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Don’t Worry About Alexander Khovanov’s Struggles in Russia

Photo credit: Minnesota Wild YouTube screenshot

It’s easier than ever to be a prospect nerd. Fans can track almost any player in the world thanks to websites like Elite Prospects. Scouts watch games in far-flung leagues, then hop on Twitter and make their commentary available. Dedicated Minnesota Wild fans work hard to maintain a one-stop shop for prospect updates.

Thanks to the internet, you can watch draft pick seeds sprout into bona-fide players in real time. It can be exciting and rewarding, but the day-to-day realities of development can also frustrate. It used to be you only got to see fully-baked players come out of the oven. Now we see every slump, every bump and bruise on the way to the NHL.

This brings us to top prospect Alexander Khovanov, who is coming off a breakout year. Khovanov sought and was granted permission to play in Russia back in July, signing with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan. Sadly, he is not thriving yet in his homeland.

Khovanov has played just seven of a possible 21 games, scoring zero points with fewer than 10 minutes per night. Worse yet, there are rumors of clashes with his coaches, which don’t bode well for his playing time going forward.

Obviously, it’s disappointing to see him struggle from across the world, but Wild fans shouldn’t be overly concerned. We’ve seen stories like Khovanov’s before, and we’ve seen them turn out all right. Let’s dig in.

Zucker’s “Two-Way Game”

Jason Zucker immediately comes to mind when thinking of Wild players who’ve clashed with coaches. He came out of the gate in 2015-16, scoring 13 points in his first 15 games on a strong possession line.

The points started drying up, and his ice time followed. By February, coach Mike Yeo was playing him around 10 minutes per night. When Yeo was fired and replaced by interim John Torchetti, the games of young players like Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter took off.

Not Zucker’s, though. He finished the season with just 10 points in his last 56 games. He was regularly benched in March, prompting a bizarre press conference where Torchetti responded to every inquiry concerning Zucker by saying: “two-way game.”

It was frustrating to watch Zucker struggle and clash with two coaches, and many fans wanted to see him traded. In hindsight, though, patience was the best option. He came back the next season and worked his way from the fourth line to a breakout 22-goal season. He scored 33 the next year.

Whether the issue was him needing to improve his game, get the right coach in Bruce Boudreau, or a combination of those things and more, Zucker’s struggles were a natural part of his development. Young players go through these things all the time, in every organization.

Unless we get word of something more extraordinary than a young player and coach not getting along, there’s little to be worried about with Khovanov. This isn’t abnormal, especially considering neither Ak Bars nor Khovanov are particularly invested in each other.

Speaking of Torchetti…

Another reason to not be worried is that Khovanov doesn’t have a history of being uncoachable. You can ask Torchetti himself, who coached him in Moncton.

“He’s mentally tough,” Torchetti told Michael Russo on an episode of Straight From the Source. “He’s gone through a lot, and the No. 1 [issue with him] was maturity, and he certainly checked that box off this year.”

Khovanov blossomed under Torchetti, finishing second in the QMJHL in scoring (überprospect Alexis Lafreniere finished first) with 99 points in 51 games. Khovanov took that game with him to the World Junior Champions, where he scored eight points in seven games for the Silver-winning Team Russia.

Even more assuring than the absurd point totals was that he rose to the occasion when challenged. “He would think one or two plays [per game is good],” Torchetti said. “And I’m trying to get him to understand there’s 17-20 shifts at 5-on-5 where you have to be The Guy, and he grew into that.”

That doesn’t sound like a kid you can’t reach. It sounds like a player who has to have a good relationship with a coach who knows how to motivate him. Again, this isn’t abnormal for a 20-year-old hockey player.

Khovanov’s fitness level was another concern Russo brought up with Torchetti, who conceded that it could be an issue, but added: “He will do the work when you ask him, but it’s when he’s away… that he has to make sure that he’s eating correctly. But when you tell him to train… he’d be one of the hardest workers.” He also noted that Khovanov ultimately made his weigh-ins.

Is Khovanov headstrong? Seems like it.

Does he need to mature further? What 20-year-old doesn’t?

Do you need to worry? No.

The Dean of Prospects

If we feel that Khovanov will need the right coach to succeed, the natural next question is “Is Dean Evason that guy?” Luckily, Evason offers one reason to think he could work well with Khovanov: Kevin Fiala.

Evason coached Fiala in the AHL from 2014 to 2016 when he was 18 to 20 years old. When Nashville sent Fiala down in 2015, he was clearly angry with the decision. He played poorly, with just 6 points through 15 games, got in trouble with the league and placed himself in Evason’s doghouse. Evason scratched Fiala “to adjust his attitude.”

Evason challenged Fiala, who then responded with 44 points in his final 51 games. “Once his head was straight, it allowed his body to just play the game the way he can play the game,” Evason said in January 2016. “When everything settled down mentally, he was in a good place. We saw him with that consistent effort, not only nightly, but daily.”

This story in some ways mirrors Fiala’s year in Minnesota. He struggled early and was criticized for inconsistent play, then was challenged by Boudreau, Evason and Mikko Koivu. A short while later, especially once Evason started giving him big minutes, Fiala became the source of renewed hope in the State of Hockey.

Khovanov hit a bump in the road of his development, but it’s an extremely common one. It’s rare to see a very young player step into the league with a Jonathan Toews-like level of maturity. That part of the game needs development, too.

Fortunately, the hard part of developing Khovanov is done. He has the talent and by all accounts works hard. Now it’s just a matter of getting a coach who knows how to get the best out of him. If that’s a problem, it’s a good one to have.

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