Ozhiganov a front-runner for Maple Leafs’ third defensive pairing

NHL-Russia-Ozhiganov-shoots-puck

Russia's Igor Ozhiganov, left, shoots during a Ice Hockey Channel One Cup match against Finland. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

TORONTO — Igor Ozhiganov is not yet at a point where he can speak comfortably in English with reporters.

Ask any Toronto Maple Leaf not named Nikita Zaitsev how much they’ve been able to interact with the six-foot-two mystery man from Krasnogorsk and you’ll get responses like this one from Travis Dermott: "I’m sure by Christmas we’ll be having deeper convos."

Translation: Not much yet.

Now well into the second week of training camp, Ozhiganov is still trying to work his way through the nuances of a Mike Babcock practice. He has some familiarity with a coach who made the trip to Moscow last year just to have dinner with him – Babcock also took Ozhiganov’s wife to breakfast when she subsequently visited Toronto – but the 25-year-old never went through a skate in the KHL that didn’t include any time at the white board and only moderate verbal instruction … all of it barked with urgency in Babcock-ese.

"I’m trying [to help him]," Zaitsev told Sportsnet over the weekend. "Babs tells me, like always yells ‘f—— translate to him.’ So I’ve got to go do my drill and f—— translate it to him at the same time."

Despite these challenges, Ozhiganov appears to have emerged as the favourite to start the season as the right shot on Toronto’s third defensive pairing. He was placed in the "NHL group" after a reshuffling of the deck for Monday’s practice, with fellow righties Connor Carrick and Justin Holl joining the "AHL group" due to face the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena later that night.

It’s premature to suggest that one of Carrick or Holl is already destined for the Marlies — for starters, each would need to clear waivers before any AHL assignment while Ozhiganov would not – but the coach seemed to be sending a message about where he feels things stand with time running short on his toughest decision in camp.

Babcock prefers stability from his bottom pairing. Think a meat-and-potatoes penalty killer who is expected to take care of his own zone at 5-on-5 while leaving the sizzle to 50-point defencemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.

Think: Roman Polak.

Ozhiganov isn’t a carbon copy of the former Leafs warhorse, but he’s a reasonable enough facsimile because of his size and strength. He was paired with lefty Calle Rosen (a fill-in for the injured Travis Dermott) during Saturday’s pre-season game in Buffalo and those two viewed it as a good sign when Babcock threw them out for the final 52 seconds of a 3-2 win.

"I hope so," said Rosen. "It should be."

Ozhiganov is less of an unknown to his coach than a typical free agent coming over from Europe might be because of how aggressively the Leafs pursued him. Babcock kept in regular communication with the player all last season — even sending him notes about things he picked up while watching clips of Ozhiganov playing for CSKA Moscow.

He drew praise following his exhibition debut against Ottawa in Lucan, Ont., last week despite the fact he later told agent Dan Milstein he was "very nervous" throughout the entire first period. Babcock also liked what he got from Ozhiganov in 20:27 of action versus a near NHL-quality Sabres team on Saturday.

"I see a big big man, good stick, head up, passes the puck really good, shoots it good," said Babcock. "I think he’s a real good player."

The Leafs could start the season carrying eight defencemen, although Babcock noted that he’ll probably go with seven once William Nylander’s contract stalemate ends. With a top four of Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey already locked in and a healthy Dermott all-but assured of the fifth spot, you’re left with Ozhiganov, Rosen, Carrick, Holl and Andreas Borgman battling for two jobs.

His opening night lineup would seem to be shaping up like so:

Rielly-Hainsey

Gardiner-Zaitsev

Dermott-Ozighanov

It’s important to remember that the competition won’t end when the regular season starts. Borgman found himself a late cut in training camp last fall and wound up playing 48 games for the Leafs. Dermott didn’t get his NHL call-up until Jan. 5 and dressed for 37 games, plus seven more in the playoffs.

Ozighanov even has experience with this type of uncertainty since CSKA carried six lines worth of players all last season – seeing him dress just 42 times, the lowest total of his six KHL seasons.

That didn’t keep more than 20 NHL teams from expressing interest in his services. Toronto emerged as the front-runner very early in the process and received a verbal guarantee from Ozighanov long before he signed a contract with them.

"This was carefully thought out," said Milstein.

Still, the transition to North America hasn’t been without its challenges.

Ozighanov has already spent six weeks in Toronto without his wife and newborn daughter, who are scheduled to join him here just before the Oct. 3 season opener against Montreal. While Zaitsev has done what he can to help out away from the rink, he acknowledged that it’s been a lonely experience at times for Ozighanov.

"When he’s in a different group and there’s no Russians, I think for sure," said Zaitsev. "You just have no idea what’s going on, what the people are talking [about], and you don’t understand what Babs … what he wants sometimes because we have no board. He didn’t draw anything. He yells so fast.

"Even the guys who speak English can’t figure it out first time when they came here. Like seriously."

There was no similar language barrier to overcome when he made his own journey to Toronto two years ago, but still he can empathize.

Zaitsev has since settled in and signed a seven-year, $31.5-million extension with the Leafs. He makes no secret of the fact that he’s pulling for Ozhiganov to win a spot out of training camp.

"I hope so," said Zaitsev. "I would like to have a Russian guy on the team."

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