Leafs rookie Nikita Soshnikov making noisy impression in NHL

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TORONTO — Unlike fellow Toronto Maple Leafs rookie William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov didn’t make his NHL debut last week with a year’s worth of hype and anticipation.

But in very short order the 22-year-old winger has made a noisy impression.

Soshnikov has scored twice and dished out 16 hits in his first four NHL games, exciting teammates, coaches and fans with an energetic, enthusiastic game.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody just go, go, go, go, go,” said goaltender Garret Sparks, a teammate of Soshnikov’s both with the Leafs and AHL’s Toronto Marlies. “He’s one of those guys who just doesn’t really have an off-switch.”

That energy was on display against Ottawa over the weekend when Soshnikov attempted 11 shots and threw out five hits in more than 19 minutes, adding another fiery goal celebration after he beat Senators goaltender Andrew Hammond with a laser in the second period.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has raved about Soshnikov’s performance so far, noting an unwavering intensity which has ruffled a few opponents, including Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in Soshnikov’s NHL debut.

“He definitely gets under the skin of his opponents, but he’s not a guy who’s out there looking to goon it up,” Sparks said.

Rather, Sparks said, Soshnikov is just an “honest” player giving it his all every shift.

An undrafted free agent who played previously in the KHL, Soshnikov chose to sign with the Leafs last March for the opportunity to play in the NHL quickly and be part of an organization that’s starting anew.

He’s particularly psyched to meet Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, his favourite player, whom the Leafs will face in Detroit next weekend. Soshnikov has been promised a meeting by one of the Leafs strength coaches.

Soshnikov speaks limited, but improving English. He’s working on it both with teammates and a language teacher.

Leo Komarov, the Leafs multilingual winger, has offered him a crutch. Komarov translates for Soshnikov where needed, mostly when Babcock delivers an instruction or drill he may not fully understand.

“Sometimes he explains to me what coach says,” Soshnikov says.

“He understands English actually really good,” Komarov said. “He’s having trouble speaking it, but he understands it.”

Soshnikov lived with Komarov during training camp and the two formed a bond that re-ignited when Soshnikov was recalled to play for the Leafs last week. Soshnikov’s rough-neck pace actually reminds the elder Finnish forward of his own brash game.

A speedy skater with some skill, that relentless energy and an ability to kill penalties and mix it up, Soshnikov looks to have a future with the Leafs, perhaps as a regular beginning next season. Like Nylander, he’s getting a first taste following a trade deadline that saw six regulars dealt.

Perhaps because of the language barrier, Soshnikov remains something of a mystery even to teammates.

Sparks had no idea who Soshnikov was when he saw him at prospect camp last summer and didn’t think much of his first exhibition game. That changed over the course of this season, during which Soshnikov scored 18 goals in 50 impressionable AHL games.

“He’s come a really long way,” Sparks said. “I wish I could tell you more about his background and where he’s from, but honestly I just don’t really know.”

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