BUFFALO – Mikhail Sergachev walked into his first meeting at the recent NHL Combine, spotted 20 people in the room and immediately wondered what was about to transpire.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’” the Russian defenseman said about talking to the Sabres.
Other draft prospects have probably experienced similar thoughts interviewing with the Sabres. The team has quickly developed a reputation for asking youngsters challenging questions in a packed room.
Sergachev’s talk with the Sabres, who pick eighth at the June 24 NHL Draft in Buffalo, is the 17-year-old’s most enduring memory of the combine.
“That was tough,” he said following combine fitness testing inside HarborCenter.
Still, it might take more than some unfamiliar faces or difficult questions to intimidate Sergachev. After less than a year in North America, he can already handle an interview better than many teenagers who grew up in the United States or Canada.
The Windsor Spitfires’ star, the No. 1 defenseman on some draft boards, quickly acclimated to a new culture and style of play during his first Ontario Hockey League season, developing on and off the ice.
“Definitely a very mature young man beyond the age of 17, what you would expect,” Windsor coach Rocky Thompson said.
In a long chat with a crowd of reporters June 4, Sergachev showcased some of that maturity, speaking English with only a trace of a Russian accent while demonstrating his sense of humor.
So when did Sergachev start speaking English?
“Six months, seven months ago,” he said.
Then he must have studied daily for hours, right?
“Every week, two hours,” he said.
Believe it or not, that’s it. Sergachev said he even missed some sessions.
Two months into the 2015-16 season, Thompson said, Sergachev understood what coaches were telling him. He began communicating back a month later.
“His personality started to show up, his sense of humor,” Thompson said. “He really endeared himself to his teammates, without a doubt.”
Sergachev drew smiles telling a story about a short text message he received while bowling informing him there was good news.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on? What’s the good news? You got to tell me,’” he said excitedly.
The good news was Sergachev had earned the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the OHL’s top defenseman.
Beyond the natural talent he possesses – he drew laughter by calling himself a “great” bowler – what helped buoy Sergachev was a willingness to acknowledge and attack his deficiencies, Thompson said.
“He’s extremely coachable,” he said. “To be able to admit you have a weakness, that’s where you become a strong player moving forward. He has that ability to be humble and to learn from failing.”
But the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Sergachev rarely failed as a rookie, scoring 17 goals – most among defensemen – and 57 points in 67 games.
“He has a heavy, heavy shot, and once he was able to get the shots past the block, his (goal) totals went right up,” Thompson said. “(He’s a) very good skater, breaks out pucks extremely well, strong on the puck, good one-on-one skills.”
To Thompson, that varied skill set makes Sergachev “the best defenseman in the draft.”
“I really, honestly believe it, with his offensive prowess from the point, his ability to be a No. 1 defenseman, to run a power play,” he said. “He is going to strengthen the areas of his game. Nobody’s perfect. He’s only 17. There’s going to be flaws in his game. But these are flaws that are very easily corrected if the person has the right attitude and personality, and he has both of those things.”
Thompson believes those flaws should be fixed in the OHL next season. Playing in the NHL so early “would be detrimental to his development,” he said.
“You never hurt somebody by holding them back,” he said. “You only ever hurt a player by putting them in a situation where they can’t succeed in or excel in.”