Buffalo Sabres fans, and probably most fans outside of the KHL, don't know much about defenseman Victor Antipin. From what we've read and what we've seen on a limited basis he has the skills and skating that will fit right in to what new coach Phil Housley wants to accomplish with his defensemen. After yesterday's first practice of training camp, Housley was impressed with the 24 yr. old rookie and native of Oskemen, Kazakhstan.
"He's a student of the game," said Housley in response to a media observation that Antipin didn't seem to have much of a problem understanding Housley's on-ice drills and concepts despite a bit of a language barrier. "He was talking a lot to our assistant coaches, mainly Chris Hajt, and he really absorbs a lot, likes to watch a lot of video trying to understand our concepts.
"He's like a sponge and it's great to see."
Kazakhstan is a country smack-dab in the middle of Central Asia with Russia bordering on the north and China on the south-east. Oskemen is a city in the northern part of the country that has produced a few notable NHL'ers like Nik Antropov selected 10th-overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998, goalie Evgeni Nabakov (1994, 9th round) and goalie Anton Khudobin who was also selected in the ninth round in 1994 (MIN.)
The closest major hockey league for Kasakhstani players, of course, is the Kontinental Hockey League and Antipin got his first taste of the pros at the age of 17. Two years later he was playing full time in five full seasons with Magnitogorsk Metallurg and he posted 36 goals and added 62 assists in 264 games for the club. He also played for Team Russia internationally winning the 2012 World Junior silver medal and grabbing a silver and two bronze medals at the World Championships in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively.
North Americans watching the World Championships got to see what Antipin had to offer, but KHL insider Aivis Kalniņš, who now writes for hockeybuzz.com, has known about Antipin for years. He gave WKBW's Matthew Bove a little insight into the then newly signed defensemen.
Antipin "is a passionate player," said Kalniņš, "who has a spark and willingness to go out there and prove that he belongs in the National Hockey league. A tiny guy with a huge heart." Kalniņš also called him a player with "a winning experience and overall fun guy."
What Antipin brings to the ice is skating, puck-moving ability, the knack for getting up ice and finding open spots as well as the ability to finish. It's a nice package, one that the Sabres were after while looking to revamp their defense-corps. "To me, he's the type of player that this organization needs to find a way to bring more in," said Sabres GM Jason Botterill on The Instigators Show just after Buffalo signed him. Botterill also gave props to he predecessor, Tim Murray who got the ball rolling months before.
By the end of June, Botterill had done just that by bringing in a couple more capable puck-movers in Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella. While we're unsure where Beaulieu will ultimately land in the grand scheme of things, Scandella is slated to be anchoring the top pair with Rasmus Ristolainen.
Antipin signed with Buffalo largely because of opportunity. He has an out-clause that says he may return to Russia should he not be tabbed for the big club, but unless things go completely south, he'll have his opportunity to at least start on the bottom pairing. Kalniņš said that Antipin is "unlikely a top pair guy" but said his attributes should carry over to the NHL.
When Housley was asked what his first impressions of Antipin were, he said he thought all of his defensemen moved the puck well and that Antipin "was a terrific skater" that "reads well" and that as he becomes more accustomed to the NHL game, his reads "will become more aggressive, especially in the neutral zone." Which means stretch passes and jumping into the play when available.
Antipin is deft on the powerplay as well with Kalniņš saying he was "confident that one thing he will carry over will be his ability to be one of the best power play guys in the league." Buffalo had the top powerplay in the NHL last season converting on 24.5% of their opportunities with a top unit that's loaded. It would seem as if any PP time for Antipin would be on the second unit and there's a good possibility he could take over at the right point for Cody Franson who went unsigned by Buffalo, or even work the slot, which he's very capable of doing.
The cool part about Antipin's game is that he's a left-handed defenseman who can play either side, something that bodes well for the left-shot heavy Sabres d-corps. It's yet another feather in his cap.
The Sabres aren't exactly sure what they have in Antipin, but he has some very appealing on-ice attributes that fit very well with what they want to do. You can see some of that with these highlights of #9 courtesy Konstantin Glazov:
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5evz78" target="_blank"># 9 Viktor Antipin season 2016-17 Highlights
by http://www.dailymotion.com/Konstantin_Glazov" target="_blank">Konstantin_Glazov
Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Benoit Pouliot / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Evan Rodrigues / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Jason Pominville
D, Marco Scandella / D, Rasmus Ristolainen
/ D, Victor Antipin
G, Robin Lehner
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