I went back and looked at film of last night’s 2-0 preseason win for the Bruins before work this morning just to make sure I wasn’t being too hard on Boston center Alex Khokhlachev. I don’t think I was unfair, but I do want to drill down a bit and focus on what I saw last night so as to generate a more honest discussion.
I don’t want this to turn into a “he’s a hater” kind of situation because Koko deserves credit for some strong play in a game where a lot of players were still shaking the rust off. I also feel like sometimes there is this echo chamber where the kid can do no wrong and a certain segment of fans can’t get past this desire for him to be on the Boston roster, regardless of whether he currently has the attributes and 200-foot game to make it work, or not so much. And, let’s be honest here- there’s only a few opinions that matter enough to influence Koko’s current situation: that of the Boston Bruins brass and coaches.
So, in the spirit of debate, here is some additional analysis, and believe me- I welcome disagreement here. We’d live in a mighty boring world if everyone agreed with what everybody else had to say on a topic. And whether you think this is right, wrong or something else entirely- I appreciate you taking the time to read it.
What he should sustain: The kid can play hockey. He was visibly skating hard and hustling…that deserves specific mention, because he’s always played the game with noteworthy energy and exuberance. I saw a couple of instances, especially in the first period, where his effort resulted in underrated moves at his own blue line to spring the break out by not hurrying the play and taking what was given to him. I also felt that he put in a good effort on the defensive side of the puck- he’s getting there and he deserves the opportunity to show what he can do in a lot of different situations.
Koko is not a burner on the ice, but he’s got some nifty agility and a very good short-area burst, which makes him so slippery and tough to contain when he starts jitterbugging back and forth with the puck. My issue with him sometimes is that he overhandles it and in turn, passes up available space when a less is more approach might work out better. He’s quick and aggressive- you could see that last night as he was looking to transition to the attack every time he was around the puck. At the same time, he still needs to recognize when the windows of a scoring chance open up and capitalize on those.
He’s one of the most creative players on the Bruins and you could see that from him last night. It didn’t pay dividends, but there were a couple of plays early on where he and Seth Griffith combined in the offensive zone on some quick developing chances. Unfortunately for Koko, hockey is a results-oriented business and he didn’t cash in.
What needs improvement: As I mentioned in the recap- for all the hustle, he didn’t get a great deal accomplished last night. All of the skill and talent in the world isn’t going to get you far if you can’t find a way to break through and actually score/finish off the play. Koko obviously needs more time and opportunities to shine in Boston- but if you’re coming to the table and using his offensive abilities as the big selling point- even the most ardent supporter has to grudgingly admit that he was given the ice time last night and was unable to make that lasting impression on the score sheet.
The creativity with Koko is key, but I believe he has a tendency to overthink and try things less likely to work instead of making a simple play and allowing it develop into something more dangerous. We saw it from him a few times last night when instead of dishing at the blue line when the Devils D was backing in or at least trying to move the puck as he approached the top of the circles, he held onto the puck and was forced around the back of the net where the defense was able to re-set.
Koko is entering his fourth full season as a pro and I’m not sure that he’s figured out yet that sometimes playing that straight ahead game beats getting cute or trying a lower percentage play just because he can.
I would like to see the B’s try Koko out with wingers who bring more speed to the mix. He and Griffith are a little similar in that they are smaller players who don’t possess the dynamic, game-breaking speed you want from guys of their style. As a result, the two sometimes have a tougher time gaining separation, and therefore have to rely on their hands and hockey IQ to make plays. A speedier linemate would allow Koko to stretch the ice more with his great passing ability and then trail the play into the offensive zone as the defense collapses back, giving him more time and space to operate where he is most dangerous.
The last word: I don’t have a problem with Koko centering Boston’s bottom line, but he needs to win that position on something more than simply the argument that he’s more talented than other bottom-liners ergo- he should have the job. I know this might come as a shock to some observers out there, but there’s a lot more to building a winning team than simply plugging in the most talented players and sending them out there. I’m not trying to be facetious here- but some players are simply better suited to the demands and responsibilities of playing on the penalty killing units and garnering the tougher, more physical assignments that fourth lines typically face when matching up against opposition lower lines.
Koko has a world of potential. By virtue of his offensive prowess and the fact that the B’s went out of character to draft a Russian player earlier than they had since the Yury Alexandrov experiment didn’t work out, people are excited about him. I’ve watched him enough to know that he’ll go long stretches in games without accomplishing a whole lot, but can then break things open with a memorable shift or three. Unfortunately, that has meant that he has not been able to crack the Boston lineup at center, where the club is deep and more is expected at that position than simply scoring and playing a flashy style.
Will the B’s give him a chance? That is not for me to say, though if he keeps working hard and finds ways to put up points with the solid play, he’ll do more to earn a spot on the team than he will standing in front of reporters and lamenting the lack of opportunities he feels he’s not been given to date. At the same time, the team should have learned a valuable lesson about handling assets from the way things went with Ryan Spooner last year. Leadership should sit Koko down and make it clear to him that they see him as part of the solution in Boston if that is truly the case. If not, then the latest might have sped up the timetable on the next shoe to drop.
Skill alone is not enough of a reason to simply grab a spot on the team, even if the video game-playing set can go out and score 50 goals with him on skating on the bottom line. It would be one thing if he was tearing it up and outplaying everyone ahead of him on the depth chart, but can anyone really argue with a straight face that he has? In fairness- it is still very early, so with six more exhibition games ahead before the start of the regular season, we shall soon see how serious Boston is about getting him into the mix and seeing if he can, in fact, win a spot on the NHL club to begin the year.
As dying Ranger Captain John Miller said to the young man he was charged to bring home in Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.”
Of course, in Koko’s case, that might end up being a whole lot easier said than done.