zharkov’s draft plus-one season hasn’t been as productive as perhaps Oilers fans and management were hoping. In 59 games with the Bulls this season, Zharkov managed forty-three points and twenty-five goals. Those aren’t numbers that scream "future NHL star" at you, but I would mention that Zharkov doesn’t usually play first unit power-play minutes for the Bulls and doesn’t factor into their top-line.
So far in the postseason, Zharkov has a couple of assists but has been relatively quiet. On Sunday he didn’t register a point but he was, by my estimation, Belleville’s best offensive player by a fair bit. I counted scoring chances at the game and Zharkov’s even-strength scoring chance differential was +3 (five for, two against). More importantly he personally factored in on every scoring chance his line generated at even-strength – taking four of them himself, and creating another with some quality work on the forecheck and some lovely puck handling which he followed up on with a crafty passing play.
Still, Zharkov seemed frustrated after the game: "You’re always pissed off when you don’t score, especially when you have a lot of chances. Their goalie played really well obviously, and I think that’s a big part of their plan."
Zharkov’s frustration matched what his coach George Burnett told me after the game as well, "I thought it might have been the weakest games [Daniil] has played all year long. He needs to have the puck more, protect it better and be a more physical force in the game." If that was Zharkov’s worst game this year and he still factored in on five quality looks, then Oilers fans have plenty to be excited about.
To my eyes it didn’t appear that Zharkov played a "floaters" game on Sunday. He closed hard when defending point shots, and looked to take the body on occassion. His back-checking was on point too, and he seemed to be effective at using his speed to disrupt Mississauga’s build-up in both the neutral zone and when forechecking. That said there was one comical sequence where Zharkov backchecked from behind the Mississauga goal line, forced a turnover in the neutral zone and then skated into his own end where he quickly gave the puck away. His team cleared the zone without surrendering a shot attempt, but I’d imagine it’s those sorts of unpolished moments that would cause a coach to be frustrated.
But for every sequence like that one, there were two where Zharkov was making something happen on the ice. Early in the second period he created a turnover on the forecheck but lost possession of the puck over the blue-line. He retrieved the puck and pulled a series of inside-outside moves to avoid Mississauga checkers while hie teammates tagged up. He then skated back into the Mississauga zone, eluded another Mississauga defender and sent a nice dish to a teammate for a scoring chance. On sequences like that one, you really do wonder how he’s not a point per game player at the OHL level…
When asked where he needed to improve going forward in the series, Zharkov seemed painfully aware of his "Russian-ness" and the reputation players from his country have in North America, "I would say battling in the corner and protecting the puck better. I still kind of play like a Russian hockey player…" When I countered and told him tht he seemed to be taking the body and backchecking hard all game, he credited his coach with improving his two-way habits: "That’s because it’s my second year here and I’ve learned a lot from George Burnett, he’s a great person to be with as a coach."
Zharkov’s commitment to playing a two-way game was visible throughout on Sunday, or at least I thought so. While his performance in those areas may not have been enough to impress his coach, I don’t know that it’s for a lack of effort. Moreover he certainly has the size, speed and the raw offensive tools to be an NHL player – but as his lack of production this season suggests, he’s yet to really put it all together.
You might also be pleased to hear that he’s also following the Oilers closely. "Yeah I watch the Oilers with my billet family and I try not to miss any games. And I follow my buddy Yakupov. I think he’s doing really well, considering he’s a rookie." If he hopes to become a resident of Yak City, Zharkov will need to find a way to utilize his skillset to be a more productive offensive player while also continuing to refine his two-way game. On that front he certainly passes the eye-test, though the proof will remain in the pudding.