Nikita Pavlychev has always been a little taller than the rest of his teammates. The gap between he and his contemporaries reached new heights following a growth spurt a couple years ago.
“I don’t think anyone knew that I was going be that tall,” Pavlychev said Monday. “I just had a year where I grew three or four inches.”
Few growth spurts result in a 6-foot-7 frame, however. Growing four inches in a short period of time came with its share of challenges for the Penn State freshman.
“There’s always going to be problems with stuff like coordination,” the Yaroslavl, Russia native said, “but I’ve gotten so much [more] used to it now and I think I’m getting more and more used to it as I grow into my body.”
Pavlychev’s hand-eye coordination has progressed to the point that he has become a regular on coach Guy Gadowsky’s top power play unit, typically situated in front of the opposing team’s goaltender when the No. 3 Nittany Lions have the man advantage.
While his main task is to take away the vision of the netminder — an easy task for a tall man — another of Pavlychev’s duties is to redirect shots in an effort to catch the goalie off guard. He can also contribute by knocking home rebound opportunities, which is exactly how he has scored one of his two goals this season.
Along with troubles with hand-eye coordination, taller players are not usually the most fleet of foot. With a higher center of gravity than their shorter counterparts, taller players typically can not get the same power in their strides, meaning it will take them longer to reach their maximum speed.
This has been no problem for Pavlychev, however.
Pavlychev’s only other goal this season was the opening goal, and eventual game winner, in the team’s first road game of the season, a 7-0 drubbing of Mercyhurst.
While shorthanded, Pavlychev collected the puck near the Lakers’ blue line after defenseman Trevor Hamilton cleared it out of the zone. With Kane Elliot draped around him, Pavlychev used his long reach to shield the puck from the 5-foot-10 forward before cutting to the front of the net and squeezing the puck past Brandon Wildung.
He wasn’t done for the night, however, as he played an instrumental role on the Lions’ second goal of the game. As his teammates passed the puck into position for a goal, Pavlychev took his big body to the front of the net, screening the goalie as he so often does on the power play. He had the poise and agility to stay out of the crease, avoid contact with the netminder and also avoid blocking his own teammate’s shot as Chase Berger put the puck into an open net.
The goal was the perfect demonstration of Pavlychev’s skill set: his speed to catch up to the puck before anyone else could; his strength to protect the puck against an opponent; and his long reach to drag the puck across his body and force the goaltender out of position.
It was reminiscent of Pavlychev’s favorite NHLer — Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward and fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.
Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps by the grace of the Hockey Gods, Pavlychev heard his name called by the Penguins during the seventh round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. In an interview with a United States Hockey League representative following his selection, Pavlychev expressed his excitement of being drafted by the Penguins.
“I’m very excited. It’s always been my favorite team,” he said. “I’m really happy to be drafted by them.”
Pavlychev has become well acquainted with Pennsylvania and the Penguins, having played three seasons in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights program in Northeastern PA, the same region that the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate calls home.
He then spent parts of three more seasons in the USHL with the Des Moines Buccaneers before arriving in State College.
Hopes of an NHL career may take a while to materialize. If they do, however, Pavlychev would find himself in a position to succeed almost immediately. Of the 691 players to suit up for an NHL game this season, only five, all of whom are defensemen, are as tall or taller than Pavlychev.
Already tied as the second tallest player in college hockey, Pavlychev would instantly become the tallest forward in the NHL, surpassing a pair of 6-foot-6 centers in Brian Boyle and Martin Hanzal. That way-above-average height has become Pavlychev’s greatest strength in the college ranks, and his teammates have taken notice.
“Even when you think you can get around him, it’s just no,” alternate captain Ricky DeRosa said. “There’s his stick, he’s got the puck somehow.”
Captain David Goodwin would swear Pavlychev doesn’t even use a regular hockey stick.
“It’s really hard to play against him in practice, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “His stick’s like a telephone pole.”