Even though he scored 31 this season, ask Sergey Tolchinksy about “that goal” and he’ll know exactly which one you mean.
Last month, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect, then playing for Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, scored a candidate for best of the season at any level when he skated in on a breakaway, turned backwards, put his stick between his legs and lifted the puck short side. It was the first of another three-point night for the Russian forward, who finished the campaign ranked 10th in the OHL with 91 points in 66 games.
Thanks to the national attention that play generated, a player who didn’t draw enough notice to get drafted last summer was suddenly in the limelight.
“I tried it a lot in practice and tried it once in a game and it didn’t work,” said Tolchinsky. “It worked this time. I always wanted to score like that and had a chance, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
The little burst of creativity that made him YouTube famous (nearly 560,000 views as of Wednesday morning) didn’t come as a shock to those in the Hurricanes organization. Though perhaps not quite that flashy, he showed enough flashes of that skill at the team’s annual rookie camp to earn an entry-level deal as a free-agent invite. Both of his goals at that week’s intrasquad scrimmage were of the highlight-reel variety.
Even though he checks in at a very modest 5-foot-8 and 163 pounds and is still only 19, thus not old enough to play in the AHL full-time next season, his raw talent could soon land him a spot in the Checkers’ lineup now that he’s begun an amateur tryout following Sault Ste. Marie’s ouster from the OHL playoffs. It would ordinarily be a tough time to hand someone his professional debut, with the Checkers needing two wins in their last two games to have a realistic chance of getting into the playoffs.
“I’m not scared to put him in,” said coach Jeff Daniels, who attended that rookie camp and also coached Tolchinsky at the Traverse City prospect tournament later that summer. “We’ll just see what our best lineup is for Friday night, and right now he’s an option.”
“You see the skill that he has and the way he competes,” added Daniels. “It’s one thing to have skill but you have to make sure you’re competing, and when he loses the puck or is trying to get the puck, he battles and he gets it. The puck is on a string for him and he’s very creative. He’s a fun guy to watch.”
With Philippe Cornet ruled out to due to injury and Matthew Pistilli released from his pro tryout contract, Tolchinsky is essentially battling with Phil Di Giuseppe for a spot in one or both of the remaining regular-season games. Daniels feels that Di Giuseppe, who left the University of Michigan at the end of his junior season last month and is likely to begin next season with the Checkers, has held his own in his first two games at the professional level.
The Checkers’ coach doesn’t seem to be the only one impressed with Tolchinsky, with many of his teammates also curious to see how he does at the professional level based on what they’ve seen in practice. At least a few have come across the aforementioned highlight at one time or another.
Veteran defenseman Mark Flood admits he didn’t know much about Tolchinsky, who was limited by an injury at the Hurricanes’ main training camp, prior to this week. However, his first impressions proved correct.
“Being around for a few years, if you see a guy that small he’s either really tough or really skilled,” said Flood, who is a full 10 years older than his newest teammate. “He looks young, like he could be my little brother or something like that, but he seems like a real good kid. He’s obviously shifty and skilled, and you can tell he competes hard just from these first couple of practices in the battle drills.”
Being able to back his talent up with hard work is a good sign for his ability to adjust to the pro game at some point. Does he think he’ll get that chance this week?
“I want to play because I want to try this level and see how I’m doing,” he said, adding that he’s already noticed a significant different in speed from junior hockey to the AHL, both from practicing and attending Sunday’s game against Grand Rapids. “It’ll give me something in the summer so I’ll know what to work on to prepare for this league.”
Tolchinksy already knows he wants to work on his size. Even though he’s unlikely to find a way to make himself taller, he’s certainly capable of adding muscle to a very slight frame. There’s probably not a great deal he can do from a skill standpoint, as he correctly cites his already-world-class stickhandling as his best asset.
He’ll want to use that to his advantage if he does play, though it’s hard to tell if he’ll feel comfortable enough to try those signature moves right off the bat.
“He’s a fun-loving guy and jokes around in practice, but in his first two days he’s been real quiet,” said Daniels.
By all accounts, that would change over time. Until then, he'll continue to get a taste of the next level for however long the Checkers' season might last.
“It’s a different level and big step for me, so I hope I can learn some different stuff,” said Tolchinsky. “I’ve got to learn and it’s a great experience.”