- Pavel Buchnevich is the unlikely player helping spark the Rangers. The Russian youngster is conquering the NHL almost as quickly as he's mastering English.
Brushing aside some shin guards from the adjacent stall at the New York Rangers’ training facility, Pavel Buchnevich waves a visitor over.
Welcome. Sit down. An interview? With pleasure.
He hadn’t always felt so comfortable. Seventeen months ago, Buchnevich leapt into an unknown land knowing only his agents, lugging just a small bag of skates and workout clothes, carrying no command of the local tongue. “Zero English, zero understand,” he says. “When I’m kid, at school, parents tell me you need English. I think, ‘What the f---? I never go U.S.”
But look at him now. For the next 15 minutes following a recent practice, Buchnevich winds through subjects ranging from European soccer to Russian saunas, superhero movies to video games. He pauses every so often, recalling certain words, but plows through without apology, adapting on the fly like always. Moving to the Big Apple at 21 years old? “Little scary.” Spending half of his rookie season shelved with an injured back? “Big problem.” Addressing fellow Rangers at the start? “Tough communication.” Talking to teammates today? “More confidence. Very easy.”
The progress is obvious everywhere. His 15 points at 5-on-5 lead the team through Wednesday, his 23 total points rank second behind Mats Zuccarello, and only center Mika Zibanejad enjoys a better even-strength shot attempt rate among lineup regulars. “He’s really woven himself into the fabric of the team,” says linemate Chris Kreider. “Always spending time with the guys. He’s never stopped learning, never felt complacent. It’s really impressive to see the strides that he takes.”
Leave the rink. Head east along I-287, across the Connecticut border. Find the outdoor deck with the ping-pong table. Start the story here.
It was July 4 weekend when Buchnevich migrated stateside for the first time in 2016, the most American holiday outside the most American metropolis. He had been given the option of staying with Russian speakers to ease the transition, but chose an English-only household in the interest of total immersion. “I couldn’t see him sitting in a classroom with a teacher for more than 15 minutes,” agent Todd Diamond says. “He wants to live life. He’ll learn on the fly.”
Armed with the Google Translate app on his phone, Buchnevich spent the next several days tailing his host family to barbecues around the Greenwich suburbs, watching fireworks light up the sky, marveling at the abundance of unfamiliar foods such as hot dogs and fresh berries. “It’s not always like this,” Rich Comeau cautioned him. A native Canadian who works in wealth management, Comeau, 54, had eagerly agreed to help Diamond, a longtime close friend, by putting up Buchnevich for two months that summer. Separated by more than three decades in age, many worlds apart in culture—Buchnevich hails from Cherepovets, a riverside steel town north of Moscow—they nonetheless bonded fast … largely thanks to table tennis.
Most days followed the same routine. In the morning, Buchnevich would work out at a nearby gym run by trainer Ben Prentiss, whose long list of clientele includes Kreider and Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. At night, Buchnevich would return home, battle Comeau for an hour, shower off the sweat, and scarf down a healthy dinner. He wasn’t bluffing about his paddle skills, either. When the 2016 Summer Olympics opened in Rio de Janeiro, Buchnevich would watch table tennis matches to study the players’ moves and then bust them out later, near perfect. “He picked up a new serve every day,” Comeau says. “Every shot was on the white line. You know how it is—the spin, and now I’m down 9–1.”
“I’m very good,” Buchnevich reports, straight-faced, before breaking into a smile. “Him so bad.”
The Rangers always knew that he maintained high confidence levels, though occasionally this bordered on outright cockiness; once, director of player personnel Gordie Clark recalls seeing a teenage Buchnevich at an international tournament, “pointing up at the scoreboard, pointing to the other team, one finger up and then opening his hand.” We’re first! You’re fifth! “You worried about it earlier,” Clark says, “But it actually was a strength. I think the cockiness in the end came out through the fact that he really firmly believed he belongs here.”
Indeed, Buchnevich’s skills were undeniable. To Clark, they evoked the late Alexei Cherepanov, a first-rounder in ‘07—similar builds, similar skating abilities, “hockey IQ and hands at another level.” Exactly why Buchnevich fell to the 75th overall selection six years later remains a mystery; Clark suspects other scouts were dissuaded by his swagger, while Diamond cites what he calls “that Russian-factor nonsense,” a league-wide hesitance to draft Russian players out of fear that they might never make the NHL leap. For Buchnevich, the wait at Prudential Center was both unexpected and torturous. “Long sit,” he says.
Following three-plus seasons in the KHL, Buchnevich finally signed his entry-level NHL contract and attended his first Rangers development camp in June 2016. One day, Buchnevich was walking with Diamond, who speaks Russian. They ran into Clark, who sought to boost the rookie’s confidence by remarking, “You’re better than a third-round pick.” Diamond translated this, then laughed at Buchnevich’s reply. As Clark remembers, “Todd turns to me and said, ‘Well, why didn’t you take him earlier?’”
“If he feels like he’s been slighted undeservedly, it definitely puts him in a bad mood,” Diamond says. “When he’s pissed off, he can produce.”
Still, life presented plenty unforeseen challenges. Buchnevich moved into a turnkey apartment near Madison Square Garden for the easy rink commute, but found that location at once loud and lonely. He had made steady progress under Prentiss’ supervision, gaining five pounds of muscle and shedding three percentage points of body fat, but lacked flexibility and strength relative to his peers, which led to back and core problems that sidelined him from mid-Nov. to mid-Jan. “Everyone go on trip, you go home and sit, watch TV show,” Buchnevich says. “Come here to play hockey, not sit.” There were sparks of brilliance, like separate four-game point streaks that sandwiched the injury, but he also only appeared in five of New York’s 12 playoff games, benched for the remaining nights as a healthy scratch.
Larger signs of growth were visible off the ice. He still harbors a secret sweet tooth for American delicacies like Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies, but embraced a meal plan that went heavy on grilled chicken and quinoa. Prentiss noticed how Buchnevich began ribbing teammates between sets, comfortable with trash talk typical of all hockey players. As a Christmas present Buchnevich bought Comeau one of those voice-activated Google Home devices, “so we could always have that for a translator when he drops by.”
They no longer need it.
Back in the Rangers’ locker room, Buchnevich considers how much has changed since those early days. Before New York lost to Dallas in a shootout Monday, a group of players passed the pregame hours by watching the 2016 superhero movie Deadpool. He had no trouble joining along. “Some joke, slang, tough to me,” Buchnevich says. “But better right now.”
Each day brings increasing levels of comfort. Earlier this season Buchnevich moved near several teammates in the Tribeca neighborhood, furnishing his one-bedroom with a personal touch. On the road he competes against teammates in NHL 18 and FIFA—he is an avid soccer fan, cheering for the attacking style of Manchester City and Barcelona—on Zibanejad’s PlayStation. “This year, he’s really settled in and feels comfortable,” says Comeau, who again hosted Buchnevich at his house last summer but no longer needed to lend his car after Buchnevich bought a new one for himself. “He’s much happier, much more outgoing, doing a lot of stuff with teammates on the team. Feels like he’s got a place, a home base.”
The same seems true at the rink. Most individual video review sessions are self-explanatory—skate here, stick here, do this and that—but Buchnevich never labors to understand concepts from coaches. “It’s not an issue,” Rangers’ bench boss Alain Vigneault says. “Everything that we tell the team now during meetings, he picks up. He’s come a long way in that aspect.
A little bit challenging for him at the beginning, but he’s fine now."
More than fine, in fact. Just watch how he shimmied around Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, went backhand to forehand in close quarters, and beat goalie Tuukka Rask top shelf on national television. Or the one-touch pass that fed Kreider against Florida after Thanksgiving, one of his team-high 12 primary points at 5-on-5. “Every once in awhile he’ll blow a slap shot by the goalie,” Clark says. “But his passing ability is on another planet.”
This Wednesday, Buchnevich belted a backdoor feed from Kreider for his 11th goal of the season, already three more than he notched during all of '16-17—in 10 fewer games.
“You can see, he’s more comfortable, more confident, physically stronger on the puck and more determined,” says goalie Henrik Lundqvist. “You see all these different things he has, taking steps, playing at a level where it’s really helping us.”
Whether through visiting Russian saunas in Manhattan or venturing into Brooklyn to try new restaurants, Buchnevich remains connected with his heritage while living abroad. His parents—mother Yelena Razumova is a former high-level skier; father Andrey Buchnevich worked at a steel factory and now coaches youth soccer—plan to arrive before Christmas and stay through the Winter Classic against Buffalo at Citi Field. It will be the first time that Buchnevich’s mother has ever traveled outside Russia. He misses her cooking. Specifically the borscht.
Of course, there are always more hurdles to overcome. Midway through the interview, he gestures across the carpet, toward a cluster of other reporters. “I can't take a camera," he says. "Too nervous for camera. Maybe I say bad word or something. Maybe later.”
Knowing Buchnevich, he'll catch on fast.