Is Andrei Svechnikov hitting the wall?
The proverbial wall, that is. That invisible barrier that rookies in the NHL inevitably encounter, physically and emotionally.
Svechnikov has been in the Carolina Hurricanes’ lineup since opening night. The Russian forward, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, has gotten a lot of ice time and been constantly tested as opponents gauge both the 18-year-old’s skills and his toughness -- a blindside hit by Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals comes to mind -- while probing for weaknesses in his game.
A year ago, with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, Svechnikov played 44 games in the regular season, missing a chunk of games with a wrist injury. He now has played the first 45 games for the Hurricanes, at the highest level of hockey.
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“It’s the NHL. Games just keep coming,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
And the wall?
“I think every young guy hits it at some point,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s some ups and downs in his game for sure and we’re talking about that. You’ve got to manage that. I know one thing, being there myself, you have to show confidence in them.”
Svechnikov shrugs off the notion that the wear and tear of the NHL season is beginning to creep in and have an effect, saying Monday, “No, physically I feel great.”
But his offensive production has slowed significantly. Svechnikov has 11 goals, tied for second among NHL rookies, but the last came New Year’s Eve against the Philadelphia Flyers. The last of his eight assists came in the Dec. 14 game against the Capitals.
He now has gone 11 of the past 12 games without a point, including all seven in 2019.
“It’s a long year and when you come in it’s just a grind,” said Canes forward Jordan Martinook, who has played something of a big-brother role for the rookie. “And especially what we’re in now, playing a ton of hockey. For you to be able to mentally bring yourself to that level of play every night, I feel it takes more than 30 or 40 games to have the mindset you have to be ‘on’ every night.
“He still is impactful in games, still skating well, but I feel like sometimes he’s almost trying to do too much. If he’s not involved with the score sheet he might be trying to make that one extra play. We don’t want to take his skill set away from him but there are times when there might be an easier play to be made.”
Another problem: Svechnikov has a proclivity for taking too many penalties. His 21 minor penalties and 42 penalty minutes lead the Canes and are second among NHL rookies.
“It’s just crazy,” Svechnikov said. “I feel bad for that.”
Brind’Amour said the two have talked at length about how to resolve the penalty issue although conceding, “Not very well, apparently, because he keeps on getting them. I think the more we talk about it the worse it gets.”
In the Dec. 27 game against the Caps, Svechnikov was about to step out of the penalty box when the puck was being played just outside the open door. He instinctively reached out his stick and touched it -- another penalty for interference. All he could was turn around and sit down for another two minutes in the box.
In last week’s road game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Svechnikov was called for slashing in the second period, then for hooking in the third with the Canes holding on to a 1-0 lead against the league’s best team. The Canes killed off the first penalty, but Tampa Bay tied the score on a power play after the second.
Later, a slashing penalty on the Canes’ Greg McKegg resulted in another Tampa Bay power-play score as the Lightning went on to win 3-1, ending the Canes’ five-game winning streak.
“The momentum just flipped, like a switch,” Brind’Amour said of the penalties.
Brind’Amour said Svechnikov’s defense often has been that the other team is doing the same things, getting the stick up on him, and no penalties are called.
“And it’s true,” Brind’Amour said. “But rookies don’t get those (calls). He has to understand that part of it, that he can’t get away with anything.”
Svechnikov said Monday he has gotten the message and does understand, saying, “I must keep my stick down.”
Through the season Martinook, 26, has tried to keep Svechnikov loose but also focused and on-point. Playfully bang him to boards in practice, in warmups. Maybe babble some Russian at him in the locker room. Pump him up in games.
“I’m a rookie and when he sees I’m down a little he’s like, ‘Hey, Svech, let’s go, do your job,’” Svechnikov said, smiling. “He’s a high-energy guy.”
No one questions Svechnikov’s energy or work habits. He was out early Monday before practice as Brind’Amour helped him on his shot release, and stayed late with forward Warren Foegele taking more shots.
Martinook said his objective with Svechnikov remains a simple one, saying, “When he’s smiling he’s playing loose and playing like he can. When you’re an offensive guy and struggling to put points up, you’ve still got to come and have fun. I want to keep him there so he can take off again.”