Sokolov, Senators finding confidence

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

The confidence battle is one that most American Hockey League prospects face and must fight at some point if they are to advance to the National Hockey League.

Even coming off an outstanding rookie season, 21-year-old Belleville Senators forward Egor Sokolov has had to knock down that obstacle early in his career. But offseason on-ice workouts with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon certainly can serve to bolster one’s confidence.

Taken in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators, the 6-4, 215-pound right wing quickly justified that pick last season with Belleville. Passed over twice previously in the Draft and coming off a 46-goal season with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2019-20, Sokolov went to work. With the B-Sens playing out of Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Sokolov delivered 15 goals (topping all AHL rookies) in just 35 contests last season while adding 10 assists. During a stretch of 11 games in 21 days last April, Sokolov put up eight goals on just 23 shots. That season won him a place on the Canadian Division AHL All-Star team.

Undoubtedly Sokolov’s all-around game has plenty going for it. But skating had been the knock on Sokolov going back to his time with Cape Breton, and he continues to prioritize it.

“Skating is obviously the thing I was working on all summer,” Sokolov acknowledged, “but I think that everything else combined and being able to be on the ice with guys like Crosby and MacKinnon and learn from them how they do it, how they’ve been pros, [helped].

“Get quicker and [improve] how quickly I can make decisions with the puck as well.”

However, AHL opponents can be unforgiving, and this season brought some early struggles for a goal-scorer who was not getting those goals. Sokolov went without a goal in his first four games of the season and produced only two goals in his first 11 outings.

But Ottawa went through several roster losses in early November due to COVID-19 protocols, and the NHL club gave Sokolov his first recall. One day after that promotion, Nov. 9, he made his NHL debut against the Boston Bruins. Three more games followed before he returned to Belleville.

Sokolov has always been willing to willing to use his formidable shot ― his 75 shots led Belleville last season, and he again tops the club with 56 shots through 18 games this year. Shoot enough, create enough offense, and the puck should go in for someone. Back in the AHL after his first four NHL games, Sokolov’s work started to pay off with a run of five assists during a four-game stretch in November that also featured a pair of goals.

Now Sokolov holds down second place in team scoring with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in those 18 games. Sitting ahead of him is linemate Jake Lucchini, who came to the club in an Oct. 12 trade with the rival Laval Rocket. Belleville head coach Troy Mann has made the Lucchini-Sokolov combination something of a regular feature in a season with few opportunities for roster stability.

While Lucchini and Sokolov have become steady linemates, the third member of the group has varied. Lately first-year forward Roby Jarventie, another 2020 Ottawa second-round pick, has slotted in with the pair. That line will change again, however, with Jarventie departing for international duty for Finland at the World Junior Championship later this month.

Belleville has won 9 of 14 since a 2-6-0-0 start. (Photo: Laval Rocket)

“At the start of the season, I was with a couple guys,” Sokolov recounted. “And then all of the roster changes [happened], we couldn’t really find our chemistry. [Now] we’re kind of finding our chemistry. We are close off the ice, so it helps us to perform on the ice.”

Lucchini’s creativity blends well with Sokolov’s more brute-force approach.

“I think I’m a big body, can protect the puck and take some pucks in the corners, and just make a play out there,” Sokolov outlined. “Can obviously shoot the puck. [Those] are probably the things that are helping our line.”

Since beginning the season 2-6-0-0, Belleville has stirred to life. They have won nine of their past 14 contests and have clamped down on sixth place in the North Division while being within striking distance of the second-place Rochester Americans and third-place Toronto Marlies. Fresh off weekend road wins against the Providence Bruins and Bridgeport Islanders, the Senators will continue their trip tonight against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. From there it’s a Friday night visit to the Syracuse Crunch before they are back at CAA Arena for a Saturday night rematch with Providence.

Captain Logan Shaw made his Belleville season debut Dec. 1 following a 16-game stint with Ottawa. Forward Chris Wilkie came in from the Rockford IceHogs via a Nov. 13 trade and has supplied a steady lineup presence. Second-year forward Cedric Pare performed well enough to convert a tryout opportunity into an AHL contract. Belleville also is carrying established NHL goaltender Matt Murray as he works to retool his game, and the team brought back proven blueliner Cody Goloubef before this road trip as a reinforcement.

Starting next week the Senators will play seven consecutive games against North Division opponents as they try to claw back some of the ground lost early in the season and firm up how they want to play nightly.

“[Our] compete level is always the priority,” Sokolov stressed.

“We’ll go from here now. We’ve got over 50 games left, so will try to build our chemistry and be ready for [the Calder Cup Playoffs].”