Nik Antropov has heard it before.
Many have implored the 6-foot-6 mountain of a hockey player to shoot the puck more often. ‘You have a great shot, Nik. You have to use it,’ he has been told over and over again. Still is.
Thrashers general manager Don Waddell knew what he was getting when he signed the free-agent forward to a four-year, $16 million deal this summer.
“His first thought is always pass first, shoot second,” Waddell said.
Antropov leads the Thrashers in assists with 21. He is tied for 10th in the NHL in the category.
“That’s exactly it, one thousand percent,” Antropov said of his pass-first mentality. “That’s the way I’ve been since I was seven years old. Every coach I’ve played under has always given me crap to shoot more . . . I have the same excitement if I pass the puck and someone scores as if I score. That’s always been my game.”
The Thrashers moved Antropov from right wing to center. That has contributed to his 21 assists as opposed to just two goals. With Ilya Kovalchuk on one wing and Max Afinogenov on the other, he has proven a capable set-up man. Kovalchuk and Afinogenov are 1-2 on the team in goals and points.
“He’s never going to score a lot of goals,” Waddell said. “When he’s playing with guys like Kovalchuk and Afinogenov, those guys are pure goal scorers. You get them the puck, they are going to find the back of the net. He feels he can best serve that line by dishing the puck.”
With his 23 points in 27 games, Antropov is averaging nearly a point a game. With his defensive duties as a center, perhaps more impressive is his plus/minus rating of plus-11. That’s second on the team and comes after a minus-2 night Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team on which Antropov spent his first nine NHL seasons.
“He’s very unselfish,” Thrashers coach John Anderson said. “We’re trying to make him a little more selfish. He’s got a good shot. It’s hard to change a guy’s demeanor, but it’s not a bad thing when you have guys scoring on either side of him.”
Antropov doesn’t remember the moment he was introduced to the sport of hockey. But his father passed down the story.
The elder Antropov, who worked in steel factories, took his 4-year-old son to a game in his hometown of Ust-Kamenogorsk, in Kazakhstan. One of the players gave the boy his hockey stick following the game. That was it.
“My dad told me I was sleeping with it that whole first night,” Antropov said. “I was four. I don’t remember. Since then, he put me in skates.”
Antropov began playing, at first for fun like any youngster. It was hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer. But once it was cold enough, he was back on the ice.
His size came from his mother’s side of the family. His mother, who passed away when Antropov was six years old, was 6 feet tall. The summer following the first grade, Antropov shot up -- and he made his size count.
Antropov said he didn’t even know there was a National Hockey League until he was 16. That’s when he made the town’s first team and the teenager began drawing a paycheck for playing the game he loved. He made a few international teams, but the hockey world took notice when he made Kazakhstan’s World Junior team. He played in the tournament in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
The Maple Leafs drafted Antropov with the 10th overall selection in the 1998 draft. He spent one season with Dynamo of the Russian Super League. An invitation to Toronto’s training camp followed the next season and Antropov made the team as a 19 year old. He played 66 games that rookie year and had 12 goals and 18 assists.
Antropov spent the following eight seasons with the Maple Leafs. He calls the experience “awesome.” It took awhile, but he fell in love with the hockey city he still calls home.
“I didn’t really realize until a few years ago that it’s the best hockey city in the world,” Antropov said of Toronto. “It’s pretty cool to play for that team. There is so much history.”
However, Antropov’s time in Toronto came to an end when Brian Burke took over as general manager. Antropov was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of last season. The writing was on the wall.
“From my take at this point, I don’t see any reason to put a new contract offer on the table here . . . I think it just might be time for a change of scenery for Nik Antropov,” Burke told a Toronto radio station in February.
Antropov was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline.
“When Brian Burke came in and started saying all this stuff publically, it was a no-brainer," Antropov said of his impending move.
Antropov finished the season with the Rangers, including the playoffs, and became a free agent.
His phone started ringing. First it was Kovalchuk. He wanted to know Antropov’s plans, especially after the Thrashers captain mentioned him by name to team ownership. At the start of the free-agent signing period, it was the Thrashers calling.
“A few teams were interested,” Antropov said. “First, I wanted to stay on the east coast and in the Eastern Conference. Kovy called me and asked me what I was going to do. Obviously, that helps a lot. Atlanta was really aggressive in the free agent market from day one.”
Antropov has been more than the Thrashers had hoped for. Teammate Slava Kozlov called his addition a “great signing” noting his on-ice chemistry with Kovalchuk.
So give Kovalchuk the assist on getting Antropov to Atlanta. He’ll handle the rest.
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