Khokhlachev growing comfortable on and off the ice

Moscow-born Alexander Khokhlachev opted against conversing in his native tongue -- Russian -- about the 2011 Entry Draft, instead insisting the interview be conducted in English.

"No, no, I speak English," he told with full confidence.

So it shouldn't really come as a surprise to learn that the highly talented forward -- No. 29 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters -- brings with him the same confidence and lack of hesitation to the ice.

That's probably because he's been doing it since before he was even aware he knew any language, fluently or otherwise. But as much as Khokhlachev --"KoKo" to teammates with the Windsor Spitfires this past season -- enjoys playing, it's the work before the drop of the puck that he relishes most.

"Every day hockey," he said. "I love to go to practice, go training. It's very interesting just go to the rink every day for practice or for training for your work. It's why I dream to play in the NHL. This is my life. I just breathe hockey."

Spitfires coach Bob Jones observed Khokhlachev's unwavering determination to work hard and improve first-hand throughout the 2010-11 season.

"He's a very driven kid for his age," Jones told "At age 16 and 17, you have to crack the whip a bit and change the mood sometimes or the mentality, but that's one thing he's blessed with, his work ethic. It's second to none."

Much like his skills come game time.

In his first North American season, Khokhlachev had 34 goals and 42 assists in 67 games. He was second among first-year OHL players in goals, and his 76 points were third. And in 18 playoff games, his 9 goals, 11 assists and 20 points topped all first-year players, and ranked him in the top 10 among all players.

"We went on a pretty significant playoff run and relied heavily on him for offense as a rookie," Jones said.

That reliance took time to be earned. As is the case with many young forwards, the defensive side of the ice occasionally -- or initially -- takes a back seat to the innate offensive instincts that help showcase the difference between the merely skilled prospects and the elite.

"The biggest difference I've seen in (Khokhlachev) was that in the first part of the year, he didn't want to play any kind of team defense," said Jones. "He understood what to do with the puck and the offensive parts of the game, but didn't really understand the defensive parts of the game and how to play without the puck."

As important a point as that was to convey to Khokhlachev, it was equally as difficult for Jones to communicate it.

"With the language barrier it was a bit hard to coach the guy," said Jones. "But he took great strides and became a good two-way player without hurting his offense, and he was able to do that as a rookie."

Khokhlachev was able to do a lot of things as a rookie, actually, including getting acclimated to an entirely new country and fit in with a group of new people his age with whom he'd have to share a bulk of his time.

So how did he adjust?

"Without a hiccup," Jones said. "He was accepted very early into our team because of his passion to play and passion to learn our language even if he said things wrong. He turned into one of the more likeable guys real quickly.

"When you're accepted like that it makes it easier and puts less pressure on you. If you didn't know he was from Russia, you'd never know he was any different from the rest of the guys. He dresses (like the other players), he talks like them -- or tries to, anyway. He played with them and he just fit in."

Now the question shifts to how potentially he might fit with an NHL club.

With the draft approaching, general managers across the League will have to determine whether Khokhlachev's European style of play will translate to success at the NHL level. The questions don't end there, however. Will his 5-foot-10, 188-pound frame be an issue? Can he continue to develop his defensive game and continue to blossom offensively?

If you ask the Khokhlachev, he'll acknowledge the same concerns.

"I'm just 17 years old and I have to improve everything if I want to play in NHL," he said.

What about playing a more "North American" game?

"I just play my position, not European or North American game. But I'm ready for the North American game," he said.

And he's not the only one who thinks so. NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards is in Khokhlachev's corner.

"Alex plays a high-energy, two-way game," he told "He's very responsible defensively.  Not afraid to play in traffic. He will take a hit to make a play and shows no fear of taking a hard hit."

So far the hardest hit he's taken was leaving home and being away from his family, which has played an important role in his development on and off the ice. Despite his young age, Khokhlachev understands the sacrifices made along the way to help ensure his dreams of playing in the NHL could become a reality.

"They help me all the time, give me all I need any time," he said of his family. "They love me and just want me to have good everything."

His father tries to follow as many games as possible online and was able to visit and watch a few games live during the season. His mother made the trip during the playoffs, which went a long way toward normalizing things, albeit briefly, for Khokhlachev and reaffirming his commitment to being the best player he can be.

"When you see a player make this commitment to come over, it's really something," Jones said. "One reason he's here is to help his family. He never forgot where he came from, his heritage."

Khokhlachev hopes to follow in the footsteps of fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk and be part of the next wave of Russian stars in the NHL.

"I see other Russian guys and see they are some of the best in NHL," he said. "It's great to see and I hope to be good like they are."

That's aiming pretty high, but Khokhlachev's future figures to be bright.

"There's no doubt he will achieve his goals in life," Jones said. "He's a very safe player to draft. When you have that kind of work ethic and that kind of passion to play, those are the ingredients for success.

"Usually, you'll have a highly skilled player who might not have the best work ethic or a less-skilled guy with great work ethic. 'KoKo' has both."