Russian teen chasing dream with Phantoms

While the people all around the globe turn their eyes to Sochi, Russia, for the Olympics, one Russian is chasing his dreams on the other side of the planet.

The Youngstown Phantoms’ Maxim Letunov left his home country three years ago to pursue a hockey career with the ultimate goal of reaching the National Hockey League. After a couple of years in Dallas, which included a stint with the Dallas Stars Elite Under-16 team, the left winger moved to Youngstown for the 2013-2014 United States Hockey League season and has thrived.

Letunov ranks third on the team in points with 29 and goals scored with 14. Half of his goal total has come on the power play, where he sits tied for seventh in the USHL with seven. Considering this is his first year playing at the Tier I junior hockey level, the Moscow native said he’s happy with his performances.

“I’m really not looking on scoreboard and stuff,” Letunov said. “Just trying to do my work, but it’s pretty good to be third on the team because it’s my first year in USHL. I still will keep working hard, will try to make first place.”

Whether he’s first on the team in points or not, Letunov has definitely turned the heads of the Youngstown coaching staff with his technical ability.

Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen compared the 17 year old to former Phantom Sam Anas, who recorded 97 points in 115 career games over two seasons in Youngstown. Known for his puck-handling skill and creativity, Anas not only played a huge role during the Phantoms’ run into the Eastern Conference finals last season, but he’s also making a splash at Quinnipac University, where he leads the team and the nation’s freshmen with 32 points.

“As far as thinking in the game, as far as just overall hockey sense, I think those two are the most special we’ve had,” Noreen said. “(Letunov) thinks the game on such an elite level that he makes guys around him better. Whoever you put on his line, they’re going to be better that game because of the way he plays, because of the way he distributes the puck, and he’s a guy who’s got a very bright future here and beyond.”

It seems like the Russian has a bright future in the sport, as he’s caught the attention of NHL scouts. On Jan. 13, the NHL Central Scouting midterm ranking list of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft-eligible prospects came out, and Letunov was ranked as the 68th overall North American-based skater, which is a third-round projection.

With this being his entry draft year, hearing his name called on June 27 or 28 in Philadelphia sits on atop of Letunov’s list for the end of this season.

“First thing, I have to be drafted,” Letunov said. “It’s my draft-year this year, so I will do everything to be drafted. Next step probably I’ll say, go to college for a couple of years. Then, I will try to make NHL.”

Despite all the hype surrounding Letunov, there are some questions about the Russian’s size and whether it will translate at the next level. Standing at 6 feet, 2 inches, Letunov doesn’t have a ton of muscle mass, weighing just 150 pounds.

Unlike the NHL scouts, Noreen doesn’t think this will be a problem.

“The question on Max from the NHL guys in the stands is strength-wise,” Noreen said. ” ‘How much weight can he put on? Can he be strong enough?’ If you know Max, he’s so determined to be a pro that if you told him he had to run through that brick wall there to play in the NHL, he would do it. So, he’s going to put the strength on, he’s going to put the size on.”

While his chances on representing his county won’t come this time around, Letunov expressed excitement about the Olympics in Sochi, which lies 1,622 kilometers (or more than 1,000 miles) to the south of his hometown in Moscow.

As for the hockey tournament, Russia and the U.S. will square off in the second group game on Feb. 15. When asked whether there has already been trashtalk about Letunov and his American teammates, Noreen said Letunov might already side with the Americans.

“I think if you would ask Max, I think even he would be rooting for the Americans,” Noreen said. “He came over here with his family, I think this is what they call home and I would venture to say that if you asked him who he’d be rooting for, I bet you he’d say Team USA.”