Baie-Comeau 17-year-old Valentin Zykov (Remi Senechal, The Canadian Press)When it comes to serious international tournaments, coaches don't like taking any chances. They tend to choose experienced players over young guns, which is especially true for junior hockey. However, Valentin Zykov of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar made the cut for the Subway Super Series.
He was put on the line with fellow QMJHLers Anton Zlobin and Mikhail Grigorenko and didn't frustrate Russia's head coach Mikhail Varnakov. In fact, the 17-year-old was tied for first in points with a goal and an assist, and led the team with a plus-3 in the series' first game. You don't expect a guy who is two years his everyone's junior to pull off something like that, do you?
Let's get this straight: the kid makes a journey to Baie-Comeau and clicks right away with 11 goals and 20 points in 17 games and then he continues to perform on his nation's junior team? How is that normal?
"Here everything's faster," says Zykov about his experience at the Subway Super Series.
Faster or not, Zykov did score in his very first game for U20 Team Russia as a 17-year-old.
"I didn't even aim," says Zykov with a laugh. "Actually, I thought the goalie saved it. I didn't even get the puck after that because I was really surprised it went in."
Well, that explains the belated celly.
Zykov was one of two players on Team Russia born in 1995, which isn't that surprising considering the fact U17 Team Russia won the World Junior A Challenge this January. It was just a second win for Russians at the tournament. Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Artyukhin and Stanislav Chistov won gold for the Motherland back in 2000.
Along with Zykov, Russia dressed 17-year-old Valeri Nichushkin for the series. One slight difference, though — Nichushkin had to wear a full-face mask, while Zykov was okayed to play with a visor as the Subway Super Series isn't an IIHF event.
"I think I was more envious of him than he was of me," smiles Zykov. "It's more safe out there with a full-face mask. I was caught by a stick this season once. The result? My lip was cut and I'm missing a tooth now."
Team Russia won their first game of the tourney 6-2 but couldn't build on their lead in Game 2 as Team QMJHL tied the series at one with a 5-2 victory.
"This game was different. They were looking for revenge and weren't ready for it," explains the 6-foot, 207-pounder winger.
Coach André Tourigny's squad also looked intimidating, which is something we didn't see on Monday.
"I guess they decided to take another route," chuckles Zykov. "Besides the refs were letting them get away with a lot of stuff. It doesn't surprise me."
Did Mikhail Varnakov give his players any tips how to deal with officiating?
"There's really nothing you can do about it. Every single time a Canadian didn't get on top in the battle, the refs tried to get the most out of it," confesses Zykov. "That being said, though, they're even stricter in QMJHL regular season games. You let your hands loose — you're out for a long time."
Despite no points and being minus-2 in Game 2, Zykov's stats still look solid as he finished a two-game series with 2 points and plus-1. It's safe to assume he can make third or fourth line for Team Russia at the upcoming world junior championship in Ufa, where Canada and Russia will be in the same round-robin pool and have a rematch of the 2012 semifinal on New Year's Eve. Making the team would be a feather in the cap for the 17-year-old.
"These two games were an invaluable experience to me. I give myself a C, though. I could have played better," says Zykov, who's no stranger to self-criticism.
That usually helps to make the team, right?
Another 17-year-old, London Knights defenceman Nikita Zadorov, will play tonight against Team OHL.