Danny Zhilkin was just nine years old when his family made the decision to move him to Canada to help get him on track for a professional hockey career.
It came with some challenges, including learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture and everything you'd expect out of a young child and his family moving across the world at a younger age. There isn't much in common with Moscow, where he was born with a population of just under $12 million, and Oakville, where he lives now with around 213,000 other folks.
Nearly a decade later, that call is on the verge of paying off.
In 2013, Zhilkin took part in a camp outside of Toronto, and before long, he was a member of the Toronto Jr. Canadiens AAA team, one of the best programs in Ontario. He eventually became a star with the Toronto Marlboros, and come 2019, he was a first-round pick of the OHL's Guelph Storm.
It won't be long until his brother, Dimian Zhilkin, reaps the rewards himself. Dimian is a highly rated 2008-born prospect in Ontario with the Jr. Canadiens, following in a similar route as his older brother.
But right now, the focus is on Danny, who is projected to go in the top two rounds of the 2022 NHL draft.
It's been an interesting few years for Zhilkin. He had a quiet rookie season with the Storm in 2019-20, recording just seven goals and 15 points in 60 games. He stood out with Canada Black at the U-17 World Championship that season, finishing third in team scoring behind Shane Wright and Zach Dean as one of the tournament's better goal-scorers.
He was hoping to take a big step forward in 2020-21, only for the OHL to cancel its season due to complications from COVID-19. Zhilkin only got into seven games that year, scoring two points in seven games en route to Canada's gold medal at the U-18 World Championship win. It was a rather quiet effort on his behalf, but like most of the OHLers on the roster, he was busy trying to just play catch-up after a year away.
"It was great having that U-18 experience, have that gold medal, but other than that, it was just working hard with all the guys in the gym and trying to work on my craft," Zhilkin said about the lost season.
Zhilkin battled back hard for a respectable 55-point showing in 66 games, good for second on the Storm behind Anaheim Ducks prospect Sasha Pastujov. In typical years, being a late birthday from the year before -- in this case, Zhilkin was a late 2003-born prospect in a 2004 draft year -- gives you an advantage of an extra year of junior hockey under your belt before the draft. But the lost season meant Zhilkin's production likely wasn't near the level you'd hope from a player with his talent level.
"He suffered from a lost year, like so many top prospects, and then the Storm didn't last long in the playoffs," a scout said. "He was put into good situations this year, but there's still more I'd like to see out of him, and I think next year will be a big step in the right direction."
Zhilkin is credited for being a mature forward, not getting rattled by opponents trying to get in his head. He can play with just about anyone -- he was a perfect complementary player to Shane Wright at the CHL's Top Prospects Game. Zhilkin might not be a play-driver at the NHL level, but can hang with the best of them, and keep calm, cool and collected.
"He's a smart player," Wright said. "He thinks the game at such a high level, super skilled, and he can make plays in such small areas."
A high-speed forward, Zhilkin is creative with the puck and excels in the transition game. Zhilkin's hard, accurate wrister makes him tough to contain, although he could use a bit more tenacity to get himself into dangerous scoring areas on a more consistent basis instead of going for a safe shot from farther out.
Zhilkin is definitely projected to be more of a bottom-six forward in the NHL, and that's fine. If he can sharpen his overall hockey sense and play-making decisions, he'll take his game to another level. The next OHL season will be a big step forward for his future, one that many scouts really believe in.
Now let's see which NHL takes a chance on him.