Daniil Zharkov has gone the extra mile to flatten out his learning curve in North American hockey.
Last season, the Belleville Bulls left wing with the NHL-calibre howitzer shot made an unusual midseason move, leaving his native St. Petersburg, Russia, to play with the USHL's Tri-City Storm. That proved to be a great stepping-stone in preparation for spending his draft season in the Canadian Hockey League. Despite being shelved by a broken collarbone early on this season, he's already potted 15 goals and 22 points in 25 games for Belleville.
"Tri-City was a very big step in my hockey career because between Russian and Canadian hockey, there's a big difference," says Zharkov, who last week was ranked 19th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. "The USHL was a very tough league for me. It helped me get ready.
"Three years in a row I've been a rookie on the team, so I've had to do a lot of picking up the pucks after every practice," he adds with a sly smile.
Zharkov is just the second Russian to ever wear the Bulls' black, gold and orange. Along with his big shot, which he loves to unloose when he's coming down on his off wing, one evident trait with the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Zharkov is how well he uses his long reach in one-on-one situation. He is quick to stress that he needs to augment that by becoming a more physically engaged player. Overall, it's shaping up like he could be a very good value pick for a NHL organization, provided that he makes big strides with his skating — that's where playing on Belleville's Olympic-sized ice surface should help — and defensive awareness.
Zharkov began the season playing with fellow first-round hopeful Brendan Gaunce and Winnipeg Jets-drafted wing Austen Brassard. However, he's been playing with veterans Michael Curtis and Adam Payerl during the Bulls' recent lull (3-6-1-0 in their past 10 games). He is confident their fortunes will start trending up in good time, particularly once star goalie Malcolm Subban returns from a groin injury.
"I started the season very well, but right now, I don't know why, we're struggling," he says. "We're trying to play harder, give 100 per cent."
1. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"I need to work on my D [defensive] zone, because it's my first year in the OHL. It's very difficult for me ... I also need to make more contact. Because I am a Russian guy, and in Russia, we don't have a lot of contact."
2. Whom in the NHL do you watch and say, "I need to play more like him" or "I see parts of his game that I need to blend into mine?"
"I do not have a favourite player, but I like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and [Alex] Ovechkin. Three guys in the NHL, Russian guys, who have really good skill and physical play."
3. Everyone who's seen you play talks about your shot. How did you develop it while growing up in St. Petersburg?
"Just every morning, in the practice club, I would get one hundred pucks and just put them on net, just practise my shot like that. I was about 10 when I started doing that."
4. Learning a second language is very tough. What have you done specifically to better master English?
"My teammates always help me, always correct me. I always talk in the car with [Bulls defenceman and Colorado Avalanche draft pick] Stephen Silas, he's been a big help."
5. Hockey players have to really watch what they put into their bodies. What is something you cannot drink or eat too often, but you like to have it anyway?
"I really like sushi but I can only eat it when I have a day off. I can eat everything. It doesn't matter."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).