Stan Galiev was 16 when he chose to leave Russia and become adjusted to hockey in North America with the dream of playing in the NHL. He has no doubt he made the right decision.
"Obviously, obviously, obviously," Galiev said. "I don't know what would [have happened] if I stayed in Russia."
If Galiev stayed in Russia, he wouldn't be on the verge of his first professional season as the Washington Capitals' top prospect on this continent. Countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov looks to be two years away from contributing at the NHL level thanks to a new deal in the Kontinental Hockey League, but it's possible Galiev figures into the Caps plans this season.
Is he ready right now? General manager George McPhee said it was "hard to say" and wanted to watch the 20-year-old wing at development camp this week.
With his junior career complete, Galiev is a long shot to make the roster out of training camp but could see at least spot duty as well as some serious minutes with Hershey of the American Hockey League.
"Actually, it's going to be my first year in pro, and [everything is going to be different]," Galiev said. "It's no more juniors. That's next level."
What's coming at the next level is the chance to play against grown men. He doesn't know what to expect. "I just need to try," he said.
Galiev is on a fast track to Washington because of a stellar three years with the Saint John Sea Dogs that included two Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championships and 141 points in 151 regular-season games. He also led the league in playoff scoring with 34 points in 17 games, shortly after returning from a broken wrist that cost him 48 games.
Everyone knows Galiev can put the puck in the net. He and Hershey coach Mark French agree that improving his 200-foot all-around game is the challenge in the next year.
"In talking to his junior coach, everybody raves about two things: That he's a very good kid, very coachable, very North American-ized," French said. "He sees the ice very well, he's got a very good shot that's going to allow him to score. I think it's well-rounding his game, understanding what his strengths are. We certainly don't want to take away those strengths, but maybe refining other areas of his game."
One of the main criticisms of Galiev as recently as a few months ago was that he wasn't physical enough. At 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds, he knows playing on smaller rinks in North America compared to those in Russia requires more strength, and he has tried to bulk up.
Upon seeing him Monday, French noticed a difference.
"My first impression when I saw him is that he looks like he's done that. I think he's got a frame that will carry more weight, and I think with maturity it will," he said. "In coming to the pro level, there will be a lot more emphasis with [Mark Nemish] and some of the strength and conditioning people here that I think he's got a real good chance to add some size to his frame."
In addition to an emphasis on his defensive game, Galiev wants to improve his decision-making. H already is a strong skater with vision beyond his years.
If he makes the Capitals out of camp or sticks at any point during the season, it likely would be as a contributor on one of the top two lines. He's not a checking forward, and his talents would be wasted in a fourth-line energy role.
The same thing goes with Hershey, where he should be penciled in on the first line.
"I think we're probably looking at him in that role, putting him with some veteran guys that can complement some of his skill level," French said. "He'll have to earn that time. I think we wanted to send the message that we won't give him anything, but I think knowing what his skill level is, is that's where he's best-suited."
A year of seasoning in the minors undoubtedly would help sharpen aspects of Galiev's game, but he has allowed himself to think about making the Caps this fall.
"Well, it's my dream and I work hard for that," Galiev said.
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