Dec 26, 2019

By Tom Witosky

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Dmitry Sokolov’s best play for the Iowa Wild this season had nothing to do with what he does best – scoring goals.

In fact, it was about preventing one at a critical time for the Wild this season.

Tied 3-3 in overtime against the Stockton Heat on Dec. 18, Sokolov found himself chasing Heat forward Brandon Davidson, who had picked up the puck along the Heat’s half-boards and skated down the ice for what looked like a clear breakaway. Only minutes earlier, the Heat tied the game with three seconds left in regulation and had an opportunity to complete the comeback.

But as Davidson entered the Wild’s zone, Sokolov, in an outstanding example of backchecking, caught up to him and knocked the puck away as the two drove down on Wild goalie Kaapo Kahkonen. Not satisfied with just the defensive play, Sokolov took the puck wide and chipped it toward the Iowa blue line, where forward Kyle Bauman stood.

Bauman broke free for a breakaway of his own and scored his first goal of the season moments later to give the Wild a critical 4-3 win and two wins on its three-game road trip in Ontario and Stockton.  

“I think the forward was running out of gas,” said the 21-year-old Russian with a bit of a smile. “It felt great though, especially when we got the winning goal.”

For Sokolov, who had scored two goals already in the game, the defensive play and the assist illustrated how the Siberian-born forward has improved his speed and his commitment to defending in addition to his scoring prowess. He has struggled in the past to improve his speed, but working with John Odgers, the Wild’s strength and conditioning coach, Sokolov has lost weight – 10 pounds so far – and has increased his speed.

“When ‘Sokie’ came into camp, he probably wasn't in the spot that he wanted to be to start the season off,” Odgers said, adding he and Minnesota Wild Strength and Conditioning Coach Sean Skahan worked with Sokolov throughout training camp. “He's been putting in some extra work with me in the weight room, on the bike and just trying to get himself a little bit lighter so he can move better. “

Odgers said the staff recognizes his skill as a goal scorer – he has scored two goals in a game twice this season, but that there has to be more to his game.

“Everybody knows that Sokie has this tremendous amount of skill,” Odgers said. “But if he's not able to get his body in the right spot, or he's not quick enough to get to a puck to use that skill, then he isn't able to use it as well. So that's all that we've been trying to do with him and just get a little bit lighter.”

Early on, Sokolov has had trouble getting ice time during games. Part of it was the result of the depth that the club has on its roster, but also it was wanting Sokolov to meet the expectations of the Iowa Wild coaching staff.

His play has improved of late, but Head Coach Tim Army said it needs to become a lot more consistent.

“He's had his two outstanding games this year in Chicago and the other night,” Army said. “He's had a couple other games that have been pretty good, but he's had a couple games that haven’t been very good,” Army said.

From that, Army said two things are evident. “He shows he can do the right things, but he has to be able to do that every night. He has to come back the same way every night where he is on his toes. We like the progress of it, but it's got to become an everyday thing.”

Sokolov agreed with the assessment, while acknowledging there has been a level of frustration with not playing as much.

“It’s been tough,” Sokolov said. “I have trying to stay with it and keep my focus on what I have to do. I am just trying to get my mind in the right spot and just be ready to play.”

At the same time, the Wild’s seventh-round draft choice in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has noticed how he can move more quickly. It’s a different feeling, he said.

“It really is nice to move better, I can feel it every time,” he said. “It is something that I have to keep working on if I am going to play. I know that.”

On Saturday, Sokolov showed again he can make a difference in overtime. After Kaapo Kahkonen stopped a breakaway against the Grand Rapids Griffins, Sokolov caught up to forward Gerry Mayhew on a 2-on-1 counterattack.

As they approached the Griffin goal, Mayhew passed the puck to Sokolov, who beat goalie Pat Nagle with a sniper’s shot into the net.

One change that Sokolov believes will continue to push his development forward is the arrival of his newlywed wife, Anna Sokolova, who also grew up in Sokolov’s hometown of Omsk. The two married over the summer after dating for about five years.  

“It’s a lot easier with my wife in town,” Sokolov said, adding that she arrived in time for the Christmas break. “So she can cook now.”

As for the future, Sokolov said he has every intention of getting himself regularly into the Wild lineup but understands it won’t be easy.

“I just have to stay focused on it every day,” Sokolov said. “I have to do it.”

Army has confidence that Sokolov can do it.

“He's a very, very good player and is very effective because he's an actual goal scorer and they are hard to find,” Army said. “But he has to continue to work in the right direction and bring consistency night in and night out.”

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