Koko at crossroads

Alexander Khokhlachev has presented the Boston Bruins with a key decision point.

Whether the skilled Russian forward known more popularly as “Koko” establishes himself as a long-term option for the team or moves elsewhere is a situation that will likely resolve itself at some point this season. In the meantime, for a club that struggled mightily to score goals in the non-playoff 2014-15 NHL campaign, the 40th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft certainly provides GM Don Sweeney and head coach Claude Julien with a viable option on offense if the rest of his game is deemed sufficient enough to play in Julien’s system.

Koko is an NHL talent who many would argue should already have established himself in the big show by now. Whether you calk that up to a lack of opportunity (valid point) because of entrenched veterans on the NHL roster, or buy into what his coaches talked about as recently as last January by saying that the dangerous if one-dimensional Muscovite needs to round out his game, Koko is a player who needs to make his mark this season.

“It’s not there to be a regular in the NHL right now to be perfectly honest,” Koko’s AHL coach, Bruce Cassidy, told me in early 2015. “I’ve told him that, Claude’s told him that; he needs to address that and he’s working on it, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re an offensively gifted (forward). You want the puck and you want to get going and it’s just changing some of those habits, and that takes time.”

Four full years after the B’s went out of character to grab the OHL product with the Windsor Spitfires earlier than they had drafted a Russian native since whiffing on defenseman Yury Alexandrov with the 37th overall pick in 2006, the clock may be ticking on Koko, but as Ryan Spooner demonstrated last season, he’s far from done.

You might recall that after making the Bruins roster out of training camp last October after a productive training camp that also drew its share of criticism from Julien over defensive concerns, Spooner saw very little ice time before being demoted to Providence after just five scoreless games with minimal minutes on ice. Throughout the course of the year, other forwards were summoned to Boston from the AHL, but Spooner remained in the Rhode Island capital. Through it all- while battling injuries that shelved him for weeks around Christmas with trade rumors swirling around him, Spooner didn’t sulk and insisted he wanted to make things work in Boston if the team would give him another chance.

That change came late in the regular season, when veteran center David Krejci suffered another in a series of physical setbacks that essentially made it a lost year for him. Spooner came up and made the most of it, scoring his 1st NHL goal in memorable fashion- a sudden death strike against New Jersey when every point was at a premium for Boston. He went on to finish out the year in the NHL, scoring a respectable 8 goals and 18 points in 24 games with the Bruins. In just a matter of weeks, Spooner went from a player many (present company included) thought was fait accompli to be wearing another uniform after the NHL trade deadline, to the productive, dependable center he had been projected as when he was first drafted in 2010. Now, Spooner isn’t ever going to win a Selke Trophy, but he’s addressed his overall game enough to earn Julien’s trust, and to make it on this team, that’s critical.

Koko and Spooner aren’t the same player. Spooner is faster- he pushes the offensive pace and is at his best when attacking defenses and putting them on their heels with his speed or operating from the half wall with the man advantage where he is a maestro in puck distribution. Koko is more of a shifty waterbug, compensating for a lack of dynamic wheels with high-end puck skills and a killer instinct around the net. I’ve seen him go long stretches of not accomplishing much, only to break a game open on consecutive shifts. The promise is there, and Koko’s exuberance and energy are a credit to what Boston saw in him when they called his name. Cassidy understands better than most that his young charge can break a game open in an instant. If Koko is ready to do the little things his coaches all say he was working diligently to address, then he’ll be in his corner come October to make that  big jump.

Sweeney, too, has recognized a shift in Koko’s perspective in the years he has developed within the B’s system.

“With Koko it’s a matter of addressing the little things,” Sweeney said in December of last year. “He generally played above the puck, but he’s now making a concerted effort to work below the puck and in the defensive zone to make sure he’s supporting the play when it comes back and is ready to then transition to offense.”

So, wither Koko? He has his work cut out for him at center with an expected healthy Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Spooner and possibly Finnish free agent Joonas Kemppainen ahead of him in the pecking order because of the latter’s experience and better fit on the bottom line. Unlike Spooner, who simply could not make things work when moving to wing, Koko might be able to pull that off in Boston. He may not have any points in his 4 career NHL games, but he did fire home the winning shootout goal in a game against Columbus last year, so given an opportunity to play consistently in Boston, his 1st NHL point isn’t long in coming.

The question is- can Koko break through and finally establish himself right out of the gate for the first time in his pro career. That’s something we can’t answer in late July and history is not on his side- the Bruins have tried to trade him before and if not for Jarome Iginla’s decision in 2013 to pass on Boston for the Steel City, Koko likely would have played more NHL games- with the Calgary Flames- than he has with the Bruins.

But- the kid’s got game. And he is a kid- he won’t turn 22 until right before training camp. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make, and the Iginla deal falling through might have been the Hockey Gods telling the Bruins not to give up on a player whose best attribute is something sorely missing from a year ago.

If Koko comes to camp crisp, then there is no reason to think that he won’t get his shot to make it in Boston.

 

 

 

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