TORONTO — Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock couldn’t have been more pleased with the second NHL game of 22-year-old Russian Nikita Soshnikov.
Soshnikov, a free agent signing of the Leafs last spring, scored a goal, racked up six hits, took three penalties, and drew the ire of his Capitals opponents in Washington on Wednesday night.
“I loved him,” Babcock said a day later. “If you play hard and you’ve got a skill-set and you’re determined like that and you have no fear you find a way to play a long time.”
Nylander and Kapanen both had moments of electricity in their NHL debuts against Tampa on Monday night, but Babcock hinted at intensity and competition level that was lacking from the two young talents in the 3-2 loss to the Capitals on Wednesday.
“Well, you’ve got to learn to work, you’ve got to learn to compete,” Babcock said ahead of a Thursday night home game against the rising Minnesota Wild. “When you’re a kid you always think that you’re going to get the puck back. As you get older you know it’s too hard to get it back so you just hang onto it all the time.
“There’s lots to learn obviously and they’re works in progress, but it’s got to be a night-on every night.”
Nylander was admittedly a touch star struck playing against Capitals stars Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. His father, Michael Nylander, played with the pair during the tail-end of his NHL career. The young Nylander often visited the Capitals dressing room, facing off against his heroes years later.
“It was pretty sick,” said Nylander, who had six shot attempts in 16 minutes. “You’re just sort of standing (around), got caught off guard (in the) first period, you’re just star struck a little bit, but then you don’t want to have that happen anymore so you just got to get that out of the way…you’ve just got to play.”
Just getting his first up-close looks at the some of the most promising talent in the Leafs organization, Babcock is setting the tone for what’s acceptable and what’s not, establishing boundaries with players that could be under his discipline for years to come.
Beyond Nylander, Kapanen and Soshnikov, the Leafs are also dressing 21-year-old Brendan Leipsic, 21-year-old Connor Carrick, 22-year-old Garret Sparks, 23-year-old Zach Hyman and 22-year-old Frankie Corrado.
It’s the youngest NHL lineup that Babcock, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings, has ever coached.
With a 21-year-old son himself who played in the United States Hockey League last year — now at Merrimack College — Babcock says he understands that young players require a different approach than veterans, “but I also understand what accountability is and doing it right is.”