When Syracuse Crunch coach Jon Cooper looked at his defense at the beginning of the season, he saw seven players and a question mark.
Dmitry Korobov , set to play his first season in North America, was up against more than smaller ice surfaces and more physical play. The Belarusian had to deal with a language barrier, and due to the ongoing lockout, NHL-level competition – not only from the opposition, but to crack the Crunch lineup.
“We didn’t know what Dmitry was, and when we’re fully healthy with the eight guys, I don’t know if you can sit here and say who’s one through eight,” Cooper said. “We have a bunch of ones in their own way.”
The 23-year-old, coming off two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League with Dynamo Minsk, took a handful of games to adjust to the AHL. Korobov started off with limited minutes, but with the Syracuse defense corps recently hobbled by injuries, is making the most of his increased ice time and proving why he deserves to be considered another No. 1.
On pace for a career-year on the scoresheet, Korobov netted a pair of goals – his first multiple-goal season since 2007-08 – and added four assists over 15 games, and leads the American Hockey League at plus-14.
Asked through teammate Vladislav Namestnikov , who frequently translates for Korobov, whether he spent extra time over the summer working on his offensive game, the intimidating 6-2 defenseman cracked a smile.
“I always play defense first, and then if I have a chance, I help out with the attack,” Korobov said through Namestnikov.
Korobov models his game after fellow countryman Ruslan Salei, and wears a bracelet commemorating the 2011 Lokomotiv plane crash that took his idol’s life.
The style of play certainly works for Cooper, who has been pleasantly surprised by Korobov’s physical play, stick-work, and shot from the point.
“There’s always that fear as a coach when a player doesn’t know English and hasn’t played in North America before – there’s those outside elements that he has to battle besides hockey,” Cooper said. “The kid has passed them all with flying colors. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by him.”
The risk has paid off for the undrafted defenseman, who left behind his family and homeland to sign a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning in August.
“The AHL is the best league in the world right now,” Korobov said. “I wanted to try something new and eventually play in the NHL, and the AHL is the best route for that.”
With the help of teammates, as well as a smartphone application that allows him to communicate with coaches, Korobov’s adjustment to North America has gone smoothly.
His play transcending language, Cooper knows now what he’s getting when Korobov hits the ice.
Korobov knows there are still steps to be made in his transition, but now most of them come outside the rink.
“It’s just a different style of life here,” he said. “So I needed time to adjust to that.”
Pictured: Crunch defenseman Dmitry Korobov rushes the puck up the ice against the Bears at the Onondaga County War Memorial Oct. 13.