STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State star freshman Denis Smirnov is a high-scoring, super-skilled forward who typically plays left wing. He’s also from Moscow.
Given that description, you’d figure he has to be a fan of another high-scoring left wing from Moscow, Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. Nah. Turns out he grew up rooting for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, a team in the Kontinental Hockey League located more than 1,000 miles from his home. He idolized their star player, Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
Smirnov is full of surprises, and opposing teams have struggled to handle them this season. He has 16 goals and a team-leading 39 points in 28 games for the Nittany Lions, who are in East Lansing, Mich., this weekend for a critical two-game series.
He can set the program record for points in a season against Michigan State. Smirnov needs one point to tie Ottawa Senators forward Casey Bailey and two to claim the record outright.
Smirnov leads the nation in scoring by a freshman. The guy who is second, Clayton Keller from Boston University, might be the best young player in the world not in the NHL. He was the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
There were 204 selections after Keller during those two days in Buffalo. None of them ended up being Smirnov.
“We were really surprised he didn’t get drafted last year,” said Cary Eades, Smirnov’s coach last season with the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League. “I get it, he’s not 6-foot-7 like (current Penn State teammate) Nikita Pavlychev.
“There are players of his stature or smaller in the NHL, though. When you see him every day, how hard he works and the special things he does with and without the puck, you can appreciate him a little more.”
Pavlychev was eligible for the 2015 draft because he was born early in 1997. He went in the seventh round to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has three goals and 10 points for Penn State this season.
Brett Murray was a fourth-round pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2016 draft, and he has one point in eight games for the Nittany Lions this season. That’s not to knock Pavlychev or Murray, because college hockey is hard for most freshmen.
It hasn’t been for Smirnov.
‘Absolutely blew me away’
Smirnov had two goals Saturday against No. 5 Minnesota in a 4-3 overtime loss, including one on a penalty shot with 86 seconds left to give Penn State a 3-2 lead.
“There’s a couple of things that are pretty special about that (goal),” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “One is the time of it, the time and the magnitude of it. The other is he had to work so hard to get that breakaway to begin with. He was gassed. We were thinking … I was going to call a timeout. We were going to call a timeout for no reason other than to give him more time, but he said he was fine.
“For him to go and pull off that move, late in the period when the ice is bad, with the magnitude of the time and what the game meant, just blew me away. Just absolutely blew me away.”
Smirnov is listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, so that is the first obvious knock against him. Prospects such as Smirnov always have to prove they can succeed at each new level, while players like Pavlychev (6-7, 212 pounds) and Murray (6-5, 227) often get extra chances.
Smirnov won a national championship as a bantam player for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights. He won a USHL title with the Indiana Ice. He’s trying to help Penn State reach the NCAA tournament in only its fifth year as a Division I program.
There’s been a stigma for many NHL teams about drafting Russian players in the past decade. Players such as Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov have dropped in the first round on draft day because teams were fearful of those prospects staying at home and playing in the KHL instead of coming to North America when they’re ready.
The Capitals wanted Kuznetsov to join them two years after he was drafted. He stayed home for four.
While high-end prospects might slide in the draft, Russians projected to go in the middle rounds can slide all the way out of it. It’s hard to get a Russian prospect who was a fifth-round pick to play in the American Hockey League for two or three years and maybe make the NHL at age 23 when the KHL can pay developing players more money.
This shouldn’t be a problem with Smirnov. He came to America at age 14. He wanted to play college hockey. There is a career in the KHL waiting for him if he wants it — he’s already been drafted by the team in Sochi — but getting drafted in the NHL and playing at the highest level is his goal.
“I actually was at the (2016) draft in Buffalo and was reminding people about him. There’s lots of players out there,” Eades said. “It was disappointing that he didn’t get drafted last year, but it might work out in his favor because he should go higher than he might have last year.”
‘More motivation for me to get better’
Smirnov was not listed on NHL Central Scouting’s preseason watch list, which groups players as ‘A’ (first-round grade), ‘B’ (second-third) and ‘C’ (fourth-sixth) prospects. He did earn a spot in Central Scouting’s midseason rankings, checking in at No. 131 among North American skaters (grouped by team location).
That makes it far from a certainty that he will be drafted, though his exploits at Penn State should help his visibility among NHL scouts.
“I don’t know and I don’t think people are going to tip their hands, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t (get drafted),” Gadowsky said. “I’ve seen enough guys that have been successful in college and made the jump to the NHL and been successful players, and boy, I’d take him over a lot of those guys. That’s all I can say.”
If Smirnov does not get selected in the 2017 draft, then he officially becomes a free agent. The twist is he can’t sign a contract and stay at Penn State. NHL teams can draft players and retain their rights while they play in college, but Smirnov would need to forego his eligibility to sign with a pro franchise.
The 2017 draft is four months away. For now, Smirnov has a chance to help Penn State reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, and sweeping the last-place Spartans is imperative to reach that goal.
“I just ask Nikita about that stuff,” Smirnov said, since his pal has already been drafted. “We talk about it a lot, but I feel like I need to just focus on me more than the outside stuff. It’s just more motivation for me to get better every day.”