By Scott Wheeler
February 10, 2017
When Maple Leafs prospect Nikita Korostelev was traded to the Peterborough Petes from the Sarnia Sting at the Ontario Hockey League’s trade deadline last month, it didn’t come as a surprise.
The Petes wanted a star — a player who could bolster their chances for a run to the OHL crown.
Korostelev, even after three-and-a-half years with the Sting, wanted that chance, too. In his 20-year-old season, the former seventh-round pick wants to take a serious crack at a Memorial Cup.
In the halls below Ottawa’s TD Place, he was already a bit of a celebrity. Before his Wednesday night game against the Ottawa 67’s, he mingled as a group of friendly opposing players pulled him out of his routine soccer warmup with his new teammates.
After the game, as a reporter waited to speak with Korostelev’s new coach, Jody Hull, other 67’s players circled.
“Have you seen Koro?” they asked.
These players know Korostelev is going somewhere in the hockey world. They interrupted his interview to say as much — while also checking his ego with jokes about him being the final cut from Russia’s world junior team.
Hull knows, too, that when the Petes acquired Korostelev it wasn’t because they intended to keep him around. He’s a short-term rental designed to help the Petes navigate a weak Eastern Conference to the OHL’s J. Ross Robertson Cup.
So far, Korostelev’s 10 goals in 15 games have certainly provided that boost. The Petes are a conference-best 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, tied for the conference lead in points with 65 (30-16-5).
“Nikita has fit in with our group very well,” Hull said after a 3-1 win in Ottawa, where Korostelev picked up a primary assist to set up the game-winning goal with less than four minutes left. “We were a team that needed to add some skill and scoring to our lineup and he fit that bill and definitely hasn’t been a disappointment by any means.”
Korostelev’s has powered the Petes offensively, with 21 points in 15 games. He’s also among the league’s leaders in points-per-game (1.22), playing at a 100-point 82-game pace. He is also averaging 3.5 shots per game.
“He’s a quiet guy, but at the same time I think his speaking is done by how he plays the game,” Hull said. “His skill level, his skill set, makes everyone on our team better.”
There are things Korostelev does with that puck that even his coaching staff doesn’t expect him to be capable of doing.
“His puck release, the things he does with the puck, you don’t necessarily see it and he does it and it’s … it’s WOW,” said Hull, a veteran of 831 NHL games. “Our game up in Soo, he scored a highlight reel goal going wide on the goalie. Our game in Niagara the other night he went between the legs and under the bar for a goal.
One play, in particular, stands out. Hull remembers turning to assistant coach Jake Grimes during a rush in Korostelev’s debut with the Petes — when most other players would play timid — and saying “he’s shooting,” moments before his new star winger made a no-look, tape-to-tape pass.
“He just has the innate ability to make plays that not every player would make,” Hull said. “Things like that, they take practice but you have to be a very skilled guy to get that job done too.”
That ability has convinced Hull that Korostelev is ready at season’s end to turn pro.
And he likely could have made the jump earlier. Some players, such as Leafs prospect and Kingston Frontenacs captain Stephen Desrocher, ask their weaker teams not to trade them at the deadline, opening up the option to join the Toronto Marlies a bit earlier when the OHL regular season finishes up.
But Desrocher already has a Memorial Cup. Korostelev still has unfinished business.
“One of the biggest reasons the move was made to acquire me was to win the conference and win the playoffs and go as far as we can here,” the 6-foot-2 winger said.
After speaking with his agent, and the Leafs, Korostelev felt a move to Peterborough was advantageous. As a senior player, Sarnia’s management and coaching staff gave him the opportunity to decide if the trade was the right fit.
“It has been great so far,” said Korostelev, who the Leafs drafted 185th overall in 2015. “The team, the coaching staff, the management have been real welcoming. I have enjoyed every day so far. When you spend three-and-a-half years there (in Sarnia), it was pretty tough, but I’m happy with where I’m at in my development now.”
Hull doesn’t think a long playoff run will hold Korostelev back from turning pro in the near future. The Leafs contacted the Russian after word of the trade spread to encourage him that Peterborough would be a positive step.
“I think he can (turn pro now),” Hull said. “He’s not far off at all. If he’s a guy who can help carry our team and make a deep playoff run, he’s going to give himself a nice opportunity (to become a Leaf). He’s just been a nice fit to our group.”
On the ice, Korostelev feels he can dictate.
“Offensively, I had a little bit of a drought the last time we spoke here in Ottawa,” Korostelev said, remembering a seven-game stretch where he picked up just two assists before Peterborough visited the 67’s at the end of November. “Then I was cut from the World Juniors so it wasn’t easy on me but I just tried to get over it and I’m happy with the way my game is going right now.”
Still, Korostelev needs to earn an entry-level contract. But he knows what’s expected of him and he’s confident he will.
“I think I’ve played really, really well,” he said, sighing. “It has been a pleasure to play with these guys. We’re winning games and it’s nothing but good things here.”