Oleg Saprykin was about as enigmatic of a hockey player as they came. He was downright outstanding at times, particularly in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals with Calgary. But much of the time he was toiling on the 4th line or in the press box.
The 2004 Stanley Cup final was very much an introduction to Saprykin for many of us. He was a 1st round draft pick back in 1999 but he really caught fire in the spring of 2004 when placed on a line with Jarome Iginla and Dean McAmmond.
"I had a tough time the first half of season, but now things are better," he said at the time. "We're playing much better as a team and now I'm playing with Jarome and Dean. I'm learning every day and every shift; those guys help me on the bench and on the ice."
Jarome Iginla was as pleased with the assignment as Saprykin.
"It's been great," Iginla said.. "Playing with him, you get a lot of chances. He plays hard and wins a ton of battles. He's a great skater and he's a goal scorer. Any time you play with a guy like that, your line is going to get chances."
Coach Darryl Sutter was very complimentary, too.
"Oleg has been really, really good for us this season," Sutter said. "He's got a ton of talent. And he's helped out Jarome; they feed off each other."
Ah but coach Sutter - notorious for his attention to detail and demand for sacrifice - was not always so kind to Saprykin. Much of the time he benched or demoted the Russian for undisciplined penalties and poor defensive play.
Yes it was a bumpy evolution for the lively skater. The language and cultural barrier did not help, either.
"It's tough when you don't speak the language," he said. "You never know what people are talking about, whether they're talking badly about you behind your back or supporting you. I was like a little kid when I got here, not knowing what was going on or what I was doing."
Perhaps Oleg was being a bit dramatic here, as he had been in North America since he was 17, tearing up the Western Hockey League in Seattle.
The bottom line was that Oleg Saprykin was an explosive skater with a lot of talent but he never could put it all together at the NHL level. He was also a physical player at times, bordering more on pest than power forward. But injuries started taking their toll on Saprykin, perhaps causing him to shy away from the physical commitment necessary to succeed in the NHL>