New Leafs prospect Nikita Soshnikov is prepared to develop in the minors

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(Courtesy: KHL)

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ newest signing raised quite a few eyebrows at both sides of the Atlantic.

21-year-old Nikita Soshnikov signed a 3-year entry-level contract with the organization last week, and will come to town next season. Soshnikov has 93 KHL games under his belt (all with Atlant), 17 goals and 38 points. Notably, this was his first full pro season, partially due to his club’s financial problems.

“It’s been my dream to play in the NHL, so that was my main reason to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs,” said Soshnikov to TASS reporter Mikhail Zislis. “I didn’t care about the money or anything else. My parents were really supportive. They said I should go while I’m still young. I had an offer to stay in Russia for another year.”

Read past the jump for more.

“It’s unclear what the Leafs are going to look like next season. The team isn’t making the playoffs this season, so it’s likely there will be a lot of changes made in the summer, which means I have a better chance to crack the lineup next fall. It would be a shame not to opt for it. Next season the team can make the playoffs and I would be more difficult for me to get a regular roster spot.”

Atlant ran into some financial issues halfway through the season and had to part with most of its leaders (i.e. top paid players), paving the road for young players such as Soshnikov to step up. Multiple reports say Atlant will either miss the next KHL season entirely or will merge with Spartak Moscow, which is expected to make its return to the league. Over 20 junior Atlant players also reportedly set to join Spartak organization next season.

“I don’t have any official information concerning Atlant’s future,” said Soshnikov. “All I’ve heard were rumours. However, the entire situation had no effect on my decision to continue my career in North America. I didn’t sign the first contract I was offered. I received the offer a month ago and took some time to think about it. As the out-clause in my contract that would allow me to go back home, I can’t disclose this information yet. It’s the club’s prerogative.”

Atlant general manager and former NHLer Alexei Zhamnov has not been pleased with Soshnikov’s decision to sign with the Leafs. Despite Atlant’s unclear future, Zhamnov is expected to retain his position in case of the merger with Spartak. Soshnikov came in 4th in scoring on Atlant this season, which certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Zhamnov.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t expect Soshnikov to sign with the Leafs,” Zhamnov told R-Sport. “We had a chat with him not that long ago. I didn’t expect him to make up his mind so quickly. I believe it would have been better for him to play a couple more years in the KHL and above anything get stronger physically. It’s obvious Nikita made a rash decision. However, it’s his decision and we wish him luck. We will follow him closely.”

Valery Kamensky, president of Atlant, shares the same sentiment with Zhamnov.

“Soshnikov has just made a bit of a name for himself,” he told R-Sport. “I think, he should have played another season in Russia, developed into a much better player and then he could be a leader on his new team. He signed a 2-way contract, so most likely he’ll play in the minors and develop there. Obviously, I wish Nikita to make it to the NHL but I don’t think it’s possible to do that in his first year overseas. He can get stronger physically over the summer, though. Nothing is impossible. I wish Soshnikov good luck.”

Physical strength aside, Soshnikov will face a very common problem for Russian players in the language barrier. Luckily for him, the Leafs have Leo Komarov.

“I don’t know him personally but I played against him when Atlant faced Dynamo,” said Soshnikov. “I’m glad there’s going to be a Russian-speaking player on the team. I’m eager to get to know him and everyone else on the team. I followed the Leafs via highlights. I know they’ve got excellent forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.
“I need to improve my English so I’d be able to communicate freely. I’m going to address the issue soon. I know about the great media attention to every Leafs player. I’m ready to get used to it. It’s going to be easier for me than for the others because of the language barrier. I can stay quiet for a while. I’m fully aware that a 2-way contract means I could be sent down to the minors. I knew what I was getting myself into. Nobody promised me anything. If I must play for a farm team, so be it.”