The Pipeline: A conversation with Danny Zhilkin
Get to know the future superstars of the NHL long before they reach that stage. The Pipeline Show is the premier podcast covering Major Junior, the NCAA, Jr. A and international tournaments like the U20 and U18 WJC, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and more.
The Pipeline Show host Guy Flaming catches up with Guelph Storm forward Danny Zhilkin, No. 50 in FCHockey’s Preliminary ranking for the 2022 NHL Draft.
Guy Flaming: I appreciate you making the time. Coming off a couple of wins, riding a bit of a heater here, you got a big game coming up against the Kitchener Rangers — the team that you’re directly chasing right now in the in the Midwest Division standings in the OHL — You’ve gotta be feeling pretty confident the way your team is playing right now?
Danny Zhilkin: Yeah, obviously, I think we were a little dopey off the start, we were a little slow, but guys are gaining confidence right now. We have a 15 first-year players, so it’s kind of hard to get into the winning column right away and do things the right way. There’s a lot of things to work on still, but good to get to get those four points on the weekend was pretty good, because they’re getting confidence.
GF: You mentioned something that he’s going to bring up is just how many new faces there are. And then you add, considering nobody played really a whole lot last year — certainly the OHL didn’t play — I guess it was reasonable to expect that there might be a slow start this year. Is that fair to say?
DZ: Oh, of course. 100 percent fair to say. All this is the older guys who take all the young guys under their wing and we did just that. And I think all the guys are close. We’re probably one of the closest teams in the league. There’s a lot of connections here and there. So obviously, it was hard, as I said, but we’re getting we’re getting getting better now. There’s a lot of things to work on. And there’s a lot of potential in this group, there’s a lot of skill in the dressing room.
GF: For you personally, you’re two years removed from your rookie season, your first year in the OHL. Without a season last year, what’s the biggest difference for you getting back into the into the regular swing of things here in the OHL, and in terms of your development, what’s the biggest difference for you?
DZ: Probably the ice time. I’m relied a lot more this year than the first year on the team. Obviously, I was still third line guy. I was getting getting ice, but it’s a lot more pressure this year, and I have to play a lot of defense and get those minutes and get the puck on net and be able to do all the little things well. And of course having a letter on my jersey this year, being a leader for all the young guys, is a big thing this year as well.
GF: Is that difficult? Is there some weight that comes along with that? Do you feel it, some added pressure being a guy who’s expected to lead?
DZ: Maybe there was a little at the start and that’s fine. A little angry that I wasn’t getting a lot of points. I had a slow start to the season, but the last three games I picked it up. Me and [Sasha Pastujov], we we bonded together. Obviously Sasha is a great player. He kind of makes it easy to play with them and makes it easy for me to go in the puck,, and I know I can expect good things from him when they give it to him.
GF: How does that chemistry come together? It’s obviously a guy I would assume you’ve never played with before.
DZ: Actually, I’ve known Sasha for a while. We’ve played, I think, a few tournaments when we were little, so it’s kind of fun. Yeah. When I found out he was coming into team, it was a lot of fun and I texted him right away and it was great news.
GF: Did you have some influence on his decision to come north?
DZ: Not at all. No. I found out when everybody found out so I had no idea.
GF: Awesome. Well, off to a good start. You have eight points in the in the 10 games and that’s after, as you described, a bit of a sluggish beginning. For the benefit of those people (who don’t know you) let’s get some background. First off, where are you from?
DZ: I was born in Moscow, Russia and I moved here with my family in 2013 when I was nine-years-old to obviously chase the dream of playing NHL. I was here for a camp for two weeks and unexpectedly coaches asked me to play for this team for the next season and we made the decision to move.
GF: That’s amazing. I hadn’t heard that I don’t think from anybody else at nine-years-old and your parents have that flexibility where they could just say ‘Okay, let’s let’s move to Canada.’
DZ: I owe a lot to my parents, and one of the main reasons why I’m playing hockey is just to give back to them. They’ve done so much for me and my little brother. He’s 13. He’s also getting drafted to the OHL in the next two or three years. So we just want to thank my parents for everything they do, and that was obviously a big step for them.
GF: And and your entire family was able to to move here at the same time? It’s not like some of you were back in Russia?
DZ: Yeah, my brother, he’s 13, he’s playing hockey here and my sister, she’s at University of Ottawa. So we lived here all together.
GF: And when you said you were nine-years-old, so obviously, you’re going to have some memories from back then. What was the biggest difference for you as as a kid coming over and getting used to a new culture?
DZ: Yeah, probably the language. I learned pretty quickly, but it was hard at first. It was kind of it’s hard to make friends and I didn’t really speak speak much, but I picked it up in just a few years. So probably that was the biggest jump for me.
GF: And what was the the thing that helped you learn the language the most? A lot of people will tell me it’s TV or watching YouTube or something like that. How did you teach yourself the language?
DZ: I think just hang out with my teammates all the time, and they’ll speak English, right? And just go to school every day and just just hearing it and soaking it all in. It wasn’t super hard.
GF: Was the hockey a lot different?
DZ: Hockey, it was just a lot faster. I remember it because it’s smaller ranks and Russia has Olympic-sized and they want you to play such a different style of play, whereas here everything so fast — give-and-goes and put the puck on that and crash the net and all that stuff.
GF: Now, in terms of hockey you’re a Canadian, aren’t you? You’ve played with with Hockey Canada in the past, including the World U18’s. Was that an easy decision for you to make?
DZ: I think so, yeah. That was pretty easy for me, growing up here and playing hockey here, I always wanted to play for Team Canada and that was a dream come true when I could do that twice, at U17 and U18. So it’s a pretty easy decision for me.
GF: Danny, you are a center now, correct? Or are you playing on the wing, or do you shift around through all the forward positions?
DZ: Yeah, I’m center now, but for special teams or some faceoff set plays, I can be on the wing. But mostly I’m a center.
GF: And as a kid, have you always been a forward or did you ever spend time on the blue line or have to take your turn putting the pads on when you were really young or something like that?
DZ: I haven’t, no. But when I was living in Russia I was playing right wing so I was on my off-side. But when I came to Canada, they moved me to center right away.
GF: Did you have a favorite team growing up, a favorite NHL team when you were overseas, or was it more once you arrived to Canada and got to know the league a little bit more?
DG: Probably when I got to Canada. I always loved Pavel Datsyuk. So when I was little probably the Red Wings. Right now I can’t really have a team, especially in my draft year so not sure about that. Just watch highlights. I love Nathan MacKinnon and [Evgeny Kuznetsov] are probably my two favorite players.
GF: Is the draft something that you spend a lot of time thinking about Danny?
DZ: Well, obviously it’s up in the air, but you try to look at all that stuff, all the rankings and stuff. It’s still only 10 games into the season. A lot will change. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. That’s what everybody says. So try not to look at all that stuff, especially with, as I said my slow start, I know there’s so many games left and I’m not stressing out about it.
GF: It’s funny though, because when I asked that question to some players, there are guys who told me they actually actively seek out to see where they’re ranked and they kind of use that as a motivator. Other guys though, say it could be a distraction so they stay away from it. Sounds like you’re more in that second category?
DZ: Yeah, I mean, if you’re ranked pretty high it might give you confidence, and give you motivation if you’re ranked low. But as I said, I don’t think rankings mean you know a lot because there’s always scouts up the games and if you don’t have a lot of points, it’s not all about points. There wouldn’t be scouts if it was all about points, right? So I try not look at all that stuff and just play my game.
GF: For myself and for the benefit of those casual NHL fans, can you talk about the what style of play you see yourself as or what sort of a player you are and project to be at the next level?
DZ: I’m a fast two-way skilled centerman. I love scoring the scoring goals, the important goals, and I find my teammates a lot and I know I’m good in the faceoff circle. I think I’m over over 60 percent this season so far, which is pretty good. My team relies on me a lot in the defensive end, especially this year, so try to be a leader for the guys and be that scoring center as well as we get into defensive zone.
GF: I know your rookie season you had seven goals and eight assists, so it was really evenly split between the two. This year, two goals and six assists. It’s very early and maybe that just balances out as we go, or do you see yourself being more as a setup guy this year than you were in your rookie season?
DZ: I think the puck luck hasn’t just been on my side throughout those 10 games, so I had a lot I hit a lot of posts and had a lot of high shooting games but the puck just doesn’t go in for me. but an exhibition that was five-plus-one, so those goals were coming good for me in six games. Pucks will go in and it’s just like a little slump right now.
GF: Are there things that the OHL level that you’re still trying to fine-tune in your game before you’re ready to take that next step? I know you got this year and potentially next year still at the junior level, but are there areas of your game that you know you definitely have to address?
DZ: I still have to work on my shot every single day, and probably my agility down low. My top-end speed…it’s good, but it can always be better. So probably those three things.
GF: So how do you work on agility down low? What does that look like? What I said is that are those drills that you’re doing?
DZ: Yeah, those are drills after practice. I like to stay on I did some skating, some bagger drills to shoot the puck a lot. Obviously I want here to shoot on goalies for goalie sessions before or after practices, which helps me a lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.