Anton Zlobin accomplished something at age 17 that few hockey players ever have — he was a first round pick in two different drafts in the same year.
Coming off a season in his native Russia where he scored 46 goals in 46 games as a 16-year-old, Zlobin was selected in the first round by the Dynamo Moscow in the 2010 Kontinental Hockey League draft, and he was also a first round pick by Shawinigan in the QMJHL draft that same year.
Zlobin had a difficult decision to make.
Should he stay in his native Russia and play close to home in a place where he already had plenty of success, or should he venture to Canada, a new land with a new language and culture but perhaps a better opportunity to build a hockey career?
“It was a pretty tough call,” Zlobin said. “I thought about it a lot, and I felt I needed to play in Canada.”
When Zlobin boarded a flight for an overseas trip to Quebec, he admits the nerves set in once the plane was in the sky.
“I was thinking ‘What am I doing?’” Zlobin said. “It was a new place, different team and different language. But once I got there my coach and team helped me a lot, and when I was able to start speaking a little bit of English it got better.”
That was reflected in Zlobin’s play on the ice. In his first year in the QMJHL, Zlobin posted a respectable 23 goals and 45 points in 59 games.
Still, he knew he could do better. During his rookie season in Quebec, Zlobin carefully studied his more experienced teammates on the ice and made mental notes of the areas where he needed to improve.
And then came the ultimate challenge.
At the conclusion of the season Zlobin sat down with general manager Martin Mondou for an end of the year meeting. Mondou asked Zlobin how many goals he would score next season and he said 30-something.
Mondou knew Zlobin could do better and he told his young player that he will score 40 goals next season.
“I said I would try,” Zlobin said. “When the GM asks you to score 40 goals, you need to score those goals.”
That season Zlobin scored 40 goals in 66 games to lead Shawinigan — fulfilling Mondou’s request — and capped the season with an even greater achievement.
Although Shawinigan was eliminated in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, they still participated in the Memorial Cup — an annual championship tournament featuring the best of the 60 teams from three leagues comprising all of junior hockey in Canada. Shawinigan made it to the championship game and won it 2-1 in overtime on a game-winning goal by Zlobin.
Zlobin finished the Memorial Cup tournament with five goals and nine points in six games, but the overtime game-winner was clearly the highlight.
“It’s pretty much the best moment of my life right now,” he said. “Not a lot of Russian guys were in the Memorial Cup before that. It was a pretty sweet moment.”
After that, Zlobin was drafted for a third time in his career — by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
He spent the 2012-13 season in juniors and posted an incredible 29 goals and 91 points in 61 games. Just as important, Zlobin also played in 33 playoff games during his junior career, giving him valuable experience playing in high-pressure situations.
“No matter what level it is, when you get into the playoffs it’s a different game,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach John Hynes said. “(Zlobin) has won a Memorial Cup, which is very difficult to win, and at a young age he knows what playoff hockey is like.”
Still, Zlobin also knows what it’s like to have doubts.
When his coach put him on the ice for an overtime faceoff in the Memorial Cup championship, he worried if he would be a defensive liability. Zlobin told his coach that if his team loses the faceoff, he wanted to come off the ice, but he stayed and scored.
Despite Zlobin’s misgivings about his defensive play, his numbers in juniors indicate that he isn’t that much of a liability. Over his three junior seasons, Zlobin posted a plus-61 rating and he is currently a plus-7 through his first 17 games with the Penguins.
Zlobin, however, doesn’t put much stock in the numbers.
“In juniors, it was high because I scored a lot and we were good offensively,” he said. “This year, I still need to improve my defensive play and coach Hynes is helping me all the time with that.”
The help is paying off, according to Hynes.
“His defensive play is much better than people give him credit for,” Hynes said. “Since he’s been with us, he’s committed to playing both sides of the puck. Now, he’s a responsible player with the ability to score goals, and you’re seeing that combination come together.”