The 2018 second-round pick was expected to stay at UConn for at least another year before taking the next step in his career. But with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Iskhakov decided it was best to go pro now, rather than wait.
He joined the first team that came calling for his services. Finnish Liiga side TPS.
And what a year he had. In 54 regular-season games, he put up 38 points, add another seven points in 13 playoff games, and 12 points in 13 pre-season games*. Overall, that’s 57 points in 80 games across all competitions.
*The Liiga preseason was a mix of regular full-team play and a 3on3 tournament.
With the year over, I spoke with Ruslan to go over the year, how it went, including being benched a few times, and how he comes out of this experience more ready for the NHL.
New York Islanders Ruslan Iskhakov more NHL ready
This isn’t the first time Ruslan and I have spoken. We chatted last September as he was just getting started on his first pro season. My first question to him then was: “why TPS?” If you remember his answer was pretty simple; they were the first to call.
So, now that the season is done I was wondering if he thought he’d made the right call:
"Yeah. I feel like I did make the right call. I had a very successful season with TPS. With the preseason and the playoffs, I played basically 80 games, and if I would have stayed I would have played basically 30 games with the COVID restrictions."
That was the big draw with going pro, after all, playing time. With his eyes firmly focused on getting to the NHL as soon as possible, getting more than triple the game time was going to be a big boost in his development.
(UConn played 22 games this year.)
But jumping from NCAA hockey to the Liiga wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Even for someone of his skill level.
His journey with the pros started off very well. He followed up his 12 points 13 pre-season games with five points in his first four regular-season games. But as the novelty of a new league in a new setting starting wearing off, the games got harder and his production dried up.
Leading him to have a sit-down in the press box for a few games in order to get him to play a more complete game.
"I think there were some area’s I needed to work on, like faceoff and on defenesive coverage, going to the net and playing hard in front of the net, and I think they were just trying to tell me that. The coach felt I got away from that."
And look, it worked. Even Ruslan admitted as much. Being sat down for a few games to get him to focus on the other aspects of the game (namely the defensive side of things) refocused him and he never really looked back.
Through the remaining 45 games of the regular season after his healthy scratch, Iskhakov put up 33 points. His play not only offensively but defensively earned him a promotion from the third line to the second line.
That should be music to the ears of Islanders fans, Eric Cairns (Director of Player Development), Brent Thompson, Barry Trotz, and even Lou Lamoriello. A young kid with a ton of offensive talent was sat down to re-focus his defensive duties, and it worked. He listened, took their advice, and became a better player because of it.
One of his goals in going to the Liiga was getting to the NHL ASAP, to prepare for the next level. Something he felt he was able to achieve this year:
"I definitely feel that I had some goals before this season and kind of accomplished that and it’s made me more prepared for the NHL. My season had some ups and downs and had some difficult times and it made me stronger and more prepared. I had so many things that I wanted to work on like faceoff or playing the d-zone. We had so many guys who played at the high level like NHL, KHL, or elsewhere in Europe so I kind of had a chance to work individually with them."
After a year with the pros, Iskhakov feels more prepared for the NHL than when he left UConn. And it’s hard to disagree. Of course, we look at his production and think “oh, he’s ready”, and there’s some truth to that, but there’s more to being “NHL ready” than just putting up points.
There’s a certain maturity required to take the next step in your career and make the most of it.
That next step for him is certainly back in North America within the Islanders system. The Islanders hold his rights until August of 2022 so don’t expect a contract this second but as I’ve said for a while now, I’d be shocked if the Islanders don’t have him signed to an ELC over the offseason so that he can take his first steps as an Islander, whether that’s on Long Island or in Bridgeport.