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Systems Analyst: The Z Factor

After dominating AHL scoresheets this season, Valentin Zykov is bringing his same game to the NHL and finding early success.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

We knew he could score — that wasn’t ever a question. It was just a matter of how long the adjustment would take for Valentin Zykov as he looked to graduate from leading the American Hockey League in goal-scoring to finding twine in a Carolina Hurricanes sweater.

As it turns out, good players will find ways to succeed in any situation, and Zykov is no different. It obviously helps to play with the Hurricanes’ two MVPs of this season in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, but Zykov brings his own offensive skillset to a team hungry for scoring help.

Zykov posted a pair of two-point efforts in the last two contests, with a couple of goals against Arizona on Thursday and helpers in Ottawa last night. But still, Zykov isn’t really finding a niche. He’s finding several.

We’ll start with his second marker from Thursday’s outing. After Zykov dumps the puck around, Aho picks it up at the hashmarks and finds him in the slot for a quick redirection to Teravainen.

It’s not hard to see the chemistry already forming between the trio of Zykov, Aho and Teravainen. Here, each knows where the other two are, and already knows what he will do with the puck before it gets to him. It’s this kind of automatic decision-making that fuel truly dominant lines.

Teravainen then feeds Jaccob Slavin at the blue line while Zykov goes to the front of the net and — get this — stays there.

After the game, Zykov noted that going to the net has been part of his game for a while now — no wonder he’s had success in lighting the lamp. The Hurricanes have had players willing to go to the net and take the bumps and hacks in the name of screening the goalie or jumping on chance rebounds, but they haven’t had one like Zykov. Take a look:

Not only does he make Darcy Kuemper work twice as hard to make a routine stop, but Zykov forces him to move around and further loosen the puck. He’s also positioned beautifully; behind the defense so he can shield the puck with his body, but still outside of the crease to avoid any interference penalties.

But perhaps the most impressive bit is how hard he works to make the play happen. Zykov fights off two Coyotes, gets knocked over and still finds the puck while falling. That’s the difference. Past Carolina net-goers may have forced the first rebound, but likely wouldn’t have been able to see it through. Zykov has clearly worked on being more than just a warm body in front of the cage, and it’s a welcome element to the Hurricanes’ attack.

We saw another example of Zykov’s ability to grind plays out in Ottawa last night, as he assisted on Phil Di Giuseppe’s laser of a shot. Zykov picks up the puck behind the Senators’ goal and maintains possession before feeding Di Giuseppe.

It’s a quick maneuver, but one that turns potential scenario in which Ottawa breaks the puck up ice into a scoring chance and goal for the Hurricanes. Even with Zack Smith having the leverage and ability to actually see the puck, Zykov manages to kick the puck up to his stick and win the battle. It won’t make highlight reels, but important 50/50 wins like these are Zykov’s bread-and-butter, and it’s promising to see him transitioning his game to the NHL so effectively.

But don’t fall into the trap of seeing Zykov as just a grinder. He carries a deadly release and an offensive acumen that fits perfectly alongside his high-flying Finnish linemates.

At the same time, Zykov still plays within Bill Peters’ system of defensive-zone responsibility, and creates chances at one end of the ice by working hard in the other. His first goal against Arizona was a perfect example. He works within Carolina’s five-man unit to break the puck out and later joins the rush.

This is another one of those little plays that make the difference. Sure, Zykov gets a bit lucky with the bounce as his clearing attempt lands perfectly on Aho’s stick, but its the mentality of making sure the puck gets out that remains impressive. The Canes have been burned in recent months by failing to clear the zone when given the chance, but Zykov’s hustle made sure that didn’t happen here.

Aho rushes the puck up ice, but runs out of real estate and wisely slows up to look at his options.

The Coyotes cover back pretty well; Aho never has the chance to shoot, and the passing lane to Teravainen is quickly taken away. But they’re puck-watching, and no one in white sees Zykov slip in as the trailing forward. It’s good work by Aho to patiently wait for the right time to feed his Russian linemate, and shows another example of how well this line has clicked so far.

From there, Zykov takes the pass and picks his corner.

Between Zykov’s quick shot and a subtle screen by Teravainen, Kuemper never had a chance. Notice, too, that Zykov is ready to shoot the second he receives the puck. A quick release is crucial here, and Zykov does well to have his spot picked out and his stick loaded to shoot before Aho’s centering pass even reaches him.

Zykov is likely done in the AHL — how much more does he need to do to prove he belongs in the NHL? — but so much uncertainty surrounding the team’s roster heading into the offseason makes it tough to predict next year’s outlook. Still, he brings valuable talents to a team lacking in...well...talent, sometimes, and has a clear connection with Aho and Teravainen. It’s time to let him loose in Raleigh.