Sasha Pastujov is attempting to become the 15th player from Florida to reach hockey's pinnacle.
As of 2020, 14 hockey players born in Florida have played in the NHL.
However, that figure is beginning to edge upward, albeit slowly. Eight of those 14 are in the NHL now, with the most-well known being Jack Hughes, the Orlando-born forward drafted No. 1 overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2019. Still, those eight players took up just 1.12% of the 713 roster spots in the NHL last season. Florida isn't exactly a hotbed of talent.
A Lakewood Ranch player is attempting to become the 15th Floridian to reach hockey's pinnacle and buck the trend.
Sasha Pastujov, 17, was selected in the third round, 66th overall, in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks on July 24. That sounds impressive — and it is — but there was a thought by some analysts that he could have gone even higher. Corey Pronman, a hockey scout at the The Athletic, had Pastujov as his 27th-best prospect in the draft; NHL.com's rankings had him 18th.
If Pastujov was upset by his draft position, he didn't show it.
"It was an awesome feeling to hear my name called by the Ducks," Pastujov said. "It was a long process. There was some underlying stress (on draft day), but to have it happen is a dream come true. I let out a sigh of relief."
Pastujov said he had a few conversations with Anaheim during the draft process and knew they liked his game, though he was not sure when or if they would actually select him. His only thought now is getting to work on his game. The week after the draft, Pastujov represented the U.S. at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan, where he had two goals and an assist in five games.
So, how did a kid born in the Florida heat become an NHL-caliber player?
Pastujov was born into a hockey-loving family.
His father, George Pastujov, was a lifelong hockey fan living in the Lakewood Ranch area who taught his first two sons, Nick Pastujov and Mike Pastujov, how to skate before they were 5 years old. They would make the drive to the Ellenton Ice Complex, which opened in 1999, to practice. They were both talented, even at a young age.
But Sasha Pastujov, who was born in 2003, said following in his brothers' path was not the plan.
"The funny thing is I actually tried to steer him away from hockey," George Pastujov said. "We already had his brothers playing travel hockey at the time and it was becoming more a lifestyle than a hobby, so I thought two was enough. I tried to steer him (Sasha) to other sports. But because we had to take him to every game and a lot of the practices with us, he grew up around hockey. I just could not keep him away from it."
Once Sasha Pastujov got going, starting his career with the Gulf Coast Flames, there was little stopping him. Pastujov said he took to the game right away, watching his brothers — both skilled players themselves — and picking up tips from them. He devoured game film of Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Even the travel required of Florida hockey, taking trips to Miami and other faraway arenas, didn't bother Pastujov, who said those experiences made it feel all the more real to him, like it was serious business even though it was just youth hockey.
He traveled to seek out competition. When Pastujov was in sixth grade, he moved to Michigan and joined the Belle Tire Hockey Club for one season before moving to Compuware Hockey, all in the name of moving up the ranks. After three seasons of juniors, Pastujov earned a tryout with the U.S. National Team Development Program. His brothers had both previously earned spots in the program. Pastujov, too, was accepted, and that's when his career took off.
"The Development Program is like no other," Pastujov said. "You see all the alumni who have come out of it, (Chicago Blackhawks forward) Patrick Kane and others. There's a reason. You have so many resources and great coaches."
In 90 games between the U17 and U18 U.S. National Teams, Pastujov had 115 points (44 goals).
Pastujov is still a few years away from getting his shot at the NHL. Like in baseball, young hockey players need time to hone their skills before reaching the top league. Unlike in baseball, drafted players can do that honing in college as NHL teams hold players' draft rights even if they don't sign an entry-level contract, allowing them to remain amateur athletes. Teams can hold those rights until 30 days after the players finish their college careers, though many officially sign with their teams earlier than that. In Pastujov's case, he's committed to Notre Dame.
Pastujov isn't worried about the timing of it all, just getting better.
"I want to improve everything, especially my speed," Pastujov said. "The game is getting faster, so that's a main priority. I'm still working on my shot and my (stick) skills as well."
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