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Alexeyev embracing the development process

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by Matt Trust | AHL On The Beat

“We started carrying furniture together, and hopefully at the end we get to carry a Stanley Cup together.”

In one sentence, the mission has been set by Hershey Bears defenseman Alex Alexeyev. In one sentence, perhaps the development off the ice for professional hockey players is poetically summed up.

Fifteen days after the Washington Capitals hoisted their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, Alexeyev joined the organization, selected 31st overall in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft. Only 15 picks later, the Capitals selected Alexeyev’s future teammate, and now, apartmentmate in Martin Fehervary.

The two defenders represent the Capitals future on the blue line, and have their hopes set on being NHL players together. While they hone their craft in Hershey, the two blue-chip prospects have moved in together, carrying furniture, and dreaming of the future.

While he and Fehervary have become close, the process in making new friends in Hershey started a season earlier for Alexeyev. Before debuting with the Bears in October 2019, Alexeyev was assigned to Hershey late in 2018-19 to rehab a lower body injury sustained in the Western Hockey League. As a black ace, the relationship between Alexeyev and now current Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov blossomed.

Samsonov, selected 22nd overall in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Capitals, appeared in 37 games with Hershey in 2018-19 before earning a roster spot in Washington prior to this season. Months later and now in a different league, Alexeyev remains appreciative of the fellow Russian’s hospitality.

“Last year it meant a lot to me. He (Samsonov) showed me some stuff here like good restaurants. He invited me to live in his place rather than staying in a hotel, which is great. He’s a great guy. I can’t wait in the NHL to see him be the [number one] goalie.”

Despite the charismatic and positive attitude sported by Alexeyev on a daily basis at the rink, he hasn’t been immune to facing adversity. A knee-on-knee hit prematurely ended his junior career with the Red Deer Rebels in 2018-19. Additionally, he missed the NHL preseason due to a hit sustained at the 2019 Prospects Showcase in Nashville. The latter has stuck with Alexeyev a bit more.

In the dying seconds of the second period in a game versus Nashville, Predators defender Josh Healey laid an open ice hit on Alexeyev which forced him out of commission. A week later, Capitals training camp opened. An injury to Caps blueliner Michael Kempny to start the season created a sense of competitive urgency among the prospective defenders. An opportunity arose, and Alexeyev’s injury took him out of contention to make Washington’s 2019-20 opening night roster.

Instead, the spot was won by Alexeyev’s now roommate, Fehervary, who made his NHL debut on Oct. 2 before eventually being assigned to Hershey four days later.

Whether a healthy Alexeyev would have made his NHL debut on Oct. 2 is an unknown. However, upon returning from injury, his presence was known immediately in his professional debut with the Hershey Bears. On opening night in Hershey on Oct. 5 versus the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Alexeyev jumped over the boards for his first shift. Following a centering pass across the low slot, the 19-year-old buried a shot past Pens goaltender Casey DeSmith only 62 seconds into the game. It was a response to the adversity that could not be drawn up any more perfectly.

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Alexeyev finished October playing all nine games for the Bears in the season’s opening month. He had six points accredited to his stat line, including five assists, second-best to only Christian Djoos on Hershey’s roster. The transition from the WHL to the AHL for the St. Petersburg, Russia, native has been nearly seamless. For Alexeyev and his peers, he attributes his transition into the American Hockey League partly due to his prior familiarity with the North American game: in his final of three seasons with Red Deer in 2018-19, he was one of only eight Russian born players in the WHL.

The culture shock into the North American game was experienced at 16 years old, rather than 19.

“It’s helped me a lot to come over early and learn how to play the North American style of hockey,” said Alexeyev. “This year I don’t have any Russians, but I’m used to it. For two years I think I didn’t have any Russians on my team in Red Deer. But my English is pretty good and I think I can build that friendship.”

Bears assistant coach Patrick Wellar has a front row seat in guiding Alexeyev through his development. The former Bears defenseman praised Alexeyev on his unique path to the professional game.

“I think the big leg up for Alex is him seeing every day how the game is played in North America, but more importantly than all that, is just the lifestyle,” said Wellar. “You go from junior hockey where you are living with a host billet family, to being on your own. He understands how to take care of himself a bit better, and it’s not as shocking as someone who might be coming from a different culture right into the pro game. Now it’s a matter of him just developing his game opposed to the entire lifestyle change.”

To assist with development of players like Alexeyev and Fehervary, the organization made it a point to sign veteran leadership. Perhaps no off-season acquisition by the Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears could be more prominent to Alexeyev than adding fellow defender Erik Burgdoerfer. The 30-year-old veteran of over 600 professional games was signed to a one-year, AHL contract by Hershey on July 11; he serves not only as Alexeyev’s defensive partner, but also as an active mentor on and off the ice.

“That’s really important for his development to have a guy like Burgy who does things the right way,” Wellar said. “He came up, had a long road, has worked for everything that he has gotten. And when we decided on pairings and how this was going to work, there’s no better guy to start out his pro career with, because he’s a guy that has to play a certain way to be successful, and there’s no shortcuts with Burgdoerfer.”

While Alexeyev is enjoying his time in Hershey and has provided a big boost to the blue line, he knows he’ll have to be patient and continue to develop. Still, he can’t help but to spend his evenings in his apartment joking with Fehervary that someday the two hope to be moving furniture again, but this time into a new place to live in the Washington D.C. area.

Until then, the 19-year-old patiently awaits his next window of opportunity with a smile.