Antipin coming into his own with the Sabres

November 28, 2017 - 4:56 pm

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Victor Antipin has undergone quite a transition over the past several months.

Back in May, Antipin signed his one-year entry-level deal with the Sabres after a career-year in the Kontinental Hockey League, and being named as the best defenseman of the Gagarin Cup Final. It would be the first time in Antipin's professional career that he would venture to North America to play hockey.

It was a slow start for Antipin as he made the transition from the bigger, more wide open ice surfaces of the KHL to the smaller and faster rinks in North America. Antipin found himself in and out of the lineup, as he continued to find a way to mold his game up to the NHL standard. He played in eight of the first 12 games of the season, registering one assist while averaging only 14:05 of total ice-time as a bottom-pair defender.

In 10 of the last 12 games played, Antipin has started to find his comfort level in the NHL. He's registered three more assists to his stat line, and his average ice-time has gone up three full minutes. Antipin has also started to earn more playing time on the powerplay, and is starting to earn the trust of head coach Phil Housley on the blue line.

"He's been really good the last few games," Housley said after practice last Tuesday. "Just getting back on pucks, making that first pass; he's a tremendous passer and that's what we saw in him, that take charge mentality and he's getting rewarded because of it. Here's a guy who sat out, so he knows that you can't take anything for granted. He's getting the best out of his opportunity right now."

Even with healthy bodies starting to return to the blue line, Antipin continues to get quality ice-time as a top-four defenseman. Antipin feels that as he takes the ice every day with his teammates, he continues to get more and more comfortable with his game in the NHL.

"Every week, every day it's getting better on the ice," Antipin said. "I feel comfortable. [I have] good teammates, and they help me every time."

"It's not easy coming into this league, granted he has been playing professional hockey, but the NHL is on a different level," Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said of his defensive partner. "I think he's really coming into his own in the last few games. You can see his skating ability, the way he can move the puck and the plays he can make. He got us a little jump start [last Tuesday] with that shot that Sam [Reinhart] tipped and we built off that. Those are the things he can bring to our team, and you're seeing it on a more consistent basis now that I think he's more comfortable. I think it's just more of a comfort thing with the whole North American style. It's a culture shock, and I think he's adjusted well. I've got nothing but great things to say about him."

Antipin's game is highly predicated on his puck moving skills, along with his solid skating and vision. His first taste of NHL hockey in the preseason was nothing to the pace of what he'd face once the regular season got underway, but he showed the ability to adapt and it was a positive sign of things to come for the 24-year old. As the season started, he'd often times look hesitant with his decision making as he was still not up to pace with the style of the NHL. This resulted in him sitting in the press box for all four games of a west coast road trip just a couple of weeks into the season.

When he returned to the lineup, Antipin looked like the benching did him some good. He was not so hesitant to make a play, and was more willing to try and take an initiative with the puck. As more games have come and gone, Antipin has really started to show his NHL potential. He's been moving the puck with crisp and clean passes in all three zones of the ice. He's skating more freely with and without the puck, and his strides are beginning to look more effortless. He's also using his vision to find the open shooting lanes in the offensive zone, while using that same vision to find clean passing lanes in transition and get into good position to make a play.

Where his game is more underrated than other is in the defensive zone. Antipin has great awareness in his own zone, always checking his surroundings to cover his ground. In front of the net, he's positioned well to take out the opposition and tie them up with his stick work. He never seems to be out of a play, even when it seems like he's completely out of it and beat. And when he gets the puck in his own zone, he does not rush a pass under pressure, and looks to make a nice transition into the neutral zone.

"He looks more comfortable on the ice," Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. "Obviously when you come over, it's a different game. The ice is different, the language is different. That's gotta be tough for any body to come in when it's hard to communicate. I feel like he's gotten a lot better in that respective, and he just feels more comfortable with himself on the ice."

When Antipin first came over to North America back in August, he could barely speak any English. When talking with Antipin now, he's better at putting together sentences and getting across the messages he wants to send. That has also transitioned well for him on to the ice, as he is starting to talk more with his teammates during games and practices.

"They've been helping me," Antipin said. "[There's been] more talking on the ice and the locker room. [They're] good partners for me."

"He's talking more now, and just understanding our systems better," McCabe said. "It's really going well, and it's great to see his progress."

McCabe was another player who did not get out to the greatest of starts to his season. After getting moved off his pairing with Antipin, he's played with a number of different partners and looked to have some difficulties getting comfortable with one guy. When McCabe and Antipin have been paired together, there seems to be more stability on the ice than when they are apart. They have played reliable hockey in their own end, while generating more offense and puck possession in the offensive zone.

As for Gorges, he has gotten some time to skate on a pairing with the young Russian defenseman. As he enters his 13th season in the NHL, Gorges is not new to playing with players like Antipin that are just coming over from a different hockey culture and trying to make something out of the NHL.  

"When you've played with guys that are from overseas or from different cultures, different backgrounds, it's always a little bit tough when you're first starting out because you don't have that chemistry quite yet of working with somebody new," Gorges said. "It takes some time to understand where they're going to be and how they play, what they're tendencies are, but you can tell he's working hard on his English and that makes a big difference. Communication goes a long way on the ice, and he's out there calling for pucks and making reads. It helps everyone."

"It's a different league (the KHL) and different hockey," Antipin said. "At first, it was a hard time [with the] different game and different rink. Now, it's good."

Not only has Antipin adjusted to the on-ice culture that is the NHL, he is enjoying his time living in the city of Buffalo.

"Buffalo [is a] good city," Antipin said. "For me, it's comfortable living here. It's a little bit [similar to] my city in Russia."

Originally born in the country of Kazakhstan, Antipin has played his hockey in Russia and is officially registered to compete internationally with the Russian National Team. Antipin had spent the past five seasons playing in the city of Magnitogorsk with Metallurg in the KHL.

Growing up, Antipin looked up to a couple of star European defensemen playing in the NHL. One of his idols is arguably one of the best defensemen to play the game, while the other is a potential hall of famer, and a player who he had the pleasure to spend some time playing with.

"I like how Sergei Gonchar played. He's a good defenseman. We played together in the KHL. Nicklas Lidstrom was the best defenseman."

For Housley, he has been pleased with Antipin's progression and the growth in his game since joining the Sabres. He also appreciates the hard work that he has put into his game, and has had great joy in working with his young defenseman.

"It's been great. He's a student of the game," Housley said. "He'll sit down and watch video with you, he wants to get better. It shows the true competitor he is, and we have to just continue to do that. In that respect, it's positive that he's trying to do everything he can to get better."

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