By Stephen Harris
LOWELL — The average age of freshmen playing Division 1 college hockey is 20, and it’s not unusual to see first-year players aged 21, 22, even 23.
So at 18, UMass-Lowell defenseman Dmitri Sinitzyn will be one of the most fascinating stories in Hockey East this season.
What makes the Moscow native’s age even more relevant is that the last games Sinitzyn played before this season were as a 16-year-old. A visa snafu prevented him from playing last season in the United States Hockey League.
So he is trying to make the jump from an Under-16 league to Hockey East, after a year off.
“It’s a huge step,” coach Norm Bazin said. “It’s a tough enough step to make for people who play two or three years of juniors — never mind coming from midget hockey.”
But even with so little experience, Sinitzyn — a 6-foot-21⁄2, 210-pounder with good offensive skills — was intriguing enough that the Dallas Stars drafted him in June No. 183 overall.
“Without putting too much pressure on him, there’s no telling how good the kid might be,” Stars director of player development Les Jackson said at the draft. “We definitely think we got good value for the pick.”
Maybe a bust. Or maybe a future NHL star.
“He’s got potential,” Bazin said. “That’s a scary word. He’s very young, and that’s the major issue there. He needs to certainly develop his work habits and everything else. He’s coming around nicely. His upside offensively is very good; now he’s got to learn to defend against bigger, stronger, older guys.
“Time will tell if he can continue his progress against better competition. It’s a big challenge for him.”
Sinitzyn, who speaks Russian, English (his mother taught the language for years) and Spanish, has long known he wanted to come and play college hockey in the States. He enrolled at UML in January and practiced with the team, but was red-shirted.
“The whole idea for me was to come to the United States to play hockey and get an education, in case I didn’t go pro,” Sinitzyn said.
Sinitzyn considers North American hockey to be very different from what he grew up with playing in the Moscow Red Army system — and a style he prefers.
“It’s a difficult way to play, much more difficult for me, because what I’m used to is a lot of time, a lot of space — you’ve got time to think and do your thing. Here everything is more about back-checking, angling, systems; over there you take the puck and you rush it. Speed and skill, that’s about it.”
Sinitzyn said he likes physical play. Combine that with his offensive flare (24-28-52 totals in 57 games in his final U-16 season) and it’s easy to envision a bright future.
“When he fills out into his body, he’s going to be quite a specimen,” Bazin said. “He could be 225 (pounds) no problem. However, there are so many things that have to go correctly for him. It’s going to take some time.
“I think the worse thing we can do . . . I mean, I know (press) people want to cover him, but sometimes I think maybe he’s getting a little bit too much attention, and we’d like to dial it back. But he does have a lot of things going for him.”