Valentin Zykov: He'll Steal Your Heart, You'll Thank Him For It
Since taking over as General Manager of the Kings in 2006, Dean Lombardi has engineered over 20 trades on NHL Draft weekend. In addition to selecting dozens of new prospects over that seven year span, he's made at least one trade there each year. He's traded up, traded down, and even done three-way deals. But he had never swapped three 'assets' for one - until this year, that is.
For Mike Futa, Co-Director of Amatuer Scouting and one of Lombardi's key confidants when it comes to prospects, the situation was somewhat reminiscent of the club's pursuit of Tyler Toffoli at the 2010 Draft.
"The minute his name was still available, twisting Dean’s arm off the back of his shoulder would be an understatement. Mark [Yannetti] and I were banging the table and Dean worked the phone until he found out what it was going to take us to move up. I don’t even think we moved up that many slots, but it was a hefty cost that got us Tyler Toffoli."
There, they sacrificed a fourth round pick to move up two slots in the second round.
This time around, it cost the Kings much more.
To select 18-year-old Russian forward Valentin Zyknov early in the second round of the 2013 Draft, Lombardi packaged a second and a pair of third round picks (57, 88 and 96th overall) for Edmonton's slot at number-37.
While many at the time saw it as nothing more than the Kings being eager to nab the kid, who a few weeks earlier had been named junior hockey's Rookie of the Year, there's actually way more to it.
In fact, so much more, that the award almost becomes an afterthought in the larger story at play.
Futa says it all started with a little math before making the costly deal. "You realize that it might sound a little chintzy when you say that you’ll throw in this pick and that pick. But, those picks turn out to be players, so you have to do a value analysis of what caliber player you think you’re going to give up. Does that math equation equal up to Valentin Zykov? Our opinion, across the board, was that it was going to be a slam dunk."
So, what is it that makes the kid so special, you ask?
Well, there's the rub. It's not just one or two isolated things.
For starters, the Kings wanted heavier bodies who can make plays, and being tabbed as a 'two hundred foot player' landed him on their radar.
Listed at 6-foot, 209 lbs, Zykov is stockier than most players of a similar age and uses that to his advantage. He plays a puck possession game, is exceptionally strong on his skates and likes to create offense when the puck is on his stick. Yet perhaps the only thing more determined than his drive to the net is his will to someday play in the NHL.
Feeling he wasn't getting enough ice time for proper development in his native Russia, Zykov moved to North America and began play in the Quebec Major Junior League (QMJHL) last season. In his very first game with Baie-Comeau Drakkar , he notched a goal and two assists.
"The only thing I was thinking about [that night] was staying on the team," he said, masked with only a hint of a Russian accent. "But the goal gave me confidence."
So much so, he's never really looked back.
Zykov led all first-year players in the three major-junior leagues with 40 goals and 75 points in 67 games last year. Then in the playoffs, the young forward recorded 19 points in 19 games and was typically his team's best player.
He didn't let up either. From the Draft, to Development Camp in LA and on through the summer, Zykov has remained focused and committed.
"Some of these kids, you wonder if after they get drafted, they just take a deep breath and stop working," Futa remarked. "This kid was pumped up. He moved to Los Angeles and took his work ethic to another degree the entire summer. He had a great training camp, too, before going back to junior."
Zykov has continued to impress with his more than a point-per-game pace, having already put up 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 24 games this season.
"His worth ethic is great," said Eric Veilleux, Baie-Comeau's head coach. "He's great in the three zones, great both defensively and offensively."
Unlike some Russian players who migrate to North America, communication hasn't been a problem for Zykov.
"There [are] absolutely no language barriers," Veilleux shared. "He speaks English very well and it's really not an issue. He's just one guy, part of the team, and he fits in great."
Actually, you can take it one step further. Despite English being his second language, Zykov's personality transcends borders.
"We always talk about the Russian factor, like is there a language issue?" admitted Futa. "You can read emotions a little better when they’re speaking clearly to you, with the North American kids, so to speak. When Z [the nickname most of the Kings' brass use for him] came in, the room brightened up. It’s a pretty impressive story with the kid. I mean, he lost a parent at a very young age, he’s been on his own. He just lives and breathes the sport. He learned the language on his own. It’s like you’re [not] speaking to a kid. He knows what he wants to communicate. His facial features and his passion and everything just oozed. The room filled up, there was a lot of laughter."
Nelson Emerson, head of the Kings Player Development group, agrees. After being drafted, prospects begin to work with Emerson and several former players tasked with molding the team's young hopefuls into becoming NHL-ready talents.
Right from the start, something was different about Zykov.
"He asked a lot of questions about the LA Kings players," Emerson noted. "He wanted to know about Kopitar and he wanted to know about Carter. He saw Stoll working out [at TSC] all the time and he asked a lot of questions about these guys. He was trying to get as much information as he could, not only about the Kings and what we do, but also about each individual player, which is very educational for him."
Further, he's able to honestly assess his own strengths and weaknesses.
"He really knows himself as a player," Futa added. "Sometimes kids have a problem critiquing themselves."
All the pieces were there and that's why the Kings jumped at the chance to get him.
"He was a kid that fit the Kings’ culture," Futa said. "Not having a first round pick, we feel that we acquired a first round caliber player."
The true building blocks for Zykov's future with the organization began to take shape in July at Development Camp. He was introduced to the Kings' structure, the importance of building fundamentals and how to start training like a pro.
"It’s okay to be big and solid and thick," explained Emerson. "But now we need to get you a little quicker. We need to move your pace up a little more and start learning what these guys do as 22- 23- 24-year-olds."
Even so, Zykov consistently impresses with the assets he's already refined.
"Everything he does, he does with a hundred percent effort," Emerson said. "He’s ahead of the curve."
As he continues to mature, which current Kings player could Zykov perhaps resemble in future years?
“That’s a tough one, because he’s a thicker body," Futa said, while the wheels in his brain began to turn. "He’s more of a Dustin Brown-type physical body, as far as where he should end up. He should be a real heavy puck guy in the corners, but a lot more vision and play-making ability, I would think... He’s always shown the ability to make plays and [be] a real strong passer who can finish, as well. I think that there’s a pretty high bar as far as the expectation."
Zykov projects to be a top-six forward in the NHL, the only question is when? For now, he says he's working on being a better defensive player because - in his mind - that's the key to making it to the NHL.
"Scoring one goal is no good if you're the guy who then lets in four goals."
Nobody told him that either.
"No, I just think about it," he fired back.
When asked about playing for the Kings someday, he always says the same thing.
"We'll see. The only thing I can say is we'll see. I don't like to make expectations."
Before he gets a real crack at making the Kings lineup, he's first looking forward to playing for Russia in the upcoming World Junior Championship. Even though the official roster hasn't been announced yet, he's considered a near-lock, with too many tools to pass up.
"There's pressure there because it's a national team," he revealed. "But I think, for everyone, it's very exciting to represent your country in tournaments like this."
At some point down the road, his skills and abilities will afford him a shot at making the Kings roster. Like others have found in recent years, even for high-end prospects, that can be more challenging than it sounds.
"It’s not an easy lineup to crack. Maybe that’s frustrating at times for kids, but so be it," said Futa. "It’s also good for these kids, because when they finally do make it, they’re playing with really good players. There’s not that expectation that they have to carry the load all by themselves and maybe fail early when they’ve got some pretty stable, NHL veteran stars to play with... Z is in a great situation and I’m sure he’ll do everything possible again over the summer to give himself the best chance possible to be a part of things next year. It’s certainly not a race in his case. He’s going to be a great player... He’s only going to get bigger and stronger and faster. His vision and hockey sense are already off the charts."
Zykov puts it even more succinctly when asked what he needs to do.
"Just keep progressing. Everything. Just get more experience and become a better player."
It may sound generic, but this kid is anything but run-of-the-mill.