Kings Debut Russian Defenseman

The Kings had it all figured out going into the season.  Additions of Simon Gagne and Mike Richards would shore up their offense.  Defenseman Drew Doughty signing a contract late in the pre-season would lock up their defensive lineup.  Their goaltending, with Jonathans Quick and Bernier, was set to be the envy of the league.  Heck, even Dustin Penner seemed to have come into the new year with a new attitude, perhaps due to this being a contract campaign for him.

Then Doughty was checked and injured by Philadelphia’s Zac Rinaldo early in the team’s game on Saturday night in Pennsylvania, and the back line had to be shifted.  Longtime fans might think that in the absence of Mr. Franchise, the utility guy, Davis Drewiske, would step in.

Instead, with the team opening its season in LA Tuesday night, youngster Slava Voynov was playing.  It was his NHL debut, and he saw action with Willie Mitchell as his partner.  The other two pairs were Jack Johnson and Rob Scuderi, and Matt Greene and Alec Martinez.

Who is Voynov?  He was chosen by the Kings in the 2008 entry draft, the 32nd overall pick.  This year, his season looked to begin Manchester, where he played last year and made the AHL second-team all-star roster.  He was tied for third for goals in that league amongst defensemen as well, and led the Manchester squad outright in assists.

Does any of that surprise you?  It might, and if so, that’s likely because the Kings’ prospects that you’ve followed have been names like Brayden Schenn and Colton Teubert, who was selected by the team as their number one pick the same year Voynov was drafted.   Both of those guys are gone already, Schenn to Philly.

Teubert played in Regina of the WHL and then put in some games with the Ontario (CA) Reign in the ECHL before going to LA’s Manchester farm team for the 2010-11 season.  Midway through, he was traded to Edmonton along with a couple of high draft picks for Penner.

Speaking of whom, there was some doubt about his availability to play Tuesday night, because he had a sore knee.  He was injured when he went after, and fought, the aforementioned Rinaldo in defense of Doughty.  Monday, he left practice early with the knee, and his coach was not sure whether he would be fit to go in the team’s opener at home.  He was, and it was only partway through the first period when he again asserted himself.

It wasn’t a fight, just one of those “don’t mess with my boys” moments.  Dustin Brown made a hard hit in front of the St. Louis bench, and David Backes came in to take exception.  He grabbed Brown, who was in the process of spinning away, when Penner came in, shouldered through the crowd, and put himself between his Captain and the big Blues player.

Symbolic?  Maybe.  A sign that the big man is going to be the big man.  He also added an assist on the night on the second goal, which put the Kings ahead 2-0 with about half of the second period gone.  To that point, the Blues were outshooting LA by one, 12-11, and they had had some dangerous chances in the first.

Before the second period wound down, LA opened a 3-0 lead on a five-on-three goal by Brown, his first of the year.  He took a pass from the left side by Mike Richards.  Brown was standing right in front of the net, and he basically put his stick down and slammed the puck past goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The latter, the much-touted grab from Montreal an off-season ago, had played in four of the Blues’ five games coming into the evening, and he had won just one of them.  His GAA?  3.05.  Save percentage?  A horrendous .848.

His backup, Brian Elliott, had appeared in a single game, allowed two goals, and led the team to a win.  He ended up taking over the net early in period three of this night when Halak was chased by the Kings’ fourth goal on nineteen shots, a wrister from Kopitar which was dangerous enough and partly came through a screen, but which shouldn’t have beaten an NHL keeper.  It squeaked under Halak’s arm.

But back to the home team’s defense.  Voynov was drafted, as was said, in 2008, at 18.  He then made an immediate debut in the AHL, and by the time he turned 21, had played three full seasons in the minor pro league.  He started the present season in that league also, and he had notched two points in his first two games when the big team called.

Hockey’s Future.com lists Voynov as the team’s third-best prospect behind goalie Bernier and centerman Andrei Loktionov, who played 19 games in the NHL last season and the balance of the year with Manchester.

Interestingly, that same website has four other defensemen in the list of the team’s top prospects, so if Voynov stumbles, there are others who could come in easily enough.  That list is Derek Forbort, Nicolas Deslauriers, Jake Muzzin, and Thomas Hickey.  More on all of them at another time.

Voynov, according to media reports, had a strong training camp.  So good, in fact, that the team had a hard time sending him back to Manchester at the start of the season.  But if there is one lesson that they have learned over the past couple of seasons, it’s that there’s no point in having a guy “up” only to have him sit.  They play their prospects, whether that be on the Left coast or the Right one.

With Doughty out, it was the perfect chance for Voynov, wearing Handzus’s number 26 from last year, to make his NHL debut, pairing mostly with Willie Mitchell, as was said.  He is not a big man at 5’11” and 199 listed pounds.  Compare that to the other Kings’ d-men, who weigh in at anywhere from 206 (Martinez) to 232 (Greene) and are all over six feet.  Can this native of Chelyabinsk, Russia bear up under the pressure of the NHL game? (By the way, if you think that spelling is weird, consider that Slava’s first name is really “Vyacheslav,” and then empathize with your favorite IH columnist.)

I stood beside him in the dressing room after the game, and truly, he’s the size mentioned and not a jot bigger.  But his coach, Terry Murray, has high hopes for him.  “Voynov, for a kid who played his first game, was pretty collected, pretty poised, and I thought he made some very good decisions with the puck,” he told the media after the game.

Through two periods he had played just about thirteen minutes, and was a plus-2.  His ice time included about two and a half minutes on the power play, and he had not recorded a shot amongst the Kings’ seventeen to that point.  The scouting report on him, by the way, is that he doesn’t have the most dangerous shot from inside the blueline.

What are his strengths?  Gann Matsuda of FrozenRoyalty.net cites puckhandling, speed, and an ability to quarterback the power play.

In the third period, he again played solid hockey, getting about seven minutes, and he was second-highest in team hits, with three, at the end of the game.  (Several players recorded four.)  His coach further elaborated on the Russian’s debut: “He’s got a little bit of stuff we’ve got to work with on the play without the puck, but with the puck, he’s got a special gift.”

Voynov himself seemed excited to have played in his first game, but tentative when it came to talking about it due to his language barrier.  IH approached him, and he smilingly said, “I need a translator,” but then he soldiered on, commenting that, “My family are still in Russia, my mom and dad, but they will just enjoy this game in Russia, online.”

About the transition to the NHL, he commented, “It’s a big change.  Everything [is] fast, and with a big crowd, it is a lot of fun.  I like it.”

He also mentioned that he had gotten to know the city of LA in the summer, when he had the time, with friends.  “They showed me the city, some of the interesting places.”

Here’s the way to read that: the youngster has the courage to speak in the middle of a crowded dressing room when bombarded with questions from people he doesn’t know, in an environment which is bigger and shinier than anywhere he’s ever been.  The post-game radio show hosted by Nick Nickson and Daryl Evans had Evans commenting that he saw Voynov as a man, a seasoned player rather than a raw call-up, and someone who didn’t make the typical rookie mistake at any point.  He thinks that Voynov will stick with the NHL club at some point in the season and go on to play a long time in the league.

One advantage Voynov has in this regard is that he is a righthand shot, which makes him an asset on a team which has just three right-shooting blueliners—Doughty, Greene, and Voynov.

Whatever is to happen with him long-term, he’s likely to get in at least a couple more games while Doughty recovers.  When that happens, it will be a question of whether Voynov can outplay Martinez.  He’s unlikely to unseat any of the other top defensemen on this team that is deeper than perhaps most East-coast fans realize.

Next time, we’ll talk some more about the Kings’ offense, which features new faces including the aforementioned Richards and Gagne as well as Ethan Moreau and Trent Hunter.

These are not just new names.  Gagne, particularly, is lighting it up, making a difference mostly on the setups he offers to his linemates.  He had three assists coming into the night and added one more.  But he also has three goals thus far, including two on this night.  The last, the Kings’ fifth, was the most spectacular.  Kopitar flipped a pass up over the defense, who couldn’t chase down Gagne.  He went in on goal, shifted left, and held the puck, finally firing it past a sprawling Elliott.

That concluded the scoring at 15:05 of the third, though the Blues pressed some near the end to break the shutout.  The blanking they suffered was Jonathan Quick’s fifteenth overall, though he said afterwards that it didn’t matter—the team is just after the two points, especially early on.  “It’s one game,” he summarized, “We’ve got to take that work level to every game.”

Kings Notes

Doughty is officially on IR, so he has to be out seven days.  It may be as long as ten.  He was hurt in the team’s fourth game this year.  Last year, he was knocked out of the fifth and missed a few weeks.

The team plays at Phoenix on Thursday night and then returns to LA for two games, Saturday and Tuesday, against the Stars and Devils.

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