The most NHL-ready player that the Carolina Hurricanes acquired in their trade deadline spring cleaning has all the tools to step into a big role for the shallow Charlotte Checkers and vie for his first NHL call-up.
But there’s one problem: that player — former Los Angeles Kings prospect Valentin Zykov — is coming to Carolina injured, and no one is quite sure when he’ll be healthy again.
“I’ve heard everything from two weeks to six weeks,” Checkers coach Mark Morris told the team’s website. “Hopefully he heals quickly and we’re able to utilize his skill set and his talent to try and get into the playoffs.”
If and when Zykov does return this season, he’ll bring a dependable style of game that has reportedly rounded out significantly in recent years.
The 6-foot, 209-pound center, age 20, scored 14 points in 45 games earlier this year with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Ontario, California. His lack of explosiveness is counterbalanced by his strength on the puck, combining his sturdy frame with a powerful stride and good offensive vision.
The 37th overall pick in 2013 was once expected to be a much better prospect than this, though.
Originally ranked behind only Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin in the Central Scouting Service’s preliminary 2013 draft rankings, Zykov slipped considerably down to No. 37, when the Kings traded up to choose him.
His scoring production, while still impressive, then failed to improve in his second year in the QMJHL before actually dropping in his third year, prompting Zykov to be traded within the junior league from Baie-Comeau to Gatineau. Nevertheless, Zykov himself and Kings scouts alike praised the Russia native’s development off in the box score in terms of defensive skill and work ethic.
As a third-year veteran of Los Angeles’ prospect development camp last summer, Zykov showed a newfound confidence and improved leadership abilities while proving himself one of the camp’s standouts.
Yet despite high expectations at his first professional campaign, Zykov never emerged as a major contributor for the Reign, ranking ninth among team forwards at the time of Sunday’s trade. His scoring pace wavered back and forth but his shot production largely declined until a spike right before his late-February injury:
Zykov may be a slow developer. He may only be a career bottom-six grit provider when he reaches the NHL level. He may, in fact, be both. Ron Francis, however, saw the still-young Zykov as a risk more than worth taking when he dealt upcoming unrestricted free agent Kris Versteeg for the project prospect and a fifth-round draft pick last weekend.
“Zykov looked early like he was going to be a can’t miss and then struggled a little bit, so we’ve got to find a way to get him back on track,” Francis said at Monday’s press conference. “A chance of scenery is what we’re hoping … will kinda spark him again.”
It’s a classic ‘buy low’ move for a player who’s still very early in his progression as a hockey player — comparable to what Francis’s predecessor, Jim Rutherford, did in June 2010 when he acquired Riley Nash from Edmonton.
Nash, like Zykov, had been drafted highly (in this case, No. 21 overall) three years prior, but was still lingering at Cornell University and considering staying there for yet another season, which would’ve used up the final year of his entry-level contract and given him an opportunity to hit the free-agent market the following summer.
The out-of-patience Oilers dealt Nash to Carolina for the No. 46 selection in 2010 (which became Martin Marincin). Then-Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini told Kamloops Daily News he “didn’t want (Nash) getting into his senior year of school, then when it was over, deciding he didn’t want to play for us” and head scout Stu MacGregor added that the organization decided to “get the value for him now and not wait any longer.”
But Nash did end up going pro that summer, and almost six years later, he’s turned into an unremarkable but reliable bottom-six center for Carolina. Nash sports 229 NHL games and counting under his belt, and is on pace for his third consecutive season with at least 20 points.
That may be the most likely long-term role for Zykov, and the Hurricanes would probably be content with that.
With the graduation of Phil Di Giuseppe to regular NHL-er status, the organization’s pipeline of young forwards is currently almost dry at the AHL level — only Brock McGinn and Sergey Tolchinsky are truly promising, and McGinn, too, is nearing permanent graduation from Charlotte to Raleigh. Zykov provides a valuable body in a pool of offensive prospects that is far shallower than its counterpart on the back end.
First, though, he needs to get healthy.