During the world juniors this year, I asked an NHL goalie coach why Russian netminder Pyotr Kochetkov had been passed over twice in the draft. His answer? Scouts just never got to see him play. I’ll admit: I had never heard of Kochetkov either until he stuffed up the OHL all-stars at this past season’s CHL-Russia Challenge in Oshawa.
But after a tour-de-force performance at those world juniors in Vancouver, Kochetkov was no longer an unknown and it was no surprise that he was snapped up in the second round of the 2019 draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. So where was he all this time?
The truth is, Kochetkov was simply making his way up the ranks in Russia and it was an obscure climb. During the 2016-17 campaign (his first year of NHL draft eligibility), Kochetkov played eight games for Dizel Penza in the VHL, Russia’s version of the AHL. He also played for a Penza squad in something called the NMHL - a second-tier junior league.
In 2017-18, Kochetkov played in Russia’s top junior circuit, the MHL - but on the worst team in the league, Kapitan Stupino. Needless to say, in neither year did he play internationally for Russia so the viewings were quite limited. But when he spoke with NHL teams at the draft combine this year, Kochetkov (through a translator) couldn’t help but have some fun with all those talent hawks who couldn’t figure out where he came from.
“When scouts asked me that question I said ‘Maybe you guys were looking in the wrong places or looking poorly,’ ” he said. “But I’ve always been a realist and maybe I wasn’t good enough the previous years. But I never lost hope.”
While the CHL-Russia game gave North American audiences a taste of just how effective the big netminder was, the world juniors were Kochetkov’s true coming-out party. He nabbed top goalie honors while steering Russia to a bronze medal and wresting the starter’s job away from Columbus Blue Jackets pick Daniil Tarasov.
“It was a really great tournament, I really enjoyed myself,” Kochetkov said. “It was one of my childhood dreams to even get to that tournament. A bronze medal’s not bad, but we deserved gold.”
Unfortunately, Kochetkov is too old to get another crack at that WJC gold, but it spoke volumes of his talent that he earned his crease time under legendary coach Valeri Bragin.
“I can’t say enough good words, he’s such an incredible person,” Kochetkov said. “I was so proud to play for him and gain his trust and I could not have had a better experience.”
Back in Russia, Kochetkov was playing domestically for Ryazan in the VHL, with two appearances in the KHL for Sochi. That’s a lot of different cities in three years, but it never fazed Kochetkov.
“No, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m just happy to get on the ice and play. It doesn’t matter what city or team, I’m just happy to play the game I love.”
For the upcoming 2019-20 season, Kochetkov will take on his biggest challenge yet. The youngster signed with KHL super-power SKA-St. Petersburg, a perennial favorite whose recent rosters have included the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev. SKA’s star goalie was New York Rangers prospect Igor Shestyorkin, but he’s heading to North America now.
Not that the depth chart has opened up much for Kochetkov. SKA just traded for Chicago Blackhawks pick Ivan Nalimov, with veteran Magnus Hellberg returning after leading last year’s squad in appearances. There’s also junior standout Alexei Melnichuk to contend with, but Kochetkov remains positive.
“I’m super-excited for the opportunity because it’s such a great team,” he said. “I’m excited to prove myself on that stage because it’s with all those high-calibre players.”
Given where he came from and how far he’s gone so far, it would be crazy to doubt Kochetkov. He definitely has the make-up of an NHL netminder and with some more seasoning, he could certainly find a place with the Hurricanes - who have options, but no sure things in net for the future. First St. Petersburg, then Carolina? All in due time.