by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat Archive
Even though the American Hockey League ranks as the National Hockey League’s top development destination, Russian-born AHL players are rarities.
Back home in the mother land, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is a clear alternative for a player. Language and cultural concerns can also make adjusting to life in North America seem overwhelming and not worth the trip.
For the past nine years one of the AHL’s elite teams, the Milwaukee Admirals, has been without a Russian-born skater. However, rookie forward Vladislav Kamenev has made it well worth the wait.
“We were concerned when Vlady first came over here that the language barrier was going to be a factor for him, but all he has done is improve with us,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said of Kamenev. “As a player he has a lot of assets. He handles the puck real well and is strong on his skates. Most importantly his attention to detail as a hockey player is phenomenal.”
Nashville’s 2014 second-round pick (42nd overall) is making his mark on the scoresheet most nights in Milwaukee. Kamenev has four goals and four assists through 12 games for an Admirals squad that has been on a roll lately.
“(Because of the communication barrier) it might be hard to tell (Vladislav) where to go, but he’s definitely a great player,” said Anthony Bitetto, a Predators defenseman who recently played with the Ads on a conditioning assignment. “He’s got a lot of skill, works hard and is a great kid. He’s going to be a great player at a high level.”
It has been an impressive first season for the Orsk, Russia, native who entered the season with zero North American hockey experience on his resume. To date Kamenev ranks as the AHL’s third-leading Russian-born scorer, behind only Providence’s Alexander Khokhlachev and Chicago’s Ivan Barbashev.
“Adjusting to playing and living in Milwaukee has been pretty good,” Kamenev said through a translator. “The coaches here have been really supportive of me.”
With an impressive hockey pedigree, Kamenev’s impact on the Admirals should not be seen as a surprise despite the fact that he’s only 19 years old. The maturing forward with good size at 6-foot-2 spent the past two seasons honing his craft for Magnitogorsk, one of the KHL’s top squads and the 2014 Gagarin Cup champion.
“Even though I only played sporadically for the team that year, I really enjoyed the experience of being a part of that championship team.” Kamenev said.
International stars like Evgeni Malkin, Nikolay Kulemin and Kamenev’s idol Sergei Fedorov have all skated for the famed Metallurg squad, and those three, among others, made an impact on the budding Predators prospect’s development.
“I really admired how Fedorov played and I look up to him,” Kamenev said. “(Same goes for) other guys like Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk because they are a very smart players.”
With Magnitogorsk, Kamenev was coached by Mike Keenan, a 1994 Stanley Cup champion with the New York Rangers and a 1983 Calder Cup winner with the Rochester Americans. Keenan spent 20 seasons behind an NHL bench while guiding many Hall of Fame players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Pavel Bure.
“Playing under Mike helped me a lot with the adjustment to the AHL this year,” Kamenev said. “He used a lot of different hockey phrases in English, so that helped me a lot with being here now. I enjoyed working with him.”
Kamenev blossomed last season under the tutelage of the NHL’s seventh all-time winningest coach. After skating in just 16 games with Metallurg in 2013-14, Kamenev became a mainstay with the club a year ago, scoring six goals and nine points in 41 games and adding another goal in 10 postseason contests.
Kamenev wasn’t the only Admiral to play in Europe’s top league last season. Milwaukee forward Stevie Moses starred for Jokerit Helsinki and saw the Russian first-hand as an opponent.
“As a younger guy playing there, (Vladislav) was playing in a much smaller role,” Moses said. “He’s been given a big opportunity here and he’s running with it. Plus his English has come a long way.”
After missing out on a slot with Nashville after training camp, the first-year forward was assigned to Milwaukee to begin his North American hockey career. When Kamenev took the ice in Chicago on opening night, he became the first Russian-born player to wear an Admirals crest since Alexander Radulov and Victor Uchevatov did so back in 2006-07.
“(Vladislav) is a guy we talked a lot about in Nashville (during training camp), and Nashville talked a lot to us about him,” Evason said. “He was a guy they thought might struggle because he doesn’t understand the language very well, but he understands hockey and that’s all that matters. He is upbeat and his attitude is so good that it allows him to have success.”
Number 91 scored Milwaukee’s only goal that night against the Wolves and then added a two-goal effort in a 4-3 shootout win over Texas on October 27. To date Kamenev has points in every other game he has played this season.
“(Vladislav)’s a great player and it’s awesome that he is playing as well as he is,” Moses said. “I’m sure he’s going to get better and better as the season goes on.”
Admirals captain Colton Sissons has been very impressed with his new teammate.
“Hockey is a universal language, and that shows with Kamenev,” Sissons said. “He’s a nice player to watch and he’s going to be a good player for years to come.”
Kamenev’s goals for the 2015-16 campaign in Milwaukee are simple. So far he has met every challenge head on.
“I want to earn a chance to go down south (to Nashville) and then stay there as long as possible,” Kamenev said. “I want to continue to improve as a player, get adopted more to the lifestyle here and hopefully get a call up for a chance to play in the NHL.”
Evason knows that when Predators coach Peter Laviolette makes the expected call for him, Kamenev will be ready for whatever he is needed for.
“We feel like he is going to be in the NHL at some point and then it just a matter of positioning as to where he fits best,” Evason said of Kamenev’s NHL potential. “Vlady has the ability to play anywhere a team would need him to because he’s a big, strong center ice man. Who doesn’t want that on their team?”