No matter what you say about the Penguins, fan or not, the organization’s ability to locate darkhorse talent in both the minor leagues and college ranks is simply unrivaled — even if it doesn’t always seem like it at first.
Dating back to my time as a student reporter for Onward State at Penn State University, to my subsequent jump to covering the Nittany Lions’ men’s hockey team professionally, I’ve been following Nikita Pavlychev’s journey going on three years now. Like any person about to welcome to their team an intimidating 6-foot-7 player (without skates) hailing from one of the oldest cities in Russia, I was excited to see just what the kid could do with a frame that big. Before I even looked to see his listed position, I assumed he was a defenseman able to level any player who got in his way — much like Zdeno Chara or Chris Pronger. Then I discovered Pavlychev was a forward, and my interest in him skyrocketed. It slashed all my preconceived notions about him only having a physical side and opened doors to what he could also do with the puck on his stick.
“The first thing you notice about Nikita is his size,” Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky has said about Pavlychev. “But he’s also very smart at both ends of the rink, is a tough competitor, and possesses very good hands for a big body.”
The Penguins wasted no time once his name starting hitting recruiting markets after his stints in Wilkes-Barre in Bantam and Midget hockey and then with the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers, taking him in the seventh round of the 2015 Entry Draft. Pavlychev then made arguably the best decision in his young career and joined Gadowsky and his stellar Nittany Lions during their 2016-17 season in Division I hockey. Pavlychev also planned to work towards earning his degree at the acclaimed university in the process.
However, all the hype came to a roaring stop in his 36 games as a freshman. Pavlychev only bagged 13 points (six goals, seven assists), showing that he had yet to fill out his massive frame. He looked very lanky, got pushed around down low because of it, and really didn’t showcase much of the physical-yet-skillful style we expected him to have coming in. Mostly, Pavlychev was used as a screen and spent much of his offensive TOI stapled in front of the opposition’s netminder in the attacking zone, not adding anything to the stat sheets at the conclusion of each contest.
His sophomore season showcased much of the same, where he only improved to 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 35 total games. Pavlychev’s highlights included netting the occasional game-winner and hindering opposing forwards, but he had yet to grow into his body and his performances still weren’t anything that demanded our attention.
Pavlychev was cycled all around the top and bottom-six, but that’s kind of a moot point, as Gadowsky is famous for not really ranking his forward lines by skill or talent. Instead, he treats them all as first lines that feature a trio of guys with the best chemistry. Often you’ll find some of Penn State’s best players slotting in as “third-line” or “fourth-line” guys, and though it leaves onlookers scratching their heads, Gadowsky’s methodology to this day works out in a big way on the scoreboard. In the process, Pavlychev became the Lions’ key shutdown center, and though it was an important role for winning hockey games in a tough Big Ten conference, it didn’t provide that wow factor.
Expectations then cooled off once we watched him put together those two average seasons against some of the best college clubs in the NCAA. In fact, Pavlychev wasn’t even ranked in our annual Top 25 Under 25 series, a post that stacks up the top young players in the organization during the NHL offseason. Talks of Pavlychev being a “bust” with wasted size also started to surface, but it didn’t tarnish his worth ethic or focus on becoming a more well-rounded, electric player in the offensive end.
A major turning point for Pavlychev can be traced back to 2017-18 during the Lions’ wild four-game series across two consecutive weekends with the Minnesota Gophers, led by 2017’s 8th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, Casey Mittelstadt. Pavlychev drew the short straw of matching Mittelstadt in the first two games, but ended up being extremely successful — keeping the now-Buffalo Sabres’ center to only one assist. When he missed Penn State’s second couple of games a week later with the Gophers due to an injury, Mittelstadt erupted with a three goal, two assist performance. That’s not a coincidence. The Nittany Lions ended up winning all four of those games, but Pavlychev’s shadow of Mittelstadt was sorely missed. Having that much of an effect on one of the most talented players in college hockey that season got everyone’s attention again.
Now, as a junior, all of his hard work is finally starting to pay off — much to the surprise of Pavlychev himself. When Gadowsky was asked if he was surprised as well, he didn't bat an eye. He simply stated that he wasn’t due to the time Pavlychev has put in, coupled with his dedicated work ethic. Pavlychev, though grateful, couldn’t believe his coach’s words.
“When he came here, he was 6-foot-7 and, I believe, well below 200 pounds,” said Gadowsky. “Now, he’s 6-foot-8 and well above. So he’s just a different animal, with the same talent.
This past weekend was especially great for the Russian center. Pavlychev exploded for seven points (four goals, three assists) in just two games against Robert Morris in a home-and-home series to extend his point streak to eight-straight tilts. With that bloated stat line, he officially leapfrogged a couple of his teammates into second nationally for points leaders with a whopping 16 (seven goals, nine assists) in just nine games played. That’s already more than he potted during his entire freshman and sophomore seasons.
...And Nikita Pavlychev with a redirect on the power-play. Pav has four goals and seven assists in eight games. pic.twitter.com/PA0rOPmpIA— Patrick Burns (@PatrickBurns_) November 10, 2018
Pavlychev’s value extends far beyond his stature, and we’re finally getting a glimpse of just what this kid can do on both sides of the puck.
“I think a lot of you guys now are seeing the value,” said Gadowsky. “But I honestly believe that if he had the choice between scoring a goal and shutting a guy down, he’d choose the latter. It’s his mentality. He loves it. He’s exceptional at it.”
A complete player with a little bit of bite — much like what Pavlychev is finally developing into — is something the Penguins’ organization licks their chops at. He is channeling his size, gaining coordination, and accepting his potential of being both a shutdown guy and a skill player. Opposing teams hate playing against him, call him annoying on the ice, and go as far as to say that they’ve audibly scoffed when they saw Pavlychev line up opposite them during pregame ceremonies. That’s music to a coach’s ears. To boot, Pavlychev also spends his summers training with Flyers’ defenseman, and childhood friend, Ivan Provorov, getting better day-by-day alongside an elite talent.
“Obviously, his future is very bright, and we’re thrilled,” said Gadowsky. “He’s becoming everything that we had hoped.”
6-foot-8 players with skill and coordination are far from a dime a dozen, and Pavlychev is starting to impress at the NCAA level. When he finally makes the jump to the professional ranks, the Penguins’ organization should be excited to see how much more he can continue to grow. We’ll welcome him with open arms.