Babcock: Leafs want Soshnikov ‘for a long time to come’

Maple Leafs will once again be without Auston Matthews on Thursday, which means the door’s open for Nikita Soshnikov to make his season debut, here's what coach expects from the young Russian.

TORONTO – There is no reason to believe Nikita Soshnikov would have been recalled by the Toronto Maple Leafs this week if his European assignment clause wasn’t about to kick in.

But there should be no confusion about how highly the organization values the 24-year-old winger, who is being inserted directly into the lineup for Thursday’s game against New Jersey.

“The reality is we want him to be a Leaf for a long time to come,” said head coach Mike Babcock.

They’re going to have to carve out a role for him to ensure it happens.

For the time being, the Leafs have been handed a temporary solution since Auston Matthews is still working his way back from an undisclosed upper-body injury – allowing Soshnikov to draw in against the Devils.

It’s been a long time coming for a guy who spent a good portion of the summer in distress after having his season ended March 20 by the concussion he suffered on a hit from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.

Soshnikov gives up 10 inches and 65 pounds to Chara. He actually took two big hits from the Slovak defenceman in that game after earlier angering the Bruins bench by initiating a dangerous collision with Patrice Bergeron in the corner.

“The first one, it was from behind, but I saw him,” said Soshnikov. “The second time he came from the blind side. I checked like 10 times – that was my bad. I didn’t see him, I have to see him. That hit against Bergeron, I didn’t do that on purpose.

“I think they were a little pissed off, so they went after me.”

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One of the main attributes the Leafs value in the five-foot-11 worker is that he’s unafraid to agitate.

When asked what he’d like to see from Soshnikov in Thursday’s game, Babcock replied: “To be good, to be mean, to be fast, to be a good penalty killer, to give us energy.”

The organization is facing some interesting decisions when it comes to asset management. It’s not inconceivable that they could lose both Soshnikov and Josh Leivo for nothing at season’s end – with Soshnikov becoming a restricted free agent and having the ability to head home to Russia, and with Leivo due to become a Group VI unrestricted free agent unless he plays at least 34 of the remaining 62 games this year.

Soshnikov already wields leverage because he only needs two more NHL games after Thursday to drop his waiver exempt status and can also initiate a transfer to KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg if the Leafs send him back to the American Hockey League.

“That puts a little heat on you,” said Babcock.

Lou Lamoriello is not in the business of losing assets for nothing, so a trade could be on the horizon. The Leafs are carrying 14 forwards and have at least one more in AHLer Kasperi Kapanen who they believe can be impactful in the NHL right now.

For Soshnikov, the priority is continuing to establish himself in North America. He took a leap of faith when signing an entry-level contract with Toronto in March 2015 and moving halfway across the world despite speaking only a few words of English.

He’s grown by leaps and bounds since, and was the Marlies best player in the 14 AHL games that preceded his Tuesday morning callup.

“I played PK, power play, even strength, everything – [head coach] Sheldon [Keefe] trusts me – and we won a lot of games,” said Soshnikov.

It was a positive development after a difficult training camp where he didn’t have a chance to show his best. He’d only been cleared for contact in late August after dealing with post-concussion symptoms for more than five months.

“I wasn’t really in shape there because I wasn’t able to practice hard in the summer,” said Soshnikov. “Once the season kicked in and games went on, I started to feel better and better in every game. I sleep better every day after the games.

“It just took some time, you know?”

Babcock praised the level of intensity Soshnikov brought to Wednesday’s practice and is taking the opportunity to get him right in a game.

He’s likely on a NHL roster for the remainder of the season, but how these next few months might unfold is still anyone’s guess.

“It’s nice to get back with the guys and skate and practise hard,” said Soshnikov. “Everything at a high pace, you know? It’s a little bit different. It’s going to [take] a little time, in terms of practices and especially games, when I get a chance.

“I don’t know, I’m just glad to be back.”

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