Anisimov enjoying a breakout year

by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive

anisimovThe youngest player in the AHL last year at age 19, and in his first year living outside his native Russia, Hartford Wolf Pack forward Artem Anisimov adjusted quite well to North American pro hockey, and to life in the United States.

He led all Wolf Pack rookies in points (43), goals (16) and assists (27) in 2007-08, and his plus/minus rating of +16 tied him for fifth among AHL first-year pros.

This season, however, Anisimov has blossomed into much more than a skilled young player with lots of size and potential. He has become a true force to be reckoned with in the Wolf Pack attack, a difference-maker who is a threat every time he steps on to the ice.

When the question is posed to him of what has made the difference for him this season, the man his teammates and coaches affectionately call “Artie” says, in his rapidly-developing English, “I worked hard in the summer, in the gym and on skills drills on the ice, and that has helped me this season.”

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander offers, “I thought he had a pretty good rookie year, given that he was the youngest player in the league. He’s a bigger body, and it sometimes takes them a little bit longer to mature. So I think as he continues to grow and mature, he’ll get physically stronger.

“He’s on our top line, and sometimes they draw some extra defensive-zone coverage, and they’re able to play through that and still produce.”

That top line has been a threesome of Anisimov, fellow second-year pro Brodie Dupont and veteran point machine P.A. Parenteau. That combo played together at times last season, but didn’t click nearly as well as it has for much of this season.

Parenteau, who has been staging a spirited battle with Anisimov for the team scoring lead, says of his centerman, “He was a rookie last year and some nights he couldn’t put all of his talent together, because he was still learning the process of the pro game. It’s often like that in your first year, but he showed some good qualities last year, you could tell he was going to be a good player. And this year the biggest difference I see is the confidence with the puck. He’s making more plays, he’s not afraid to shoot the puck, and he’s a big guy, he can skate. He’s got all the attributes.

“When you make a play to him, you know something is going to happen. It’s always fun for me, when I know that when I make a good play something good is going to happen out of that. You don’t work for nothing when you play with him, we’ve been having pretty good chemistry. It’s fun.”

Anisimov agrees, saying, “I like playing with Pierre, he’s a good player, and I am happy playing with him. We talk a lot, like on the power play and all the time, I know where he is going to move.”

An imposing physical specimen at 6-4 and 205 pounds, and a second-round pick by the parent New York Rangers in the 2006 NHL Draft, Anisimov started this season rather slowly, with only three points in the first six games and just two goals in the year’s first 15 outings. The Yaroslavl, Russia, native went on a tear, though, starting with a game Nov. 21 against Lowell in which he scored a pair of third-period goals, and had bested the 20-goal mark before the All-Star break.

His second goal in that Nov. 21 game was a tip-in with seven seconds left in regulation that sent the game into overtime. Going to the front of the net more, according to both Anisimov and Gernander, was one of the big keys to Anisimov becoming so dangerous.

“I am trying all the time to drive the middle (of the offensive zone) hard,” Anisimov says. “That’s good for me, I am a big guy.”

Gernander comments, “A lot of times guys want to play on the perimeter and make passes from that area and score the goals that aren’t necessarily as physically demanding. And I think Artie’s done a great job this year taking some punishment, or taking some physical licks, to create his offense or to score goals. And I think that’s a pretty admirable quality.”

Anyone who has watched Wolf Pack games closely since Anisimov has joined the team can see that the other teams in the league have decided that the only way to attempt to defend against Anisimov’s skill package is to hit him, hard and often. Anisimov, however, is unfazed by that.

“Physical play is hockey,” is the way he puts it, “it’s a physical game. It’s good. I like to play in the corners, and I’m trying to do everything fast.”

Anisimov’s goal-scoring development has certainly been fast, and he has not only been scoring a lot of goals, he has been scoring big goals.

“It feels great,” is Anisimov’s response to being asked how he likes scoring important goals. “It’s my job to score goals, and it feels great to do my job.”

anisimovTwo of Anisimov’s more clutch goals of the season were overtime game-winners in consecutive visits to Springfield, Dec. 27 and Jan. 9. After the first one, which came as a result of some dazzling stickhandling, Anisimov showed some exuberant self-expression with a distinctive goal celebration. He slid across the ice on his behind, rotating his stick as if he were paddling a kayak.

“I sit on the bench and think sometimes what to do when I score goals,” Anisimov says when quizzed about how he came up with that bit of choreography, “and I thought of the kayaker”.

That bolt of inspiration is typical of a humorous and lighthearted element of Anisimov’s personality that has endeared him to his teammates and coaches.

Says Gernander, “We had (Russian) Roman Lyashenko here, who was a very quiet guy but had a very dry sense of humor and was a very clever individual, and Vladimir Vorobiev I thought had a pretty good sense of humor. I think Artie kind of fits into that mold, where he’s very quiet but has a very clever and dry sense of humor.”

“He’s not in his own little corner doing his stuff, like I’ve seen some Russians do,” adds Parenteau. “Same with (Wolf Pack teammate and fellow Russian native Vladimir) Denisov, they’re really good guys, they like to be with the boys, so it’s fun.

“He doesn’t speak fluent English, but his English isn’t bad. Guys can understand what he’s trying to say, and he understands us pretty well, so we can have fun and communicate. He’s been a really good teammate.”

Anisimov says simply, “I have a lot of fun (with the rest of the players), it’s jokes all the time. I am learning a couple of funny things to say.”

His willingness to work hard at learning English, and to join in the fun in the locker room, goes a long way toward earning respect and admiration in the close-knit atmosphere of a hockey team’s inner sanctum. Hockey people will tell you, too, that the game has its own universal language.

Gernander’s take is, “He’s very coachable, and the language, it’s not like he doesn’t have any understanding, it just takes a little bit longer. But he’s very attentive, he wants to learn, he’s got a good sense of humor, so he is fun to talk with and communicate with.

“I think hockey is kind of the commonality that he has with all of his teammates, and I think that’s essential. If you were to come over here for some other kind of career, I don’t think it would be as easy a transition. But here he’s got the camaraderie with 20 guys right away and they have a common bond. And for the most part no one’s local to this area, so they all kind of tend to stick together and run in the same circles, and I think as teammates they all look out for one another, both on and off the ice, and he’s fit right in with his teammates.”

Parenteau confirms that, saying, “He knows me very well now on the ice and I know him very well. We’re reading off of each other pretty well. Hockey’s a pretty simple language, you don’t need to communicate that much. You can tell when two guys who have hockey sense play together on a line, they don’t really need to talk on the bench, they kind of know what’s going on. And Artie’s got a pretty decent hockey sense, and it’s only going to get better I think.”

For his part, Anisimov says having a year under his belt makes all the difference in the world.

“Much easier, and my English is much better,” he says. “I understand almost always, and I can speak with the guys. And with things like shopping and everything, it’s good.

“The first year was very hard, different country, different language, different life, different hockey. I tried to learn everything fast, and the second year is so much easier.”

Anisimov’s comfort zone on the ice and off has translated into a level of play that has observers buzzing throughout the AHL. Seeing a guy who is 6-4 handle the puck like he could stickhandle in a phone booth, and shoot it like he lives to score, and is still only 20 years old, makes one think this could be a real special player.

“He’s got all the attributes, it’s just a matter of seeing if he can put it all together,” says Parenteau. “He’s shown really good progress from his first season, so I think the sky’s the limit.”

Gernander’s analysis: “I think as Artie continues to fill out and gain more muscle mass and the strength of more of a grown man, I think he’s going to be harder and harder to contend with.”

That is not a happy thought for the Wolf Pack’s opponents in this 2008-09 season, but it has to bring joy to the hearts of the Rangers’ staff, as they project Anisimov’s curve of improvement on to their own already-skilled depth chart.

Perhaps best of all, Anisimov himself says that he has no intention of being satisfied with how far he has come thus far. He is not limiting his focus, either, to improving any one element of the game as he strives to jump to the NHL.

He sums up his approach by declaring, “I work always on everything.”