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Winnipeg Jets' Alexander Burmistrov (8) celebrates his goal against the Ottawa Senators with Tanner Glass (15) during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, November 29, 2011. (FRED GREENSLADE/REUTERS)
Winnipeg Jets' Alexander Burmistrov (8) celebrates his goal against the Ottawa Senators with Tanner Glass (15) during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, November 29, 2011. (FRED GREENSLADE/REUTERS)

SOPHOMORE SLUMPS

Alex Burmistrov goes through growing pains Add to ...

Ask Winnipeg Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov about his family and he’s likely to pull up his shirt to show you how much he loves them.

Burmistrov carries a massive tattoo that stretches along the side of his torso with a stream of writing dedicated to his family. “My family will always be first in my heart,” he said after a Jets practice on Wednesday.

He’s not kidding. Burmistrov keeps in constant touch with his brother and cousins back home in Kazan, Russia, a 1,000-year old city about 800 kilometres east of Moscow. And he can barely contain his excitement that his mother and father have just travelled to Winnipeg to be with him for Christmas. “I always stay home and really don’t go anywhere,” he said of his life in Winnipeg. “My mom will cook me food and I’ll just enjoy the whole time.”

These days family is just about the only constant in Burmistrov’s life. The 20-year-old centre’s hockey playing has been a study in contrasts.

He came out flying this season, his second in the NHL, leading the Jets in scoring and points through the first eight games. Television cameras regularly surrounded the young player whose skating style was once described as something akin to a water spider dancing across a pond.

But then Burmistrov’s production stopped. He went 11 games without scoring and had his ice time slashed to less than eight minutes last week in Washington from nearly 21 minutes a game in October. The cameras went elsewhere and head coach Claude Noel, who in October praised Burmistrov as the Jets’ best forward, said the Russian needed coaching and more experience.

“I had bad games this year already, I have to move forward and forget those games,” Burmistrov said this week. “I have to play better because I want to play here. I want to play in the NHL.”

That drive to play in the NHL led Burmistrov to forgo Kazan’s Continental Hockey League team three years ago and head to the Ontario Hockey League. He was part of a wave of Russians who joined the OHL in 2009 and he landed with the Barrie Colts bringing lots of potential and just five words of English. He spent one season in the OHL, collecting 22 goals and 43 assists, and was selected eighth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2010 entry draft. While not physically big (the Jets list him at a very generous 6 foot 1, 180 pounds), Burmistrov drew comparisons to Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, a fellow Russian who also played in Kazan.

Burmistrov’s rookie NHL season was unremarkable. He managed six goals and 14 assists in 74 games. But he got stronger, learned more English and spent time with Thrashers veteran Nik Antropov, even living with the Kazakhstan-born Antropov and babysitting his children. When the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, Burmistrov was touted as key part of the new team’s future.

That may yet happen. Burmistrov looked more confident during the Jets’ 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators last Tuesday and he scored a goal, bringing his season totals to five goals and eight assists. His playing time also went back up to 19 minutes. But he has been juggled across several line combinations and he still seems unsure of what Noel expects.

“I’d like him to play with more speed a bit,” Noel said this week, quickly adding that he is still high on Burmistrov. “He plays with a little more speed on the wing than he does in the middle. I’d like him to attack more. He’s smart. He gets gliding and planting … and I’d like him to get out of that.”

Noel and Burmistrov have had several meetings, including one after the game in Washington last week when Noel benched him for much of the game. “We talked a lot already this year not just once, many times,” Burmistrov said. “We both know what we want.” But when pressed about exactly what Noel is after, Burmistrov replied: “I don’t know. Maybe he wants me to be more, like, confident in my game and don’t be scared.”

Burmistrov insisted he is having fun in the NHL and he’s more comfortable with North America in general. But when asked about his family, he replied: “I miss home, my friends, my brother. Everybody who I played with.”

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