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The road from the high of being drafted by an NHL club at the age of 18 can leave you in the ditch by age 22. That is where Vancouver Canucks’ 2015 4th round pick Dmitry Zhukenov finds himself as he tries to keep a pro career alive, plying his trade for Gornyak Uchaly in the VHL (the KHL’s equivalent of North America’s AHL). He is the property of HC Avtomobilist of Yekaterinburg, the current employer of another Canucks’ chattel, the Big Friendly Giant Nikita Tryamkin.
The 34 team Supreme Hockey League as it is called is populated by small rinks in tiny towns for the most part. The teams are spread out over four countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Uzbekistan. The city of Uchaly is a mining town of 38,000 people situated about a 22 hour drive east from Moscow. There are unlikely to be many NHL scouts hanging out at the local rink.
After an excellent International showing during the 2014-15 hockey season, Zhukenov was tapped on the shoulder at the June 2015 draft by the Canucks. He’d impressed at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament finishing second on his Russian team to Kirill Kaprizov with 1 goal and 4 assists for 5 points in 5 games. While his former teammate Kaprizov, who the Minnesota Wild took 21 picks after him in the 5th round, tears up the KHL with his offensive prowess, Zhukenov does not even merit a token mention when the Canucks’ release a status update on their burgeoning list of prospects.
Does that mean, like Canucks’ 2002 2nd round pick Kirill Koltsov, he will simply be the Canucks’ property forever without ever lacing his skates up in an NHL regular season game? Most likely.
But when you watch him play you still see that glimmer of NHL potential that the Canucks’ scouting staff once saw. He is quick and smart, good on face offs and defensively responsible. He has lit the lamp 9 times this season in 27 VHL games. By comparison, Canucks’ blue-chip 2019 1st round pick Vasily Podkolzin has only scored 2 goals in 12 VHL games this season. But Zhukenov is 4 years older than Podkolzin and perhaps at age 22 is already considered an ‘old-man’ by today’s hockey prospect standards.
As soon as the Canucks drafted him, Zhukenov immediately committed to play in North America and played two seasons in the QMJHL for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, racking up a 122 points in a 128 games. He was then lured back to Russia by Avangard Omsk of the KHL with a pro contract offer. It didn’t work out for him and he ended up playing only 15 KHL games for Avangard that season, netting 1 goal and he ended up spending up most of the season playing in the MHL Russian Junior league. While he was there, Zhukenov did put up a respectable 33 points in 34 games. Last season appears to have been a blur that involved injury and problems finding a pro team to play for. He ended up playing a total of 17 games for four different teams. Two in the VHL and two in the Czech 2nd level pro league, scoring an unimpressive two goals in total.
2015 was a stellar draft year for Jim Benning and his draft crew. They bagged Brock Boeser, Guillaume Brisebois, Adam Gaudette and Lukas Jasek. They’ve since said good-bye to Carl Neill and Tate Olson. Meanwhile, Zhukenov sits in a kind of purgatory waiting to be summoned by Avtomobilist to the KHL this year or maybe next season before his KHL/VHL contract expires on April 30th, 2021.
Will the Canucks take another look at him in the summer of 2021 or have they already walked away from him forever leaving him to join the list of eternal Canucks who never played an NHL game. Time will tell.