Carolina Hurricanes fans took an instant liking to goalie Pyotr Kochetkov late last season.
So did his teammates and coaches.
Don Waddell, the team’s president and general manager, signed Kochetkov to a four-year contract extension worth $8 million last month — and he looks all the wiser for it.
After the Canes’ 3-2 win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Penguins at PNC Arena, defenseman Brady Skjei referred to Kochetkov as a “stud.”
Kochetkov, 23, still speaks little English, and that term of sports endearment might need extra translation for the Russian. “Koochie,” he understands. That’s what those around the team call him. He hears the “K-ooooch” cheers that break out at PNC Arena when he stops the puck.
And stopping the puck is what he does best. Kochetkov is not always conventional. He loses his stick from time to time. He flops about the crease from time to time. No. 52 for the Canes seemingly has 52 ways of making saves.
“He just goes and competes,” Canes goalie Antti Raanta said last week. “I don’t think he’s thinking too much. He just goes and plays and obviously when you get a couple of good results your confidence goes higher. And now he’s pretty much unbeatable. It’s fun to watch.”
Here’s another way of describing Kochetkov: He’s the Hurricanes’ No. 1 goalie.
Kochetkov’s timely arrival
Kochetkov was called up from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis when Canes goalie Frederik Andersen was sidelined in early November. His emergence has made — for now — Raanta the backup, and could make for an interesting decision once Andersen deems himself fit to play again and comes off injured reserve.
Or an easy decision. Waddell indicated last week that the Hurricanes could keep the three goalies on the roster, noting the three would have a total salary cap hit below $8 million — or $2 million less than the Florida Panthers are paying Sergei Bobrovsky.
Kochetkov, in the final year of his entry-level contract, signed the four-year extension Nov. 22 after switching to agent Dan Milstein.
“We wrapped it up fairly quickly,” Waddell said. “There’s risk on both sides. He could certainly leave money on the table if he plays really well, and we’ve all seen with young goalies that he might hit a wall at some point. So I think it’s a good risk by both of us. It gives the kid some security and some money.”
Kochetkov has started six of the past seven games and 11 of the past 14.
“He has done a tremendous job and we’re going to keep on riding him right now,” Waddell said.
Kochetkov faced 25 shots Sunday against the Penguins, a light workload. But 10 of his saves came in a scoreless first period as the Canes were trying to find their legs and focus after their overtime win Saturday against the Dallas Stars.
“What more can you say about him?” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Sunday. “Every start he’s been solid, and kept us in there and made big save after big save. It’s not like there’s a hundred shots coming at him, but big ones at key times that can totally change the game if they go in.”
Raanta and others have compared Kochetkov’s goaltending style and compete level to that of Dominik Hasek, the Hockey Hall of Famer called “The Dominator.” Raanta also mentioned him fitting the “Russian style” of Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay, Bobrovsky and the influx of other Russians around the NHL such as Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers.
Whatever, it’s working. Kochetkov, who has a 9-1-4 record, ranks among the NHL’s best with his 2.01 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He’s in the conversation for the 2023 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
“Man, he’s good. He’s really, really good,” said Skjei, who had a third-period goal Sunday against the Pens. “He’s just been rock solid for us.”
‘Such a good attitude’
While super competitive and at times feisty in games, there’s also a playful, mischievous side to Kochetkov, as Skjei and the others have seen.
“He’s got such a good attitude,” Raanta said. “He’s chirping the guys at practice.”
“It’s more in the body language and how he acts when he makes the save,” Raanta said, smiling.
During a recent practice, Kochetkov stopped an Andrei Svechnikov shootout shot and celebrated a little, relishing the moment. Later, Svechnikov scored on Kochetkov and smirked at him a bit — all in fun.
After another practice at Invisalign Arena, Kochetkov and forward Paul Stastny were having a moment.
Kochetkov skated behind the net to play a puck, with Stastny in front. Kochetkov flipped it over the back of the cage and Stastny swatted it into the net.
Kochetkov put both hands on his head — an “OMG” kind of thing. Stastny did the same. Kochetkov did it again. So did Statsny as the two stared at each other and laughed.
Asked about it later, Stastny just shrugged, saying he had no idea what Kochetkov was doing, that he just went along with it
Stastny was told that was the reaction Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks had when he flipped the puck over the net to Sonny Milano for a goal in a game last December. It all went viral — Zegras with hands on head, mouth wide open.
“He knows all that stuff,” Stastny said. “He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he knows all that hockey lingo kind of stuff.
“He’s just always having fun. That’s what helps make him so good. He’s loose out there, always enjoying himself. He’s got that competitive spirit to him but he’s got a fun side to him.”