2012 DRAFT PROFILE – Danlil Zharkov, F, Belleville (OHL)

Each week until the entry draft in June, Point Blank will be reporting on the top prospects in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. This week’s profile is forward Danlil Zharkov. You can keep a watch on our profiles via the “2012 Draft” tab at the top of the page and check out profiles of Islanders’ young guns filed under the “NYI Prospects” tab.

Alike many of his Russian predecessors, Belleville (OHL) forward Danlil Zharkov had always dreamed of competing in the National Hockey League one day. Therefore, after spending time playing with both Yaroslavl Locomotivs and then Serebryanie Lvi St. Petersburg in his native Russia, a then 16-year-old Zharkov decided that he was ready to venture half-way across the world and follow that dream to North America to play for the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League.

Now, less than two years after stepping foot in a foreign land as well as adjusting to an unfamiliar language, Zharkov has a grasp of the English language and sits patiently awaiting his fate just days before his ultimate dream becomes a reality.

“It was a dream – in my childhood – to come play in the NHL one day,” said the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Zharkov, who was born in St. Petersburg. “Everything is quicker and faster here, and the smaller ice is better for my game.”

Zharkov will be amongst the 211 draft hopefuls to hear his name called this upcoming weekend – June 22-23 – in Pittsburgh, as the 2012 NHL Entry Draft finally takes shape.

In his final top-60 draft rankings – published on June 11 – TSN’s Craig Button pegged Zharkov as his 58th best prospect. Many draft prognosticators project Zharkov, who has drawn comparisons to current San Jose Sharks winger Martin Havlat, as a first-line winger with the potential to be a 25-to-30 goal scorer on the NHL level.

“I don’t have words to describe how I will feel on draft day,” said a humbled Zharkov. “I know that I will be excited.”

Upon his arrival in Tri-City – located in Kearney, Nebraska – midway through the 2010-11 U.S.H.L. season, Zharkov ‘s on-ice transition was challenging, yet seamless. Off the ice, Zharkov found the English language a lot more difficult.

“When I came to Tri-City, I learned everything so fast – different hockey and different language,” said Zharkov. “Learning English was terrible – at first. But I started to pick things up.

“For hockey, playing in the USHL made a big difference in my game. It is a very tough league, but I know it helped me become the player than I am today.”

Zharkov played 36 games in his only season with Tri-City, netting eight goals and adding three assists.

Having an opportunity to continue playing in the various junior leagues in Canada – as a 17-year-old – Zharkov found himself with no better choice than to go to the ‘O’.

“The OHL (and CHL) is the best junior hockey league,” said Zharkov, who would be selected 13th overall in the 2011 CHL Import Draft by Belleville, ahead of projected 2012 top-10 selectee Radek Faksa (selected 22nd by Kitchener(OHL)) and behind projected 2012 top-five selectee Mikhail Grigorenko (selected 2nd by Quebec (QMJHL). “Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger over there.”

Just months after being selected by the Bulls, Zharkov made his way to head coach George Burnett’s training camp. Burnett, who was entering his eighth season behind the Bulls’ bench, quickly became enamored with both Zharkov’s work ethic and his ability to acclimate into the team’s locker room.

“It is not easy to come from another country and fit in,” said Burnett, whose coaching career spans three decades, including a one-year stint – 1994-95 – with the Edmonton Oilers. “But Danlil has a great sense of humor and is a very hard worker.

“He loves to work out and build up strength by lifting. All in all, he is just one of the guys.”

Anticipating a quick start in Belleville, Zharkov would soon find himself on the shelf. He suffered a broken clavicle on the first day of training camp, which forced him to miss the remainder of the preseason

Zharkov would return to the Bulls lineup shortly after the start of the regular season, and would earn top line minutes with projected 2012 first round pick Brendan Gaunce and Winnipeg Jets draftee Austen Brassard. Gaunce, who was named the team’s assistant captain at the start of the season, quickly took Zharkov under his wing.

“Brendan really helped me in the first two-to-three months with the language,” said Zharkov, who while not having a favorite NHL player, enjoys watching Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin – both Russian imports – because they both possess great skill along with the ability to play physical. “On the ice, Brendan is a strong center-iceman, which allows me to play in the corners.”

Playing alongside both Gaunce and Brassard, Zharkov quickly jumped out of the opening gate. He collected 15 points in his first 16 games. Unfortunately, he hit a midseason rut. Coinciding with his team’s struggles, Zharkov was moved off the top line, as he would play with OHL veterans Michael Curtis and Adam Payerl.

Thereafter, the Bulls would rebound and drive towards an eventual postseason berth. According to Burnett, Zharkov’s late-season surge was a catalyst to the team’s success.

“Danlil ended the season playing tremendous hockey,” said Burnett. “He was responsible on both ends of the ice.

“He utilized his size, which made him very difficult to knock off the puck.”

Zharkov ended the regular season registering 36 points – 23 goals and 13 assists – in 50 games. The Bulls (35-32-1, 71 points) finished seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, securing a first-round match-up with Cody Ceci and the second-seeded Ottawa 67’s. The teams split its first four games of the best-of-seven series, but the 67’s would wind up winning the battle in six games.

Zharkov had a goal and two assists in the six-game series.

“It was fun to him this season,” said Burnett, who believes Zharkov’s physical style should translate well on the NHL level. “Draft experts have talked a lot about (Nail) Yakupov and (Alex) Galchenyuk as the Russian players who should have the best chance to excel when they get to the NHL level, and while Danlil doesn’t play like either of those guys, his style is similar to that of former Barrie Colts forward (and current Winnipeg Jet Ivan) Telegin.

“Danlil is a top-six forward on the NHL level.”

Following his first OHL season with Belleville, Zharkov participated for Team Russia in the 2012 World Junior Under-18 Championships, emanating from the Czech Republic. Zharkov collected five points – a goal and four assists – in six games, but the Russians finished a disappointing fifth.

Yet, Zharkov believes his skill-set has greatly improved since arriving on North American soil.

“My shot, my hands and my physical play are my biggest strengths,” said Zharkov, who turned 18 back on February 6. “If I would want to improve on one part of my game, it would be my skating.”

As the Islanders look to continue and grow – literally and figuratively – in a physically-imposing Atlantic Division, would Zharkov’s tenacity around the net be too appealing for the team to pass. If so, he should be available when the team drafts early in the second round – 34th overall – on Saturday.

The 2012 NHL Entry Draft is just five days away.