COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was Kirill Marchenko’s third game in the American Hockey League, barely a week into his first taste of North American-style hockey. But in the Cleveland Monsters pregame power-play meeting, the gregarious Russian had an idea.
Marchenko made a suggestion to coaches — the specifics are privileged information, of course — and Monsters coach Mark Letestu, a crafty forward who played almost 600 NHL games, was confident enough to listen and implement it.
Later that night, only seven seconds into their first power play against AHL Utica, the Monsters scored.
Two games later, this time against AHL Lehigh Valley, Letestu went back to Marchenko’s brainchild when the Monsters had a second-period power play. They scored again, this time in only eight seconds.
“When we came back to the bench, coach Letestu was so fired up,” Blue Jackets forward Carson Meyer said. “He handed the whiteboard to Kirill, like, ‘Here! You’re in charge now, draw up the next play!’”
The most telling part of Marchenko’s power-play wrinkle? The play wasn’t drawn up to go through him. Brendan Gaunce scored both of the goals by design. Marchenko wasn’t credited with so much as an assist on either goal, even though he was the architect.
“That speaks to what he’s about,” Letestu said.
The Blue Jackets recalled Marchenko from AHL Cleveland on Monday. He’ll make his NHL debut tonight when the Blue Jackets play Pittsburgh in PPG Paints Arena, a huge thrill for a player who grew up watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“I really want to watch Crosby’s game and Malkin’s game live,” Marchenko said through a huge smile after practice Monday. “It’s really exciting for me, but we need to win and we need to keep working.”
Blue Jackets fans have been waiting for Marchenko’s recall almost since the day he was sent to AHL Cleveland as one of the last cuts of training camp. He has been one of the AHL’s dynamic offensive players, with eight goals, 11 assists and 51 shots on goal in 16 games.
But the Blue Jackets were wanting to see more than scoring from Marchenko before he was elevated to the NHL. He needed to adapt to a North American style that is more north-and-south direct and less east-and-west creative than he played in Russia.
He also needed extensive work, like most young players, on his play in the defensive zone and without the puck.
“The coaches in Cleveland, they helped me all the time, showed me (video) clips of where I can get better,” Marchenko said. “Small clips in the defensive zone or the neutral zone, play without the puck.
“If you take the puck, you can do whatever you want. But without the puck you have to work, so I was all the time talking to them after games. ‘How did I do without the puck?’”
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Marchenko, 22, spent four years playing in Russia after the Blue Jackets drafted him in the second round (No. 49) in 2018. The desire, of course, was to come directly to the NHL, not spend time in the minors.
But you would never have guessed that based on Marchenko’s attitude.
“I talk to (AHL Cleveland coach Trent Vogelhuber) weekly and I’d always ask about him,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “And the first thing that comes up is his passion for the game. I love that.
“He’s always smiling coming to the rink. He’s excited to play. He knew (some time in Cleveland) could be part of the equation, that he might not make it out of camp. But he’s been a total pro, and not just on the ice. He’s doing everything and doing it with enthusiasm.”
An AHL dressing room can be a challenging scene. There are former NHL players who know what they’re missing, four-A players who are just biding their time, and young, precocious talents trying to take their rung on the organization ladder.
But Marchenko was an instant hit in Cleveland, Meyer said.
“He’s super talented, and he has a huge personality … in a great way,” Meyer said. “Kirill knows just enough English to communicate, but he loves talking to everybody. He’s very positive.
“It’s gotta be difficult for someone like him, where it’s not his first language. But the whole room loves him there, and on the ice … his skill just takes over. It’s the shot, yeah. But his hands in tight … he’s got a lot of poise.”
Marchenko was positively beaming on Monday in the Blue Jackets dressing room. His family will be watching on TV back home in Russia, with the hope that next season they’ll be able to travel to Columbus to watch in person.
This summer, Marchenko moved to Columbus in early summer and remained here after development camp. His wife, Victoria, joined him a few weeks later. They have waited for this day — his NHL debut — for a very long time, it seems.
But his smile never faded, he said.
“It’s easy for me to stay positive all the time,” Marchenko said. “The coaches are great. They all the time wanted to help me get up (to the NHL). I would say thanks so much to them.
“Maybe I come back (to Cleveland), or maybe not.”
(Photo: Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)