When Professor Igor Larionov speaks, we listen. The legendary coach said: If the young Russian defenseman Budzhan Konyushkov arrives in Montreal tomorrow morning, he will already be one of the key players in the Canadian team.
It’s too early to say, but it’s reasonable to wonder if the Habs’ recruiters made a discovery we’ll be hearing about for a long time in the fourth round of the last draft, with the No. 110 pick overall.
Larionov has not been easy to reach in recent weeks. In Russia, there are 11 time zones. Tuesday, September 26 It’s 1pm in Quebec and 8pm in Nizhny Novgorod when the Hall of Famer answers our call. This time, the timing is good.
Larionov is everything one could imagine. All his responses are thoughtful and reflect his analytical mind. Larionov, one of the smartest players of his generation, loves skaters with quick wits. We quickly realize that he has fallen in love with Konyushkov, who has become a trusted defenseman with the KHL’s Torpedo.
Konyushkov, 20, is the most widely used defender in the Continental League, a league famous for offering crumbs to promising young players. On average, he plays 24 minutes per game, but Larionov is quick to point out that it gives him 27 to 28 minutes some nights.
“In my opinion, if I sent him to you today, he would be a starter in Montreal,” Larionov says over the phone. I know the team and I know the players. I watched some Canadiens games last season. I know Bogdan: his skill level, his work ethic, his hunger to be the best player.
“One thing is for sure, he will become one of the best defenders in the Premier League. As for the NHL, he will be able to play there this year. He will be very good.
Larionov realizes that Martin St. Louis is also, in his own way, a hockey “guru.”
“St. Louis likes smart players. On a young team, this would be a good choice for Bogdan.
Shortly after being selected by the Canadiens, Konyushkov signed a three-year contract extension with FC Torpedo in Russia. This means that it will not be able to reach North America before 2026-2027.
Such a decision cast doubt on Konyushkov’s intention to one day join the Canadians, particularly in the complex social and political context surrounding Russia.
According to Larionov, Konyushkov is already dreaming of the NHL, as is the case for the overwhelming majority of top Russian players, in fact.
“It is clear that any young Russian player dreams of playing in the National Hockey League,” says the Torpedo coach. Especially within a team like Montreal that has a rich history and tradition. I told Bogdan it’s a great city to play hockey.
Konyushkov’s meteoric rise was largely unpredictable. In the 2021-2022 season, Konyushkov played some games in the NHL, which happens to be the second division of the Russian junior circuit.
“Last year, he wasn’t even at Torpedo Camp,” Larionov says. I discovered him during a warm-up match against our VHL school club. After the match I decided he was good enough to play with us and we went to get him. The next day he was with us.
“Then we put him in a better situation with good players. We got him on the power play.
Incredible story. Would Konyushkov have slipped through the cracks of the Russian network without Larionov? How could a player who came from nowhere convince his coach to so quickly offer him important responsibilities in one of the best leagues in the world?
“His ability to read the game,” Larionov explains. His hockey IQ is very, very high. He knows how to handle any situation. He never panics with the puck and always finds the right choice and the right solution regardless of the circumstances.
“Otherwise, I would say he’s a really humble guy. He’s great and it’s good to have him in the dressing room.”
If Larionov was surprised by what he saw last year, Konyushkov appears to have taken another step in his development this season. He showed more maturity and confidence than he already showed.
“He’s 20 years old, but he plays like he’s 30,” Larionov marvels. He is very important to our team. I made him captain for one of our matches. “Last night he had the letter ‘A’ on his shirt.”
As Kevin Dube recently documented, the KHL is generally not a development league. Too often we have seen promising young players rot on the continental bench.
This is why Larionov’s approach stands out. The professor did not hesitate to use a player who was initially not widely known in Konyushkov. This season, it also gives important responsibilities to 17-year-old defenseman Anton Silayev, who some consider a potential first overall pick in the next NHL draft.
It’s not often you see a 17-year-old defensive player playing in the Champions League. Silayev is not just playing: after 10 matches, he already has six points. The production record for a 17-year-old player in the KHL is held by Vladimir Tarasenko and is… 10 points.
“The first time I saw him was last year and he was only 16,” Larionov recalls. I invited him to one of our training sessions. I immediately said to myself: “He’s a great player.” He reminds me of young Porgy Salming. With his heart, his skating skills and his shot, I’m trying to develop him into that kind of player.
But why is Larionov the only one – if not the only one – willing to be bold when it comes to developing young players in the Premier League? We feel some restraint in a hockey player who prefers to remain humble.
He answers diplomatically: “I prefer not to talk about what other teams are doing.” When I see a young man who shows the desire to be better, who shows character, discipline and, above all, a sense of the game that allows them to see two or three steps ahead… With the right approach, you can give them confidence, and that’s when they flourish.
The second part of the answer is definitely the most interesting. Gets to the core of the problem.
“Obviously young people make mistakes, but we try to encourage them to try things. Maybe few coaches do it because of the results it brings. We speed up the process, and sometimes that can get us into trouble on the ice, but in the end we get a reward in the long run.” the long.
Would Konyushkov be one of the best defenders in the KHL today if it weren’t for this approach? Would Silayev have seen his rating rise to that level? It is impossible to be sure.
However, it is refreshing to see that there are still those teachers, like Igor Larionov and Martin St. Louis, to promote a different approach to hockey.
Image source: Agence France-Presse
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