Philipp Kurashev’s celebration after his first NHL goal Tuesday was as casual as they come.
An almost-inadvertent stick raise. The slightest of fist pumps. A gentle bump into the glass. A brief huddle with linemates Dominik Kubalik and Pius Suter.
Any fan in the BB&T Center who didn’t know otherwise would’ve assumed it was just another goal in a long career.
But the milquetoast reaction was fitting for Kurashev, 21, whose road to the NHL wasn’t as glamorous as Kirby Dach’s or as well-documented as Ian Mitchell’s, but it made a talented, impactful player out of him nonetheless.
After a solid yet unspectacular (and injury-plagued) 2019-20 season with the Rockford IceHogs, during which Kurashev had 19 points in 36 games, Blackhawks brass laid out clearly what he needed to do to take the next step: play faster.
“He has the tendency and the skill to be able to slow the game down, draw players to him, bide time and find the open man,” general manager Stan Bowman said this month. “But that transition from junior to pro hockey, right away it wasn’t as easy for him, and he didn’t have as much time. So now we’ve tried to get him to do everything quicker.”
COVID-19’s changes to the NHL calendar actually worked out perfectly, giving him a chance to gradually increase the pace of his game in a lower-pressure but still competitive environment.
Kurashev returned home to Switzerland and played for HC Lugano, two hours southwest of his hometown of Davos. On a roster laden with former NHL forwards (Mikkel Boedker, Mark Arcobello, Daniel Carr, etc.), Kurashev was highly productive with 14 points in 15 games across all competitions.
“They wanted me to play with more pace and be responsible defensively,” said Kurashev, who’s as soft-spoken and unassuming off the ice as on it. “So that’s what I was working on. I watched a lot of video stuff. There was a great coaching staff and players, too, in Lugano, so a lot of guys improved me in those areas.”
And how exactly did he quicken his pace?
“Just always moving my legs,” he said. “If you’re always first on pucks and stuff like that, that’s how you can do it.”
As oversimplified as that explanation sounds, Kurashev’s autumn in Switzerland made a huge difference. Always considered one of the Hawks’ more intriguing forward prospects because of his dynamic playmaking ability — a refreshing contrast to the grinder roles Brandon Hagel, MacKenzie Entwistle and others project to fill — Kurashev had suddenly refined the other aspects of his game, as well.
He arrived in Chicago for training camp this winter looking far more NHL-ready than Bowman or coach Jeremy Colliton expected.
“He has great vision, creativity, skill, a lot of patience with the puck,” Bowman said. “He’s able to make plays [and] create offense, which is something that’s important in today’s game.
“What you’re seeing now on the ice is the skill set is coming through but at an NHL pace.”
Kurashev debuted in the Hawks’ second game against the Lightning, playing on the wing despite being a natural center, and has dominated puck possession and chance creation in the three games since.
The Hawks have a 38-25 shot advantage and 20-8 scoring-chance advantage with Kurashev on the ice this season. He ranks as the best on the team in the latter category.
Carl Soderberg’s expected arrival Friday will further increase the competition for roster spots, but Kurashev’s rapid rate of improvement and great potential should keep him as a regular in the lineup.
“He’s skilled, fast, has a great shot,” Kubalik said Tuesday, lauding Kurashev’s overhauled pace of play. “Those skills are going to make him good. Really happy that he got the first [goal] under his belt, and I’m pretty sure there are going to be lots of them.”