Islanders: Ruslan Iskhakov’s coach shares his thoughts on Isles prospect

New York Islanders prospect Ruslan Iskhakov. Photo property of TPS. Used by permission of Eero Tuominen (TPS Head of Marketing and Communications).
New York Islanders prospect Ruslan Iskhakov. Photo property of TPS. Used by permission of Eero Tuominen (TPS Head of Marketing and Communications).

New York Islanders second-round pick Ruslan Iskhakov has been playing in Finland for a few months now. What does his coach think of the Isles prospect?

Over the summer New York Islanders second-round pick in 2018 Ruslan Iskhakov decided he wouldn’t return to the University of Connecticut for his junior year. Instead, the skilled Russian forward turned pro and signed a one-year deal with Finnish Liiga side TPS.

That decision surprised a few people outside and inside the Islanders organization. Everyone thought he’d certainly go back to UConn for his junior year and maybe go pro after that. After all, Iskhakov was doing well with two 21 point seasons at the collegiate level.

But for Iskhakov, the low number of games and the thought of having to wait until December or January because of the pandemic before getting back on the ice wasn’t palatable. In September, he told me that going pro now was about getting to the NHL as soon as possible. TPS was the first team to show interest over the summer, so he signed with them.

He’s been in Finland for a few months now. He’s had some highs (being the joint top scorer alongside Edmonton Oilers fourth overall pick in 2016 Jesse Puljujarvi in a 3v3 tournament) and he’s also had some lows (being a healthy scratch for a few games straight in November). So I checked in with TPS’s head coach (and former New York Islander)

Raimo Helminen

about Iskhakov’s play so far.

Confidence is Key

Helminen, a former second-round pick by the New York Rangers had a successful playing career.  Helminen, a center, had 59 points over 117 games at the NHL level and an incredible 581 points in 751 Liiga games. That ranks him eleventh all-time in scoring. The man knows hockey.

So I asked coach Helminen how Ruslan went from that dominant 3v3 player and one who had a great start to the regular season, to a healthy scratch not long afterward? The answer he gave me will sound like it’s coming right out of Barry Trotz’s mouth.

RH: He was fast at that time, after that, the games got tougher and tougher and it wasn’t so easy for a young guy like Ruslan to produce so easily and that probably took a bit off from him.Me: A confidence thing?RH: Yeah. Yeah.

Earlier this year, Trotz was speaking to Arthur Staple about Noah Dobson’s ice time (subscription required) with the Islanders when he said the following: ” it’s the league, it can take your confidence. You have to build it, earn it and that confidence will have some substance to it.” Now, Trotz was speaking about the NHL and not the Finnish Liiga, but the sentiment is the same from Helminen.

Obviously, the big question is why Iskhakov was a healthy scratch for a few games in November. Was it just to hit the reset button for Ruslan? Was it due to poor performances?

Being a healthy scratch is never seen as a good thing and with Isles fans being across the Atlantic it can lead to a lot of speculation. According to the coach, there were a few reasons that Ruslan was kept off the ice, one was performance, but a more prevalent factor was making sure everyone got ice time.

RH: He’s still a young guy. We had a lot of players at that time, four guys over, that we had to go around all the players. That was one reason not only what he produced on the ice. It was good for him to practice.

That’s probably the best answer you’ll get from a coach about why a player isn’t in the lineup.

We know that Iskhakov is a skilled and creative offensive player. We also know that he’s a good competitor. His former coach at UConn believed that even though Ruslan won’t dominate anyone physically, he still plays a physical game.

So what has coach Helminen seen since Ruslan joined, and what can he improve on? Again, this is going to sound like I was talking to Barry Trotz.

RH: He has a lot to learn now playing against men and it isn’t easy. Like all the young guys, they have to learn to play that defensive game over the whole ice, that’s a first. Many time those young guys they just want to go to offense too fast.If you can learn the defensive side it helps you get to the NHL sooner.

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Again, that sounds a lot like Barry Trotz. Being offensively gifted (like Iskhakov) is great, but he has to learn the defensive side of the game if he wants to get to the NHL soon.

That path to the NHL isn’t so clear just yet for Iskhakov. His 5’8″ and 152lbs frame is already undersized for a league that likes them big and strong.

For now, he’ll play out the year in Finland with TPS. Even though the Finnish league is on hold at the moment, coach Helminen assured me that the team is training daily (weekends off). After the year is through, Iskhakov could be headed to the AHL. I stress could.

If and when he gets to the AHL, Iskhakov is still going to have to prove that he’s defensively sound enough before he can think about moving on to the big show. But at least when he gets to the AHL he’ll have a full year of playing alongside men in Finland to give him a leg up.