The talent evaluators of future major junior hockey players that have been watching Danil Antropov rave about the progress he’s made over the last few months.
When the puck dropped on the 2015-16 minor midget season, many scouts affiliated with Ontario Hockey League clubs were projecting Antropov as a likely fourth-round draft pick. Today, one scout has called him the most underrated player available in the April 9 selection event.
You can also count his coach as another hockey person in the 15-year-old’s corner. Ken Strong was disappointed with the play of Antropov and his Toronto Marlboros minor midget teammates in the back half of a 2-1 double-overtime loss to the York Simcoe Express in Monday’s OHL Cup title game. But the Marlboros coach, who has helped Connor McDavid, Sam Bennett and other teenagers develop into National Hockey League players, believes Antropov is likely the smartest player in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
Finally, there is his father, Nik Antropov. The former NHLer was standing Monday night in the upper deck of Mattamy Athletic Centre – the old Maple Leaf Gardens.
“If you look at him last year, he did look like me,” said the former first-round NHL pick, who put 193 goals and 465 points on his 788-game resume with the Leafs, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets. “But this year he’s at a different level.”
Nik knows full well the improvement his oldest son has made over the course of the season, attending every one of his games. It’s a far cry from recent times when dad saw only a single late-season contest as Danil was forced to get reacquainted with southern Ontario on his own.
Nik was playing in the KHL for Barys Astana in his native Kazakhstan when Danil, then 13, left the family – also consisting of his mother, Elena, his younger sister, Nika, and his brother, Matvey – in January 2014.
The Toronto-born Danil lived in the family’s old house near Highway 401 and Bayview Avenue under the care of a nanny. (The Antropovs intend to move back into the home after renovations on the house are finished in the fall). Then-Don Mills Flyers teammate Edward Yan lived across the street and Danil was a frequent guest during the hockey season.
“There was a big family meeting,” Nik said. “It was a tough decision for us, but we decided it was better for him in terms of hockey. The hockey career was on the line for him.”
“It was the right decision,” Danil said. “I had a big two years coming up. I had to take things into my own hands.”
Danil had to get familiar with hockey in his hometown all over again.
There were no more train rides to games like he’d endured in Kazakhstan and Russia while skating on bigger ice and suiting up with and against older players on teams consisting of four lines rather than three. Upon his return, he encouraged his Canadian teammates to play of a puck-possession style compared to dumping and chasing.
He notes how the time away from his family forced him to be more mature.
“Being home alone (teaches you) where you have to be and what you have to do to prepare for your games,” Danil said. “You don’t have mom or dad there telling you to go to bed, you have a game tomorrow.”
However, missing his family took a toll and was one of the reasons why Danil calls last season a struggle.
At 36, Nik notes he hasn’t officially retired yet, but the new arrangement does seem permanent after he turned down another deal with Barys Astana.
“I have to refuse it. I have to be parent once in a while,” he said, showing a missing front tooth as he laughed.
Danil won’t ever forget when the family reunited again for good before the season and he got to see his two-year-old brother.
“I remember that moment when they pulled up and I ran outside. You should have seen the look on his face,” Danil said. “He was very, very excited to see me. Right away he grabbed the mini sticks. No words can describe it.”
Danil used to be in Matvey’s shoes. Nik used to take Danil into the Leafs dressing room on the ice after practices. Nik did the same when his career took him to Atlanta and Winnipeg. Danil naturally took to hockey.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Danil is tall and lanky. His skating is much like his father’s. The joke is that comparison isn’t necessarily a compliment. Danil has already booked lessons with skating guru Lisa Clark in April when the GTHL final between the Marlies and Mississauga Rebels ends. He’ll also continue to work with Don Mills Flyers coach Daniel Bochner, who he feels has helped his skating immensely since his return to Toronto.
“If I can match (other players’) speed, I think I can be something special,” Danil said.
But what Danil currently lacks in grace and quickness, he makes up for in positional awareness and puck skills.
Danil showed off his skill with a beautiful backhand saucer pass to Michael Little for a chance in close during the second period of Monday’s game.
“That comes from his old man,” Nik said, chuckling.
Later, Danil negated what appeared to be a sure Express goal with a quick stick check.
“He’s really improved. He’s got great hockey sense. I would say the best in the GTHL,” Strong said. “He’s got all the tools to be a great OHL player.”
Ken Hornick, the director of scouting for the London Knights, believes Danil is a first- or second-round OHL draft pick and is confident of a future NHL career.
“He’s just got everything,” Hornick said. “He kind of reminds me of (Knight and top 2016 NHL draft prospect) Matt Tkachuk a little bit. They don’t look alike on the ice, but their play is very similar. Very dogged, on the puck, making plays. Danil battles. He looks like a guy that doesn’t have a lot of energy when he plays, but he does. He’s a treat to watch.”
Other scouts don’t disagree.
“He’s a guy that might be able to achieve more than some of the other players who are highly talked about in this draft,” said another OHL bird dog, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Although he was held scoreless in the final, Danil recorded seven goals and three assists in seven games and was named to the tournament all-star team.
Joining him was linemate and leading scorer Akil Thomas, the player who convinced him to play for the Marlies. The two faced each other when Danil lived in Georgia and Thomas in Florida in an inter-state minor league and then played together with the Toronto Nationals before Danil followed his father to Kazakhstan.
Danil’s hockey career has taken him all over the world, including more than a full season without his family.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Nik said. “Some kids would probably give up on that dream. He’s still all there. That’s why he wanted it. That’s why he plays here.”
But the Antropovs are back together now. And perhaps it’s no coincidence Danil is playing the best hockey of his life.
“This year I’ve really jumped up in the rankings,” he said. “It was just good to know you have a family around that supports you.”