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Alexeev back with more to prove

The forward was stunned at getting sent to the minors. Now he has another shot.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003


TAMPA -- Nikita Alexeev insisted he was not angry when, during preseason, he was sent to Springfield of the American Hockey League as one of the Lightning's final cuts. He said the long face and monotone voice with which he answered reporters' questions were the result of deep disappointment.

Alexeev recalled the scene last week while standing in the hall outside Tampa Bay's locker room at the St. Pete Times Forum. Asked what he was thinking at the time, the right wing did not hesitate.

"I thought I should be here," he said.

After his Wednesday call-up, Alexeev, 21, has a chance to prove it.

There is no doubt the Russian has the potential to be a terrific NHL player. He has size (6 feet 5, 225 pounds) and the acceleration and speed that forces opponents to give a little extra room.

The question is whether the No. 8 overall pick of the 2000 draft can gather those attributes into a consistently effective force, not only from game to game but shift to shift.

Lightning coach John Tortorella said Alexeev's inability to do so during training camp cost him a roster spot. And truth be told, Alexeev was still working on that part of his game in Springfield.

"It's been a pretty rough road down there with his inconsistencies as far as his punctuality, effort and all-around game," Tortorella said. "But we have put a lot of time into him with a lot of people as far as conversing with him down there. And we, this coaching staff, would like to spend a little time with him, and maybe we can make him understand a little bit better."

"I'm back here," Alexeev said, "and it's another chance."

Alexeev was sure he made the most of his chance during training camp. But when he gave effort, the coaches waited in vain for the second and third. When Alexeev created scoring chances, the coaches fretted he was unable to finish.

It was that disconnect that contributed to Alexeev's confusion when he was sent to the minors, and to its lingering effects at Springfield.

"I'm a young kid so it's always hard to take," he said of his demotion. "It was really hard. It took me a little while to get my head back. It took me a while to figure out what I had to accomplish to be consistent."

Springfield assistant Norm Maciver became Alexeev's sounding board.

The two spoke after practices, after games and while watching video. There were conversations with Lightning player personnel director Bill Barber.

"At the beginning, you could just see it in his body language that he was disappointed to be here, and it affected his play," Maciver said. "You just try to help him out the best you can. He's a young kid with a real bright future and a tremendous talent. We have to be a little patient. It's a maturation process everyone goes through."

Alexeev had seven goals, 12 points and was minus-10 in 36 games for Springfield. But Maciver said since Christmas "he has added more consistency to his game. He has competed harder and played harder."

That spurt coincided with the assignment of center Alexander Svitov to Springfield, and the two, with left wing Dmitry Afanasenkov, formed one of the AHL's better lines. Svitov was promoted with Alexeev.

"I have to skate with speed and use a lot of energy," said Alexeev, who played 8:14 Friday against the Penguins and 10:25 Saturday against the Flyers with a combined three shots. "Just play the way I played in Springfield. Win the battles in the corners and make the chances."

And maybe make his future.

"I hope he takes the ball and runs with it here," Tortorella said. "But don't point fingers at other people, point them inward and say, "This is a great opportunity for me and I'm going to show them I belong here.' "

"I just have to get better," Alexeev said, "and show them what they want to see."

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