With the hockey season delayed indefinitely in North America due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington Capitals loaned Hershey Bears defenseman Alex Alexeyev to Salavat Yuleav Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The decision proved to be a fortunate one for Alexeyev, as the move allowed the young defenseman to grow his game against quality competition.
As a rookie during the 2019-20 American Hockey League (AHL) season, Alexeyev displayed some of the talent that made the Washington Capitals draft him in the first round of the 2018 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft. The St. Petersburg, Russia native stormed out of the gates in his inaugural campaign, posting six points in October of 2019, including Hershey’s first goal of the season.
Alexeyev used that fast start to propel himself to a 21-point rookie season. He ended with 18 assists, which was the second most among defenseman who finished the season with the Bears (Christian Djoos had 27, but was traded to Anaheim at the trade deadline).
Defensively, Alexeyev’s rookie season was filled with its ups and downs, as is to be expected from a young defenseman. On the plus side, the Russian earned his way onto the Bears penalty kill and helped the unit finish the season as the top-ranked penalty kill in the AHL. He demonstrated an ability and dedication to throw his body in front of shots to thwart scoring chances by opponents.
On the flip side, Alexeyev suffered through the expected growing pains. There were times where he made mistakes in coverage and his positioning was not always the best.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) December 1, 2019
November was a particularly rough month for him. In a game against Providence on November 27, he got caught flat footed in the third period and Jakub Lauko went around him for a game-tying goal.
Alexeyev finished the month at a minus six, the worst month of his rookie campaign. Then, he was a healthy scratch in February after he had a particularly poor game. To his credit, he responded by improving his play and was a plus five in his next five games.
The cancellation of the Calder Cup playoffs deprived Alexeyev of the opportunity to gain playoff experience as a professional player. The last AHL game the Russian blue liner played was on March 8, 2020. With the North American leagues delaying the start of the 2020-21 season, Alexeyev was facing a lengthy absence from game action. That’s not an ideal scenario for a young player who needs to continue his development. Alexeyev needed somewhere to play and the Capitals solved the dilemma by loaning the defenseman to Salat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL in September.
The move to Salat Yulaev Ufa gave Alexeyev the game action he needed. Early on, he made his share of mistakes. In a game against Vityaz HC on October 21, a turnover and a positional error led to a pair of goals by former Washington Capital Alexander Semin.
However, mistakes are part of the developmental process. The key is to learn from those mistakes and improve, and Alexeyev did just that. By the time January rolled around, signs of growth in his game were evident. He was missing fewer assignments defensively and his positioning was better.
Offensively, his confidence showed. Alexeyev tallied in three straight games from January 14-January 19. The first of those goals came against AK Bars on January 14 and it was named the third best goal in the KHL for the week. He would be named the KHL Rookie-of-the-Week for his play.
Alexeyev was not done with the awards he would receive in January. He netted an overtime game-winning goal against AK Bars on January 30 and would receive his second Rookie-of-the-Week honor of the month. Alexeyev totaled four goals and two assists in January and was named KHL Rookie-of-the-Month.
In an interview with the KHL website, Alexeyev addressed his improvement. “To be honest, I noticed that throughout my entire hockey career there was always some kind of breakthrough after the New Year,” Alexeyev said. “Probably, I started to get used to it, I began to take the game more on myself, into my own hands. It started to work out, I felt confident, after which everything went by itself.”
After finishing the regular season with eight goals and eight assists, Alexeyev got a taste of the postseason that he was denied when the pandemic struck in March of 2020. Salavat Yulaev Ufa advanced past Traktor in five games in the first round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs. Salat Yulaev Ufa were then swept by AK Bars in the second round. Alexeyev played in all nine Gagarin Cup playoff games and contributed one assist.
With his successful KHL season over, Alexeyev was re-assigned to Hershey on April 5. The blue liner went through the necessary COVID protocols and then rejoined the Bears on the ice.
He made his season debut for the chocolate and white on April 17 and made an immediate impact. With Hershey down a goal late in the second period, Alexeyev displayed the confidence in his game and made a play. He gathered the puck at the blue line on the right side and carried the puck down the boards and then went behind the net. He skated around the net to the far side near the left boards. Alexeyev then backhanded a cross-ice pass to Shane Gersich inside the right circle.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) April 17, 2021
Gersich wristed his shot past Binghamton goalie Gilles Senn to tie the game at two. The Russian’s play started a late second period barrage that saw the Bears score three times in a span of 4:24.
Even after only a single game, Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery noticed the growth in the play of his defenseman. “There’s a bit of a maturation in his game. He seems a little more mature and more focused.” Carbery said of Alexeyev in an interview with Zach Fisch. “He just has this competitive vibe in him throughout practices. He still has that fun personality and great smile, that hasn’t changed, but now when the puck drops and we get into drills and you saw it in the game, he’s got a real determination in his game right now that seems like it is maturing. His game spoke for that. I though he was really, really solid.”
Alexeyev continued his strong play in three games this week. He was held scoreless in Wednesday’s 6-1 win at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday, but played a solid defensive game and was a plus one for the game.
Alexeyev then came up clutch in Saturday’s game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The game was tied 1-1 late in the third period. Martin Fehervary slid a pass over to Alexeyev outside of the top of the right circle. Alexeyev lasered a wrist shot high over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goalie Alex D’Orio. The marker put the Bears in front 2-1 with 3:30 left in the game.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) April 24, 2021
Hershey added an empty net goal to triumph 3-1 and Alexeyev had his first career AHL game-winning goal. He also assisted on the empty net goal for a multi-point game. The second-year defenseman finished off his week with an assist on Matt Moulson’s early second period goal in a 6-3 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday. He and defensive partner Martin Fehervary were both a plus one for the game. The rest of the Hershey defense was a minus nine for the game.
Through four games with the Bears, Alexeyev has a goal and three assists. He is averaging a point per game. He has been a plus player in each game and is a plus six for the season. Alexeyev is skating with a confidence that he lacked as a rookie. That confidence is evident in his game. He is more assertive with the puck on his stick and looks to make plays more often. His positioning in his own zone has improved, as has his decision-making.
Alexeyev has fit back into the locker room seamlessly and he recently said that he is happy to have returned to the Bears. “It’s awesome actually to be back. I missed the boys,” Alexeyev said in his postgame media availability on Saturday. “I missed Hershey, just an amazing atmosphere in here, in the Giant Center and in the dressing room. I missed all of them.”
Indeed, Alex Alexeyev is back and the Bears are happy to have him.
By Eric Lord