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Catching up with ... Big Train // Edmonton Sun
By ROBIN BROWNLEE
WINNIPEG -- A long way from home. A long way to go.
Watching Alexei Mikhnov wheel around the Coca Cola Centre during the second day of training camp with the Edmonton Oilers in Grande Prairie yesterday, it's obvious the towering winger from Ukraine has come a long way - in more ways than one.
A mystery man since the Oilers selected him 17th overall at the 2000 Entry Draft, Mikhnov suited up for Team White and looked like a completely different player than when he made a marquee appearance in Sherwood Park three years ago, struggling around the ice in borrowed equipment and skates plucked from Cory Cross.
The question now is whether the six-foot-five, 225-pound behemoth from Kiev, the last Oilers first-round pick from the Barry Fraser era, is ready for prime time in the NHL.
We'll start to get that answer tonight when Mikhnov, the Big Train from the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, debuts in the Oilers first pre-season game of 2006 against Phoenix at the MTS Centre.
He's finally here. But has he really arrived?
"I'm excited, but I'm sure it's going to be even more exciting when the game begins," said Mikhnov, with scout Frank Musil translating. "It's been a long time."
Mikhnov, now 24, skated on a line with 2004 first-rounder Rob Schremp and Troy Bodie and didn't look out of place, picking up a second assist on Schremp's 1-0 goal against Team Blue.
He still makes wide turns and doesn't take the body as much as he could, but he's a load to handle when cycling the puck, has great reach and soft hands for a big man. You can see the potential, raw as it is.
That's a far cry from the plodder we saw at Millennium Place, when Mikhnov visited to take in an Oilers game and have a skate after spending three seasons seemingly dead and buried in Siberia.
"I feel like I've developed from a young man to a more complete hockey player," Mikhnov said. "I've learned the game.
"The transition was long and complicated, but I'm ready to prove I can step in and play."
After struggling for ice time in stops with the Moscow Dynamo and Novosibirsk-Sibir in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, Mikhnov began to emerge.
He scored 14-8-22 in 40 games with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv last season and played on the Russian national team alongside the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.
"The situation was tough," says vice-president of hockey operations Kevin Prendergast.
"When he got moved to Yaroslavl, it's like he got a new lease on life. He got an opportunity to play in the Elite League and he made the most of it. He was a non-entity for three or four years, but he worked his way back on to the national team. He's got jam. He wants to get better."
HE'S IN DEEP
There's no doubt Mikhnov is in deep on left wing behind Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres and Ethan Moreau.
He's got more chance of ending up in Grande Rapids, Hamilton, Iowa, Milwaukee or Wilkes-Barre of the AHL than in Edmonton this season.
Still, after watching him scrimmage yesterday, there's no absolutely doubt there's plenty to work with.
"The speed of the game and the size of the ice is going to be a little bit different for him," said Prendergast.
"We're not in a situation where we have to rush him into anything. He's certainly got talent. When you can play at the World Championships, and be one of their better players, you have talent."
For his part, Mikhnov isn't sure how he'll stack up against Jeremy Roenick, Owen Nolan, Mike Comrie and Georges Laraque when the puck drops. He has company in that.
"I think I'm ready," Mikhnov said.
"I'm trying to take advantage of my size and ability. When I'm on the puck, I like to think it's hard to take it from me. I like to play around the net. I want to see what I can do here."