By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Andrei Vasilyev has turned San Diego Gulls defenders into orange and blue pylons twice this season.
Those are the same San Diego Gulls who lead the ECHL Pacific Division by six points and possess the third-ranked goaltender in the league.
Vasilyev, a December addition to the Idaho Steelheads with National Hockey League experience, has added a coast-to-coast threat to the Steelheads’ offensive attack.
“He’s really started to elevate his play,” Idaho coach John Olver said. “He’s extremely dangerous 1-on-1. He has scored some big goals for us, and he’s able to create all by himself. It gave us an element that we didn’t have prior to him joining the team.”
Vasilyev, a 31-year-old Russian forward, replaced veteran forward Chris Marinucci. Marinucci left the team in early December to play in Europe.
Olver put out the word to several player agents that he was looking for an experienced scorer. Vasilyev’s agent contacted Olver, who knew Vasilyev by reputation.
Vasilyev scored at least 20 goals four times in the Triple-A International Hockey League. He made 15 appearances in the NHL with the New York Islanders over three years and one with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Olver contacted former Long Beach coach John Van Boxmeer for info on Vasilyev, who scored 33 goals and 67 points for the Ice Dogs in 1997-98.
“(Van Boxmeer) was surprised that Andrei would be available to us,” Olver said. “He thought he was a tremendous talent.”
Vasilyev spent the past four seasons in Europe, bouncing from Germany to Russia to Germany to Sweden. He wanted to return to North America even though he has a wife, an 8-year-old daughter and an 11-month-old son back in Russia.
“I like the hockey here better,” Vasilyev said.
He also likes the life. Russia’s sagging economy has made the country a difficult place to live, he said.
He has enjoyed his time in North America, playing in Denver, Salt Lake City, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Grand Rapids (Mich.), New York and Phoenix.
“It’s more quiet, more safe, more comfortable in America,” Vasilyev said.
The only problem: His family is halfway around the world.
“I call my family every day,” Vasilyev said.
It was his family that drove him back to Europe, about the same time his daughter began school. He also knew his NHL dream, which began when the Islanders selected him in the 11th round of the 1992 draft, was over.
He’s just 5-8 and 180 pounds — the smallest player on the Steelheads’ roster. The players teasingly call him “the little Smurf.”
“I have no chance (in the NHL) because I’m not big,” Vasilyev said. “Right now, the NHL likes big and strong. … Technical players are like second position.”
They aren’t particularly common in the ECHL either, which makes Vasilyev a valuable commodity. He recently has sparked the Steelheads’ often-sluggish offense.
Last month, he scored both Steelheads goals in a shootout loss at San Diego. He forced overtime by zig-zagging through the entire Gulls team late in the third period.
He scored another key goal against the Gulls on Feb. 4 at the B of A, zipping down the left-wing boards, cutting toward the net and flipping the puck into the net as he tripped over a Gulls body and landed on his head.
Later that week, he scored a breakaway goal from the blue line, and he skated in from the corner and hoisted the puck over Trevor Koenig’s glove for another goal.
All three plays came with the Steelheads trailing by a goal in a three-game series they had to win, and did with a 2-1 record.
“He has scored some big goals for us,” Olver said.
Teammate Scott Burt compares Vasilyev to Marinucci and former Steelhead Jeff Shevalier, both of whom boasted the offensive skill to create their own scoring chances. Vasilyev has 10 goals and 22 points in 26 games.
“He’s a guy that has unbelievable skills,” Burt said. “He might not look fast out there, but trust me, when he gets the puck, he’s flying. He’s one of the fastest guys we have when he’s got the puck.
“He’s a big part of this team, that’s for sure.”