It wasn't too long ago that Sergei Shirokov was our newly anointed savior, the reincarnation of Pavel Bure himself and a shoe-in for the Calder (I know it's not fair to blast someone for predictions in hindsight...but wow).
Then that nasty element of reality set in.
Vancouver's sixth-round in 2006, Shirokov had a tale of two lives in the past two seasons: leading scorer on CSKA Moscow in 2008-09 (40 points in 56 games) followed up by being the second leading scorer on the Manitoba Moose (45 points in 76 games). Punctuated between these hockey lives was a defection from the KHL, inking a two-year, two-way deal with Vancouver, lead last season's preseason squad with seven points, beat out Cody Hodgson and Michael Grabner for a roster spot and - after all that - strung together a forgettable six NHL games before being dispatched to Manitoba.
Fast forward to now: just like last season, we know the Canucks bottom six is in flux. If you've read between the lines, we know Gillis wants more size and less skill on the third line. In he final year of his contract, the safe bet would be Shirokov not having a snowball's chance in hell of breaking through.
Or does it?
It's tough to adequately gauge if Shirokov can be an asset with the Canucks or any other NHL team. Here's what little we do know, starting with what his lengthy NHL career looks like so far:
It should be noted that Vancouver - for the first time since the 2001-02 - started with a laughable 0-3-0 start, including the shutout in Colorado. Nothing was going right and, by October 11th, it got worse with Daniel Sedin's injury.
When Kyle Wellwood also got injured, Shirokov was recalled for three more games, including what was probably his best outing (by shifts and TOI) in a losing effort against Detroit. If you check the shift charts for that game, you'll see Shirokov saw plenty of some of the best Detroit has, including Rafalski and Stuart, two of the top four best Wings defenseman by qualcomp.
In his six games, here's who Shirokov was paired up with at even strength:
AV was showering him with some prime TOI on the second line in his first three games, but as Mason Raymond learned alongside Ryan Kesler, that also demands your defensive game has to excel, something that is probably a bit much for a smallish scoring winger who was still learning the pace of a the North American game. When you start lining up with Glass and Rypien, you can't be expected to score. AV certainly didn't shield Shirokov like many rookies usually are; whether that was because of his stand out preseason, the general hype or lack of forward depth are all possible reasons.
The differences between the NHL & KHL have to be taken into account as well. The KHL rink is bigger, allowing for increased skating over the small, more physical NHL confines. As such, the timing is obviously different (for a laugh, check out the fourth question here); also the demand is different. Judging from a Semyon Varlamov interview, these differences continue at the AHL level, sometimes made worse by the frequency and unpredictable nature of traveling from game to game.
All of this could help explain not just Shirokov's NHL game but why he continued to struggle in Manitoba:
Sergei has to learn to play without the puck," said Arniel. "We had him playing our system there for a while, but he’s a guy that needs to be accountable away from the puck. Last night, he was all over the map. To make things worse, for some reason he doesn’t want to shoot the puck now. In the last four or five games, he’s become a passer.
One of the few comparable players I could find - (g/t to Canes Country) - was Maksim Mayorov, a forward that Colombus drafted in the fourth round in 2007 by trading three fifth round picks to get him. Three years younger than Shirokov, they share a similar story as Russians who started in the KHL before making their way to the AHL. Both are in the top five of their team's prospects as ranked by HF, being described merely as having the potential for the NHL (Mayorov - Shirokov). However Mayorov has seen seven NHL games in the past two seasons, spending most of that time acclimating to the game in Syracuse and putting up two straight 30+ point seasons in the process. However, like Shirokov, he has failed to impress when it mattered.
A year later, we've come full circle, wondering if the lofty expectations we originally threw down on Shirokov will come true this fall. The odds, as it would seem, are worse than they were last year: he'll need to show he can play the North American style, with a far improved defensive game. If all he brings is scoring and little else, he may as well not bother showing up. He'll also need to beat out (in no certain order) Mario Bliznak, Alexandre Bolduc, Guillaume Desbiens, Victor Oreskovich, Joel Perrault, Jeff Tambellini, Matt Butcher, Dan Gendur, Colby Genoway, Cody Hodgson, Prab Rai, Jordan Schroeder, Kellan Tochkin, Aaron Volpatti and others who want the remaining spots. Lastly, he'll need to convince AV and Gillis that a second chance is warranted and that his inclusion on the roster makes sense for the 2011 definition of the team.
To Shirok's credit, he continues to say the right things:
Next year I’ll go back to training camp in Vancouver and then we’ll see what we’re doing...If they send me back down, I’ll go to Winnipeg to play and work hard. I want to play in the NHL.
He could become another Mason Raymond, another career AHL'er or another footnote in a long list of Vancouver projects. For another season at least, the "what if's" will continue.