Columbus Blue Jackets forward Yegor Chinakhov has followed an interesting development curve on his ascent to the NHL.
As a 19-year old, he played a key role for his KHL team, Omsk Avangard, en route to a Gagarin Cup championship. At that point, he had already been a surprise first-round pick. In the three seasons since then, he's played mostly at the NHL level, but has also bounced back to the AHL. And after a disappointing season a year ago (who didn't have a disappointing season last year?) that left him injured for much of the year, expectations weren't exceedingly high.
Part of those lackluster expectations were past history. To that point, Chinakhov had played 92 NHL games, tallying a pedestrian 11-16-27. For a player with his assets - namely his ridiculously quick release and hard shot, but don't sleep on his foot speed - he was something of an afterthought. That was doubly true after the influx of new/returning forwards, be it Alexandre Texier, Dmitri Voronkov, and Adam Fantilli. And finally, he started this season on the IR, where he missed the first six games of the season with a back strain.
He reported to AHL Cleveland, and it became abundantly clear that Chinakhov was capable of playing against superior competition. In three games with the Monsters, the 22-year-old tallied 3-1-4 with 10 shots on goal. The 13 games he's played since he was recalled to Columbus in early November had been a mixed bag, as he's produced 3-2-5. He went scoreless in his first five games and was a -6 with just seven shots on goal. His next five games started to show signs of life, and he scored his first goal of the season.
But the last five games he's been a seemingly different player. He's managed 2-2-4 while averaging less ice time, and seems to have found a groove playing alongside Voronkov and Cole Silllinger on the club's third line.
On both goals, Chinakhov showed confidence. On the steal against Boston, it would have been easy for him to feel back pressure, then spin with the puck and try to find a play behind him. But that would have resulted in a much less dangerous chance. Instead, he correctly predicted that he would be able to outrace an entire backchecking unit. On the goal against Montreal, he showed his underrated puck-handling ability, collecting a difficult puck below the goal line and on his backhand, pulling it to his forehand, and beating a diving goalie before he could recover.
But that confidence has been an issue in the past, and for good reason. A recent report by the Columbus Dispatch's Brian Hedger that Chinakhov's agent said that his client was "unhappy", and that "he doesn’t feel they trust him". It was even suggested that he would request a trade, though that hadn't been publicly confirmed by any party. Chinakhov is an RFA with arbitration rights after this season ends.
The key to a fruitful relationship between the Blue Jackets and Chinakhov is fostering his obvious strengths and improving his perceived weaknesses. At 6'1", 204 lbs., he isn't small. The Blue Jackets have worked with him on his board work, and he's shown a commitment to improve. A battle led directly to an assist on the Voronkov goal against Boston. Perhaps he and Voronkov are a match made in heaven, in that they play a complementary brand of hockey and both left their native Russia and have reportedly experienced homesickness. His assets, as Blue Jackets writer Jeff Svoboda posted, are high-end.
Chinakhov is faster than pretty much everyone in the league and shoots it harder than pretty much anyone in the league. Great kid, creative mind, defensively responsible, too. I love his skill set. Just needs it all to click, like any young guy. #CBJ https://t.co/0P9VeZHsYq— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) November 28, 2023
A five-game stretch is too small a sample size to say anything definitive, but it's been nice to see Chinakhov leverage his strengths and play with more confidence. That could turn his line into one of the more challenging matchups in the NHL.