Sergey Tolchinsky has built up some high expectations during his short time as a pro.
Whether it’s been highlight reel moves in camp or a solid rookie season with Charlotte in 2015-16, Hurricanes fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Tolchinsky.
But even those high expectations and glimpses of greatness aren’t immune to setbacks, something Tolchinsky saw firsthand.
“It was a hard year for me mentally,” he said. “It was hard to stay focused and stay positive and want to play hockey.”
Tolchinsky’s definition of a down year is relative, of course. The forward was able to tally 23 points (7g, 16a) in 59 games this season, a not insignificant number but a substantial step down from his 36 points (14g, 22a) as a rookie the year before.
While his raw talent has never been in question, Tolchinsky attributes his drop off in points in part to the mental aspects of the game.
“One of my issues was a lot of turnovers and I think it’s because I was trying to create a lot of scoring chances and sometimes playing too risky,” said Tolchinsky. “Sometimes I’m trying to do too much by myself and that’s why I was making too many turnovers. [The coaching staff] said I just need to learn how to manage it and know when to try to beat someone or just play safe.”
As Tolchinsky struggled to piece together his offensive game, the Checkers’ roster continued to collect pieces back from injury and other places and, eventually, the young Russian found himself as the odd man out. The rough year culminated with Tolchinsky serving as a healthy extra in six of the final 12 games of the regular season, including three of the last five as the Checkers pushed for a playoff spot.
“He didn’t have the year he wanted as far as production goes,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “He told me that he was trying too hard and he didn’t get the numbers that he wanted early and then his turnovers started building up so that forced us to take him out of the lineup and it kind of snowballed from there. It was unfortunate.”
It wasn’t an ideal situation for the second-year pro, nor was it one he had gone through before, but he didn’t let it stop him.
“I’ve never had healthy scratches like that in my life,” said Tolchinsky. “I had it a few times last year but nothing like this. But I dealt with it pretty good. I didn’t get myself down and I didn’t give up. I still worked hard and I stayed positive.”
Tolchinsky remained on the outside looking in for the Checkers’ first-round playoff series with the division champion Chicago Wolves, not dressing for any of the first four games. But in Game 5, with the season on the line, the coaching staff gave the young forward the nod, inserting him into the lineup for his pro playoff debut. And despite having been on the shelf for an extended period of time, Tolchinsky came out firing, setting up an impressive goal and looking strong across the board.
“I didn’t feel pressure,” said Tolchinsky. “I felt like, because I didn’t have a good season, it was my last chance to prove to the coaches that I am a good player and I can help the team in the future. I think I played really good, coach said it was my best game of the season. I didn’t feel any pressure, I just wanted to play hard and help the boys win.”
Despite the end result of that contest, Tolchinsky’s play served as a significant boost for himself as he prepares for his third year as a pro.
“It’s weird because before the game I didn’t have any confidence but after I did because I remembered that I can actually play good and create chances,” he said. “I have a good mindset right now heading into the summer.”
While the stats don’t necessarily reflect it, Tolchinsky has confidence that this year will end up just being a small setback as he moves toward greater things.
“I didn’t score many points this season but it was still experience,” he said. “A bad experience can sometimes be a good experience. I’m excited to go into the summer. I had a bad season, but I can see clearly what I need to work on.”
With that positive, silver-lining takeaway from a tough year, you can expect Tolchinsky to come back with something to prove.
“I still think [Carolina] knows what I’m capable of,” said Tolchinsky. “And maybe they understand that sometimes players have bad seasons. I’m going to work hard over this summer and go into training camp playing my best hockey the way I know I can.”