The thing opposing teams are finding out Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Oleg Sosunov through the first weeks of the new WHL season is that he doesn’t necessarily ‘hit’ when it comes to physical play against the opposition.
It’s more of a ‘get out of the way, you insignificant fly’ kind of thing, where he kind of pushes a player off the puck and they end up slamming into the boards or to the ice as if thrown by a giant.
Which, from a certain point of view, that’s pretty much what happened.
Four Western Hockey League teams have faced the six-foot-eight, 235-pound Russian defenceman and four teams have found out exactly why the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning spent a late round draft pick on a raw player with no experience in the North American game.
He’s big. He’s physical. And most importantly, he plays the game intelligently, especially for someone used to playing on the much larger international ice surface.
For a project player, Sosunov’s future is already looking incredibly bright.
“Once he gets comfortable with the ice and the speed and processing the game like the rest of the guys do because they’ve played here before, he’s going to be an exceptional player,” said Warriors head coach Tim Hunter after the team’s victory over the Regina Pats. “His hockey IQ is really high and he’s a really smart player.”
Sosunov isn’t just about size. While that’s a huge part of his game (pun intended) it’s how he uses it that makes the difference — his range when it comes to picking up the puck or making plays would mean nothing without the knowledge of when and where to apply it. Through the early going this season, he’s rarely made egregious mistakes when getting the puck out of the zone and more often than not is in position to make the play he’s supposed to make.
It certainly helps that he’s been playing with defenceman Jett Woo, one of the top rearguards in the league and an almost-certain first round pick in the upcoming NHL draft.
“He’s really improved in his English and talking to me and the coaches,” Woo said prior to this past weekend’s action. “We’ve been communicating out there on and off the ice. He’s a good guy to have on the team.”
The game against the Pats showcased another aspect of his game that was rather startling to those aware of his past — Sosunov scored two goals, one on a shot from the left circle on the power play and another driving the net to tip in a pass. The goals were the first he’d scored since the 2015-16 season.
“I’m really happy to score twice today, last year I didn’t have any goals,” Sosunov said, his English already much improved from the pre-season. “I think this is good for me, I’m working hard, the team is working hard and we deserve this. It was a tough game for us.”
Hunter expects to see more of the same as the season progresses.
“He’s never been played in those situations and this is new,” Hunter said. “He’s a developing and maturing hockey player and this is part of the process. We all know he’s not going to be an offensive defenceman when he plays in the NHL but he’s going to contribute offensively here because he sees the ice well and he has one heck of a shot.
“We saw all that in him. It’s just a matter of time and how to do get that out of him? You put him on the power play and give him some time where he has the puck offensively to get more comfortable with it and build that confidence.”
For his part, Sosunov is just looking to keep things going as they are, refining his game and improving as much as possible as the season progresses.
“Last year I didn’t have a lot of time on ice, a few shifts per game, but here I have a lot of time on ice,” he said. “This is a good experience for me… I’m just playing hard and trying to do my best for this team.”