The first time Boris Dorozhenko, the Scottsdale-based NHL abilities coach who got here to fame for creating Auston Matthews, began working with Danny Zhilkin, he determined by the top of their skate collectively that the 17-year-old would start his coaching in what he calls “the top league stage.”
There are ranges to Dorozhenko’s aptly-named Next Generation Hockey coaching, and youngsters usually start a degree (or two) under his most troublesome regiment.
But when Zhilkin got here to him throughout the OHL’s 2020-21 season shutdown searching for new perception into his growth and hoping to take advantage of an otherwise-lost yr, it was clear he was prepared for the problem.
And in order that they started working, pushing by way of each day two-hour classes that stripped Zhilkin of pucks and appeared to hone his pace, agility, weight switch, and even his capturing and puckhandling. This was achieved by way of centered coaching of recent habits for his hips, stability and core.
“He was a very strong skater. We just added new things to his package of tools and he showed real improvement. My program is not easy even for pro players, but he did it really well and every single moment in the program he was involved in, he was trying to analyze. He was ready for it,” Dorozhenko stated on a current telephone name. “My impression of him was very good. I think he’s a very solid hockey player and he’s got a great work ethic. He’s a smart and serious hockey player who is a very analytical player and has a great sense of where he’s at. ”
A yr later, the place he’s at is on the cusp of being picked within the NHL Draft.
When the hockey world gathers in Montreal within the first week of July for the 2022 draft, Zhilkin, a 6-foot-1, 189-pound first-line centre of the Guelph Storm, is predicted to be chosen in its first two rounds (perhaps as excessive because the late first).
Just like Dorozhenko found, Zhilkin and his recreation have each at all times been superior — at all times one step forward of his friends on the ice along with his skating and bodily maturity, and an equal step forward off of it, as he has made Canada his dwelling and a profession within the NHL his mission.
This yr, as NHL groups pulled Zhilkin apart for postgame conversations, or organized formal in-person and on-line interviews with him, there have been two questions that have been at all times requested: “Why’d you come to Canada?” and “Why’d you stay?”
He was born in Moscow on Dec. 19, 2003, however he first got here to Canada in the summertime of 2013 a decade later for the Roger Neilson Hockey Camp, a two-week youth hockey camp held in Aurora, Ont.
When the camp was nearing its conclusion, a neighborhood minor hockey coach with the Toronto Young Nationals AAA workforce approached him and his mother to ask them in the event that they’d wish to play for him later that fall.
Without hesitation, Zhilkin, who couldn’t converse any English, instructed his dad and mom, Boris and Anna, that he’d wish to. After some preliminary forwards and backwards and hair-pulling about what it will imply — and value — for his or her household to maneuver to Canada, put down roots, study the language, and do all of it on the hope and prayer that it will work out for his or her son’s dream, they determined to do it anyway, flying dwelling, packing their issues, and instantly turning round to return again.
He often laughs about that a part of the story — how shortly his mother packed him and his youthful brother, Dima, and older sister, Alice, up, leaving Boris behind to proceed working.
And the subsequent half — after they received again within the late summer season, the spot he’d been provided was taken and the Young Nationals’ roster was full.
After an invitation to check out for the AAA Toronto Junior Canadiens underneath head coach Jules Jardine, he fortunately made the workforce.
They landed in suburban Mississauga, Ont., simply west of Toronto, in its Erin Mills neighbourhood, earlier than finally transferring to Lorne Park and now Oakville. While Anna raised the three youngsters and Boris travelled between Russia and Canada every time he might, she additionally put herself by way of a two-year program at Sheraton College to turn into an inside designer and provides the household one other earnings.
Danny, who turned 10 that fall, went proper into Grade 4 at T.E.A.M. School, a neighborhood non-public faculty that works particularly with college students with particular wants, or those that want educational help (typically together with new households), in small class sizes as a part of Mississauga’s Mentor College.
As he navigated the language barrier at college — solely his mother knew a bit little bit of English and Danny says he “knew basically nothing” — he was additionally, as a consequence of his late-December birthday, the youngest participant in his 2003 age group on the ice.
It took him, he says, three years to get comfy at college and the rink. But with the assistance of his lecturers at T.E.A.M. School, and time spent round his teammates on the enviornment, he realized quick.
In time, although the household spoke Russian at dwelling (and nonetheless does), Danny and his siblings started to seek out themselves speaking to one another in English, particularly as a result of Dima (who was born in 2008) was 5 after they moved and took to the language extra naturally in consequence.
Despite his younger age, Danny grew to become one of many higher forwards within the GTHL and, in the summertime of 2018, forward of his closing minor hockey season, dedicated to Boston University at simply 14 years previous.
The following season, he then made the transfer to the titanic Toronto Marlboros, the place he took on extra of a secondary position behind teammates like Wyatt Johnston and Jack Beck. Though they shared the identical OHL draft yr, Johnston (who has since turn into a first-round decide of the Dallas Stars) and Beck (now a prospect of the Calgary Flames) have been a yr forward of him within the NHL Draft calendar, and scored 94 and 74 factors respectively, effectively away from Zhilkin’s 57 factors in 69 video games.
Still, due to his age (Zhilkin was seven months youthful than Johnston and eight months youthful than Beck) and his superior athleticism (Zhilkin was at all times a broad-shouldered, quick participant), Zhilkin remained one of many age group’s high prospects.
That season, he received a gold medal with GTHL Blue on the 2019 OHL Gold Cup, registering six factors in 4 video games. He additionally wore the crimson and white for the primary time, setting his sights on finally taking part in for Canada as a substitute of Russia internationally when he scored 4 factors in six video games and received gold with Team Ontario on the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
Though he was dedicated to the Terriers, OHL golf equipment pushed laborious of their recruitment efforts for him all yr lengthy, hoping to sway him towards junior hockey. When the 2019 OHL draft got here alongside, the Guelph Storm then chosen him with the No. 14 decide.
Staff in Guelph, led by longtime head coach and common supervisor George Burnett, have been struck by how regardless of his age, Zhilkin was forward of his friends in a number of areas.
“His skills and his skating and his size really jumped out at us. Everybody’s intrigued by the package — the size, the strength, the skating in particular. We just liked the overall package,” Burnett stated.
They have been additionally drawn to the truth that due to his December birthday, they’d get three years out of him earlier than he was drafted into the NHL, as a substitute of two.
“The kids that are the late birthdays get a little extra time and with where we were at at the time at as an organization, that went into the evaluation process,” Burnett added.
Some of that superior measurement and power and skating skill stemmed from the years of labor he had achieved coaching underneath famed power coach and former NHLer Gary Roberts in Aurora, Ontario.
After attending Canada’s nationwide under-17 growth camp that July, and finally taking part in for Team Canada Black, scoring 4 targets and 6 factors in 5 video games on the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Zhilkin de-committed from BU and joined the Storm.
Ahead of Danny’s first season, Anna, Alice, and Dima moved to Guelph with him as a substitute of transferring him into a neighborhood billet dwelling.
As a rookie, he then performed the complete 2019-20 season in Guelph because the OHL’s second-youngest participant behind solely distinctive standing star Shane Wright, posting 15 factors in 60 video games as a 15- and 16-year-old.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, ending his rookie season early and cancelling his sophomore season, Zhilkin had achieved sufficient to impress Hockey Canada at an early age to be invited to play for Team Canada on the 2021 U18 World Championship in Texas, the place he was certainly one of 5 underage gamers named to the workforce (alongside fellow 2022 prospects Wright, Denton Mateychuk and Tyler Brennan, in addition to 2023 sensation Connor Bedard).
With Team Canada, he posted two factors and a plus-4 score in seven video games en path to the gold medal, whereas taking part in in a depth position that noticed him bounce across the lineup.
“Coming here at such a young age, you grow up here, you go to high school here, all of your buddies are from here. I have a few connections back home in Russia but not many. And then once I played at U18s for Team Canada and won that gold medal, it truly made me Canadian,” Zhilkin stated of the “unbelievable” expertise in Texas.
That play earned Zhilkin a “B” score (designated for projected second- or third-round picks) on NHL Central Scouting’s first gamers to look at checklist for the 2022 draft.
Then he returned to Guelph final fall, the place he joined a younger workforce stuffed with 2022 prospects, for what ought to have been his third OHL season however was actually solely his second. And after a powerful begin, he was upgraded to an “A” score (assigned to first-round picks) in NHL Central Scouting’s second gamers to look at checklist in November.
In Guelph, he’d slotted onto the workforce’s first line with Anaheim Ducks high prospect Sasha Pastujov.
After his expertise at U18 worlds, Burnett observed a right away distinction within the Zhilkin that got here again.
“There’s this focus that he has to be a pro,” Burnett stated. “He has been driven by this next step here, getting drafted and having a chance to be a pro for quite some time. Missing the year, he worked extremely hard in all of the different ways possible to stay sharp coming into this year.”
Under-18 worlds had taught him that he might be a optimistic issue for a workforce in varied methods, reasonably than simply as an offensive participant. That spilled into his draft yr, as he grew to become a go-to faceoff man for Burnett and commenced to kill penalties. As the season progressed, he additionally took cost extra. In one recreation in Sarnia, when each of his common wingers have been unavailable, Zhilkin wowed Burnett when he was the very best participant on the ice in all three zones whereas centring a line with two of the workforce’s youngest gamers.
“The big thing he has come to realize that we’ve tried to help him with is if he can compete, and check, and defend, and learn to play without the puck, then he can be a pro for a lot longer and sooner. And he has done that,” Burnett stated. “He’s one of the first guys to reach out to new draft picks and new kids to the organization and he’s very quiet and he’s not a rah-rah type of guy, but he’s determined to be a factor in other ways.”
The roundedness that started to develop in his recreation made him NHL Central Scouting’s No. 27-ranked North American skater at midseason.
In March, progress made on his two-way recreation really noticed him play defence for the Storm after they have been brief our bodies on the blue line. In the primary recreation, he crammed in on D within the third interval with the Storm down 3-1 to the Sting and picked up an help whereas doing so in a come-from-behind 4-3 win. Two nights later, he performed the complete recreation on D.
“It was obviously a little different but if you can skate well I think it’s pretty easy. You just have to play a heads-up game and play simple and it kind of takes care of itself,” Zhilkin stated of his expertise on defence. “If you’re a good player, you can figure it out and I think I did just that. It was awesome.”
Then the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game rolled round in Kitchener, Ont., and Zhilkin was tasked with transferring from his pure place down the center to his third place in as many video games, sliding onto the wing on Team Red’s high line with Wright.
There, he picked up an help on the sport’s opening aim, establishing Wright. But it wasn’t the play he made in transition to create the aim that Burnett was impressed by. It was the best way he dealt with the brand new place on the massive stage (Burnett stated he has by no means performed Zhilkin on the wing).
“At centre, with the way he skates, you get to have a free run at it. On the wing, you have to make more contact and I thought he handled it quite well and played it quite effectively,” stated Burnett, who was one of many recreation’s two coaches.
That week, he additionally impressed within the high prospect recreation’s on-ice mix testing, ending with a top-five time in three completely different checks (second within the mix’s response drill with a puck, fourth in its weave agility drill, and fourth in its 30-metre backward skate with a puck).
At yr’s finish, he’d registered 55 factors in 66 video games, good for second on the Storm in scoring behind Pastujov, however not fairly sufficient to lift his draft inventory any additional, touchdown at No. 35 amongst North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s closing rating.
From afar, Dorozhenko saved in contact and watched his understudy take essential steps, impressed by the progress he made.
“I think he’s going to be a really good pick for whichever team who picks him,” Dorozhenko stated. “I’m very happy with how he played. I’m so proud of him.”
Today, Zhilkin is a great distance from the nine-year-old child who moved to Mississauga in the summertime of 2013.
He’s additionally now capable of respect what each of his dad and mom gave as much as assist him get to the place he’s. After his mother did it alone for the primary few years, his dad (the one particular person of their household of 5 who nonetheless speaks little or no English) joined them a few years in the past. After that first yr dwelling along with his mother in Guelph, he moved right into a billet dwelling for this season.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Danny stated, looking back, of the transfer to Canada. “But I’m super thankful for my parents for the opportunity. I wasn’t really realizing at that age what was happening but now I see that it was a huge sacrifice and a lot of money put into it, so I hope to give back to my parents one day.”
Only his grandparents stay in Russia. Alice has grown up too, and now attends the University of Ottawa. Dima has adopted in his large brother’s footsteps with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens as he prepares for his personal OHL draft yr.
When Burnett talks about Danny, he begins first with the younger man he’s. In their exit assembly on the finish of April, Burnett instructed Danny the identical factor Dorozhenko had: That he was pleased with him.
“He’s determined to make sure that the things that are in his control — the strength and fitness, the skill, the skating — are all looked after,” Burnett stated. “We’ve never had any issues with him. He has done school successfully. It was quite the commitment on the part of his family. He’s pretty grounded but he’s a confident young man, and wherever he lands I know he’s going to go in and be prepared for development camp like no other.”
When he talks in regards to the participant, he’s enthusiastic about what lies forward there too. Next yr, Burnett expects the dynamic connection that Zhilkin and Pastujov shaped this yr will solely blossom additional. With Zhilkin as his first-line centre, and his younger workforce a yr older, Burnett expects his Storm can have an actual probability at a deep playoff run.
“I think whoever gets on him quickly and works with him, there could be something very special there,” Burnett stated. “When you look at the package of skating, size, strength, shot, fitness, the whole nine yards, he’s a very intriguing young man from a pro perspective because he has that pro body and size and strength and ability to skate unlike many. I still think there’s a lot of room for growth with respect to his scoring and creating offence, but I think the other parts of his game, he’s starting to recognize those too.”
Zhilkin received’t be the one Storm participant picked. Teammates Matthew Poitras, Jake Karabela, and Michael Buchinger are all anticipated to be chosen as effectively, and Burnett thinks there’s a small probability that quantity might even balloon to 6 or seven if issues fall proper.
He says Zhilkin’s the furthest alongside of the bunch, although.
“Danny’s probably the most ready but he should be. He’s more of a veteran player. The other kids were all rookies,” Burnett stated of Zhilkin’s age reversal this yr relative to his minor hockey days.
Buchinger talks about Zhilkin as one of many Storm’s leaders and says he wouldn’t be shocked if his teammate wore a letter subsequent yr.
“He has been able to actually show us other draft-eligibles the way around the league and has definitely helped me get comfortable. He’s a tremendous player and a great guy too. I’m really lucky to have him as a teammate,” Buching stated. “He’s a fantastic skater, he’s got great hands, he’s got good vision, he’s got a great shot. He’s an offensive threat every time he’s on the ice.”
Poitras goes a step additional.
“He’s a smooth skater, he’s a pretty big guy, and he’s got some nice mitts on him. He’s probably got some of the nicest hands in the league,” Poitras stated. “But he’s also just a good player who is good on both sides of the puck.”
When Zhilkin talks about himself, he begins along with his skating, crediting Dorozhenko for taking his pace — which has at all times been certainly one of his largest strengths — to a brand new degree final yr. Then he turns to the all-around recreation Burnett talks about.
“I’d say I’m a fast, skilled forward but I would also say that my two-way game goes pretty much unnoticed. I think I’m a great two-way player,” Zhilkin stated. “I think my biggest asset is I can play anywhere. I can play penalty kill, I can play power play, I can win important faceoffs and shut down big lines, I can score.”
With reporting in Kitchener, Ont.
(Photos of Danny Zhilkin: Luke Durda / OHL Images)