Slim chance, high hopes
The odds are longer than his name, Alexander Khokhlachev, but everyone knew that before the smiling Muscovite showed up on Causeway Street yesterday for his first practice in the Bruins’ training camp. He turned 18 years old just over a week ago, and he’s a center, a position deep in assets for the Stanley Cup champions.
So in the overall scheme of Black-and-Gold things, Khokhlachev is most likely here today and gone tomorrow, or as soon as the first cuts are made.
“Hey, you never know,’’ said Scott Bradley, the club’s director of player development. “No one here is making decisions on the first day. But the percentage is probably 99.1 that he’ll go back to junior, and history shows that it usually isn’t best that these kids make your team. Like Joe. He should have gone back to junior instead of sticking around and just playing here and there with us that first year.’’
That would be Joe Thornton, the first pick overall in the 1997 draft, knighted the franchise’s savior weeks before the Bruins selected him. Jumbo Joe finally became a franchise player, though not necessarily a savior, but that didn’t happen until the frustrated Bruins’ cognoscenti flipped him to San Jose in Nov. 2005.
Khokhlachev (pronounced KOH-kluh-chehf), at 5 foot 10 inches, 183 pounds, was taken with the 40th pick in the June draft. Second-round picks, especially those barely 18, aren’t expected to walk into camp and be roster-ready. But it happens, and Exhibit A in the Hub of Hockey is Patrice Bergeron, the 45th pick in June 2003 and a lineup mainstay a mere four months later.
If we dialed the time machine back to September 2003, the first day Patrice Bergeron-Cleary laced ’em up with the Bruins, we’d probably put him among that 0.9 percent chance of making it.
“Uh, maybe not,’’ cautioned Bradley. “Bergy came in that day and turned heads. Special player. There was just something about Patrice you don’t see very often.’’
Anyone sitting in the stands yesterday at the Garden would have spotted Khokhlachev, not for his size, but because of the tiny, frequent bursts of puck brilliance he flashed. He did not look out of place during the drills, and in some cases he looked savvy, comfortable, if not tantalizing. There is no knowing what that truly means until he plays in a varsity scrimmage, or if he gets a chance to suit up for one of the upcoming preseason games. For now, he’s just another organizational oyster, no one knowing if a pearl awaits inside or if he’s destined merely for the raw bar.
“I am trying hard right now to show what I know [on the ice],’’ said “Koko,’’ who arrived in North America a year ago to play for the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, not knowing a word of English. “I am the youngest guy here, so I’ll play, see what happens.’’
If his game comes around as quickly as his mastery of English, that alone portends well for Khokhlachev. Boston’s first crop of Russians, led by Dmitri Kvartalnov in the early 1990s, didn’t fare so well, in part because English as a second language seemed forever to be a distant third on their priority list. Now more sophisticated in the selection process, NHL clubs are more likely to draft Russian players when they show a greater inclination to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture.
Khokhlachev more than fit in with Windsor. He ranked third overall (34-42-76 in 67 games) in the club’s regular-season scoring, then added 20 points, second on the team, during 18 playoff games. Last year’s big guns with Windsor - Ryan Ellis (100 points) and Zack Kassian (77 points) - both were first-round picks in 2009 and are two years his senior.
So his numbers are good. He wants to live and work in North America. And with so much attention on first-round pick Dougie Hamilton, Khokhlachev has the advantage of working in this training camp without the tiniest bit of pressure.
“Look, you want every kid to make it right away,’’ said Bradley. “And over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to see it happen a few times: Kyle McLaren, Bergy, Milan Lucic, Jonathan Girard. But you have to take them case by case. It’s different for a kid who’s coming to a team that just won a Cup than, say, a team that’s rebuilding. Heck, look at what we went through with Cameron Mann.’’
Mann, the 99th pick in the 1995 draft, scored 102 points in junior in 1995-96 (his next to last season in Peterborough), raising expectations that the Bruins struck gold with a fourth-round pick. His first name alone had fans and some media members fawning over Boston’s “Mini Cam.’’ But in four pro seasons with the organization, his skill never truly blossomed. By September 2003, he was destined to play out his career in Europe.
“It just went south with Cam,’’ noted Bradley. “He wasn’t ready.’’
It is a new season, a September unlike any the Bruins have known in nearly 40 years. Year after year, the new kids arrive, their dreams vivid and seemingly boundless. Step one in the odyssey is making people notice. Koko, the kid from Moscow, did that quite well yesterday.