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Photo Credit: Mrs. Finest

Stockton’s Russian trio helping fuel their success

The Stockton Heat lost 4-3 in overtime on Friday night, finishing off their schedule prior to the American Hockey League’s All-Star Break. The Heat head into the break third overall in the AHL by points percentage.

One of the things that has worked for the Heat this season has been their influx of Russian players.

The Heat have three Russians this season:

  • Defenseman Rinat Valiev, 24, from Nizhnekamsk, in his eighth season in North America
  • Defenseman Alexander Yelesin, 23, from Yaroslavl, in his first season in North America
  • Goaltender Artyom Zagidulin, 24, from Magnitigorsk, in his first season in North America

Valiev and Yelesin have been virtually inseparable on the blueline, playing together for the better part of 34 games. Zagidulin has made 23 appearances and has 14 wins, both more than incumbent starter Jon Gillies.

Heck, Yelesin even received a pair of call-ups to the Flames when injuries made them want another defender around. His offensive stats aren’t exactly going to blow anybody’s mind – on a per-game basis literally every other regular defender out-scores him. But in terms of defending, he’s one of Stockton’s best.

“Yelesin is a very hard-working defensive defenseman,” said Heat head coach Cail MacLean. “So his numbers, although he has some offensive skill, his numbers won’t jump off the chart too much, but his presence – in terms of the competitive nature he has, his engine, ability to move his feet and close time and space are really high. So when it comes to a right-handed defensive defenseman who shoots right and has a very high level of compete, he’s a real good player in that role.”

Yelesin served as a healthy scratch for eight NHL dates, but traveled and practiced with the team. If the tactic of bringing up a young pro to the NHL level for the exposure sounds familiar, it’s because the Flames did that with Rasmus Andersson at the end of the 2017-18 season; he spent the better part of a month with the big club to learn from the NHL players and coaches.

“Being from Russia and this being his first year in North America, [Yelesin] doesn’t have a lot of experience with that NHL camps or in NHL call-up situations,” said MacLean. “So every moment he can get at that level will help him understand how practice habits effect things, how games go, what the atmosphere is like there, getting to know people up there. So it’s all really good exposure for him.”

Zagidulin’s season has also been quite impressive. While his save percentage won’t blow anybody away – his .900 mark ranked him 34th out of the AHL’s 48 qualified goalies – his 14 wins have him tied for ninth, just four back of the league leader. He’s a guy that finds ways to win, with his coach praising his ability to make “the big save.”

“His numbers weren’t great in the first half of the year but when you look at his record, he was sporting a 10-1 at one point record, and was able to just get wins,” said MacLean. “He’s calm in the net, and he gives his teammates confidence. That’s one of those intangibles as a goaltender that is very valuable. It’s a big adjustment for him to come over with the language barrier and the new culture over here, but I think he’s done a good job with that.”

A lot of credit for how well Yelesin and Zagidulin have done transitioning to the AHL game has to go to Valiev. A Toronto Maple Leafs pick in 2014, Valiev has a resume boasting a dozen NHL dates and four full seasons in the AHL. He’s been a big part of the connective tissue that’s especially allowed Zagidulin, who speaks much less English than Yelesin, to find his rhythm.

Here’s MacLean on Valiev’s impact:

Rinat is roommates with Zagidulin a lot of times on the road, and I know that they get along well and it helps Zagidulin. I think there’s an element of wanting to push him and help him learn the language, but there’s also a necessary element of guys having some level of comfort and being able to feel at ease for them to play their best. And I think Rinat has done a great job of helping with that. Rinat is a very good person, so you couldn’t ask for a better support if you’re a teammate, if you’re someone like Zagidulin, in terms of what kind of teammate could help you through. Yelesin deserves a lot of credit there, too, he’s in and out of a lot of meetings with Zagidulin, helping to translate things and helping Zagidulin help his English language base by being a sort of go-between there.

With Dmitry Zavgorodniy likely going pro next season, it’ll be interesting to see how the Russian contingent grows in Stockton. Yelesin and Zavgorodniy are under contract for 2020-21, while Zagidulin and Valiev will be restricted free agents when this season concludes.

The Heat return to action after the AHL All-Star break next Saturday when they host the Bakersfield Condors.