BUFFALO – Five years ago during the NHL lockout, Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly spent 12 games overseas with Magnitogorsk Metallurg, a Russian team in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Thanks to the work stoppage, the team featured a slew of notable NHL talents. In addition to O’Reilly, Metallurg also boasted Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Mats Zuccarello.
They also had a 20-year-old rookie defenseman who caught O’Reilly’s eye.
His name? Victor Antipin.
Back then, the 5-foot-11 Antipin wasn’t considered an NHL prospect. Still, the youngster’s speed and puck-handling skills impressed O’Reilly.
O’Reilly said he “absolutely” thought Antipin could play in the NHL someday.
“He was young, just kind of breaking into the league there, showed good maturity and (was a) significant player there,” O’Reilly said late last month. “You always look to that league and how … guys can make it, if they could. I definitely thought for sure he could.”
Fast forward to today, and O’Reilly and Antipin are NHL teammates. The Sabres are on a season-best 2-0-2 run entering tonight’s road tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Given the how impressive the Sabres looked for most of Tuesday’s 3-2 win against Ottawa, Antipin will likely be scratched for the third straight game tonight.
Antipin, who signed a one-year contract contract following a KHL All-Star campaign, has moved in and out of the lineup all season, playing 22 games and sitting out nine times.
The learning curve for European rookies can be difficult, especially an older one like Antipin who spent his entire career playing on a larger ice surface.
Like any newcomer, Antipin has often looked looked raw. He has only played twice since his turnover Dec. 1 led to a Pittsburgh goal. In his last outing, Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Chicago, Sabres coach Phil Housley played him a season-low seven minutes, 44 seconds. Other nights, however, Housley has utilized him 18 or more minutes.
“I understand the NHL game, I understand how to play now, it’s a different league,” Antipin said.
Despite getting scratched, Antipin has adapted and improved in just four months, earning some trust from Housley and his respect for studying his craft.
“Just the overall way he approaches the game, he wants to get better, he wants to learn,” Housley said. “I think he’s taken advantage of the time that we do have looking at video.”
Antipin said: “I watch video of my shifts, the coaches help me, I watch the games on TV.”
The Russian has acclimated in other ways. He quickly learned English and speaks the language well enough to comfortably conduct interviews. Instead of keeping to himself, he interacts with his teammates.
“When you come over, I couldn’t imagine going to another country where you didn’t speak the language and everyone else on the team spoke and there’s new surroundings and you don’t know anybody,” Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said earlier this season. “That’s got to be hard.”
Sitting out can also be hard. With Buffalo’s defense almost healthy, Antipin could be a healthy scratch for a bit.
“It’s a tough transition playing KHL, the different size ice, just different battles, different situations,” O’Reilly said. “Obviously, as he gets more and more comfortable, his game comes out. His talent, you can just tell, he’s got a great hockey sense, he makes great plays out there.
“It’s tough to be able to play this game and not communicate well, it’s so hard to have to talk and help each other out. As he gets more comfortable, I think he’s going to be producing more and more. Definitely it’s been fun to watch. He keeps getting better.”