Jung-ho Kang couldn ?t speak to his teammates when he arrived at Spring Training for the Pittsburgh Pirates and to this day most of us have never heard him utter a word in English. As he adjusted to a new country and a new team, he unknowingly was the center of a media firestorm. Did the team want to use him as Neil Walker ?s replacement at second base? Did they honestly think he could play in the majors in 2015? Now, three-quarters of the way through the rookie ?s first year in the states some questions have become answers and his situation could serve as a lesson for another international rookie who recently made his way to Pittsburgh.
Sergei Plotnikov is a Russian winger. He can play either side but shoots from the left. He played six years in the Kontinental Hockey League though and that makes people nervous. Because, much like Kang, the leap from an international league right to the majors scares people. The KHL is a place NHL stars were being lured during and just after the last lockout (see: Kovalchuk, Ilya) but it has quickly become apparent that the NHL is still the best league in the world. In turn, the KHL is full of stars who people view as lesser than those of the NHL. Therefore the idea is that a player coming from the KHL isn ?t as good.
This is the same sort of mindset people approached Kang with. The idea of ‘just because he ?s only played in a league we ?d put below our major one’ makes him less ready. Just because we haven ?t seen Plotnikov extensively like we would an AHL player doesn ?t mean that he isn ?t going to work. Sure, he might not be ready for the top-6, 9, or even 12 of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the beginning of the season but we can ?t say that for sure until we see him get the chance to play. Just look at Vladimir Tarasenko, who made the leap to the NHL following the 2012 lockout and has put up 20 goals or more in each of his full NHL seasons and emerged as an elite scoring threat during the 2014-2015 campaign.
Jung-ho got his chance to prove his worth when Jordy Mercer went down, showing everyone that he has no intention of taking Neil Walker ?s job. In fact, Kang and Walker worked together splendidly in the middle infield during their time together. Plotnikov has no intention of taking anyone else ?s job but with a roster as in flux as the Penguins is going into the 2015-2016 season, and with the team ?s penchant for injuries, it can ?t hurt to have him, even if he isn’t in the top-6.
Connor McDavid has spent the last three years playing against inferior competition. That doesn ?t make us question whether or not he can play in the NHL, so why should Plotnikov, who played six years of the KHL, be seen as less prepared? If anything, the competition he ?s been facing is better (facing bigger, stronger players usually is) which makes him more prepared.
Plotnikov knows Evgeni Malkin, at least as a person, and will have at least one person in the locker room who can speak his language. The Penguins’ center has played with his potential new linemate for Russia on the international stage multiple times, though their time on a line together has been limited. The winger averages just under a half point per game and projects to bring a physical and scoring presence with his big body. He may not be ready in October, but then again, he could be ready in September. The key is to let him progress at his own rate and work with the players that bring out the best in him.
Jung-ho Kang was different, so Pittsburgh and mainstream media didn ?t know what to do with him. He doesn ?t speak English or eat fries on his sandwiches but he ?s turned into a great Pittsburgh-backed success story. With a little bit of patience and lot less jumping the gun, Plotnikov could be the same for the Pittsburgh team that makes its home on Fifth Avenue.