One gets the sense Kirill Marchenko is smiling pretty much every moment of every day, but the grin looked a little bit wider Monday afternoon in the locker room at Nationwide Arena.
The moment he’s waited for pretty much all his life is upon him, as the Blue Jackets called up the 22-year-old forward to make his NHL debut, barring a shocking turn of events, Tuesday night at Pittsburgh.
The Russian wing seems to have a sunny, gregarious disposition whenever he’s on a hockey rink, but that was even a notch higher today as he chatted about what that debut would mean to him.
“I am very excited,” said Marchenko, who would become the 30th skater to suit up for the Blue Jackets in this young season already. “It’s a great thing for me because I’ve never played in the NHL. It’s maybe my first game tomorrow. I’m very excited. I didn’t sleep today because I had to drive into Columbus, but I am OK.”
To say it will be an anticipated debut would be a bit of an understatement. Blue Jackets fans and the team’s front office have waited for Marchenko to come to North America ever since he was chosen in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft, but the native of Barnaul, Russia, opted to stay in his home country the past four seasons.
It’s a common move for top young Russian players to remain in the KHL for a few years as they develop their game, and Marchenko made the most of it the past two seasons as he combined for a 27-21-48 line in 80 games with Russian power SKA St. Petersburg despite wild fluctuations in his ice time and time out of the lineup a year ago as he tried to make the Winter Olympics team.
Marchenko impressed in the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament, training camp and the preseason but began the season with AHL Cleveland as he continued to learn to play North American-style hockey. Despite the transition, all he did with the Monsters was post eight goals and 19 points in 16 games, tally at least a point in 14 of 16 games and rank second among AHL rookies in points.
Between the production and the way Marchenko was acclimating his game to the smaller rink, the Blue Jackets saw fit to give him the nod to the big club.
“It’s not just scoring,” head coach Brad Larsen said. “That’s one element, but it’s learning the North American game. I sat with him, he asks great questions and we sat and went over some details and some of the structure stuff. He feels more comfortable now rather than from camp. Camp, there’s a lot going on.
“Now that he’s settled, he’s played the North American style here for 20 games or whatever it is, and (he’s) produced. Which is great, but it’s adapting to the style of play. That’s the biggest thing — the time and space is different, the way teams check, the way teams pressure, it’s quite a different game for those guys when they come over here. I think he feels more comfortable.”
Marchenko said he’d like to thank the coaching staff in Cleveland, led by first-year head coach Trent Vogelhuber, for helping him continue the adjustment process during his time with the Monsters.
“The coaches in Cleveland, they help me all the time,” he said. “They show me clips of where I can play better, just those small details, D-zone, neutral zone, just play without the puck. If you take the puck, you can play how you want and try to score. I keep working now and look at the games and see what I did without the puck. Not great? I just try to fix this.”
While Marchenko headed to Columbus this fall from his home country with eyes on making the Blue Jackets roster out of training camp, he said that it wasn’t difficult for him to stay positive in Cleveland because that’s just how he is. For the Blue Jackets, though, that was another test they were happy to see Marchenko pass.
“I talk to Vogs weekly and always ask about him, and the first thing he said is passion for the game,” Larsen said. “I love that. He’s got this passion to learn, this passion for the game. He’s always smiling coming to the rink. He’s excited to play. He knew this could be part of the equation that he may not make it out of camp. “He’s been a total pro. When I asked about his practice habits, his gym habits, all the things, it’s not just the on-ice product of scoring goals — everything checks out.”
Marchenko said he’s excited to make his debut against some of the titans of the game, as the Penguins boast Sidney Crosby and Russian star Evgeni Malkin, players he’s watched since he was a kid growing up in the Altai Krai region of Siberia.
It will be the biggest challenge yet in his promising but young career.
“I think he’s going to understand it’s going to be fast,” Larsen said. “You’re playing against a pretty good team in Pittsburgh. What he’s learned in the AHL is great. It’s valuable, but now it’s going to be another level with a team like Pittsburgh.”