OSHAWA, Ont. — Sarnia Sting coach Derian Hatcher is not afraid to load Nikita Korostelev's shoulders with lofty expectations. Hatcher can envision the Maple Leafs prospect racking up 50 goals in his fourth Ontario Hockey League season.
"Nikita is tremendously talented. You could see it last year," said Hatcher, a former NHL defenceman now in his second season behind Sarnia's bench. "We talked about it before the year started that if he found that scoring touch a little more that he could get 50 goals this year.
"You can see he's starting to do things more consistently the right way and it's paying off for him."
Korostelev, who scored 23 goals last season, has impressed early this season with the Sting. The 19-year-old has 11 goals and five assists through his first 10 games and is amongst the league scoring leaders.
Korostelev, selected in the seventh round (185th overall) at the 2015 NHL Draft, found himself in the headlines earlier this month for the highlight-reel goal he scored against the Kitchener Rangers.
The six-foot-one, 200-pound forward slipped the puck between one defender's skates, then between his own legs to get around a second defenceman before beating the goaltender with a backhand shot as he was dropping to one knee.
"The D-man I guess jumped on me, so I had to do something," Korostelev said. "I didn't feel like dumping the puck in, made a move around him and then felt pretty confident, pretty great, kind of just tried another move and I shot it. Got lucky that things worked out perfectly for me."
Despite the early season success, his skating is an area he continues to work on. It was a knock on Korostelev two years ago, and part of the reason he fell to the seventh round in his draft year.
After spending a month in Russia during the off-season, Korostelev was back in Toronto for part of the summer working with skating instructor Barb Underhil.
"It's no secret, it's been an issue for me, but I feel way better," Korostelev said. "I feel stronger after the summer of hard training. I think it's improved, I just have to keep working on it and hopefully good things are going to happen."
Watching his Sarnia teammates Jakob Chychrun (Arizona), Pavel Zacha (New Jersey) and Travis Konecny (Philadelphia) make the jump to the NHL this season has Korostelev motivated.
Though he hasn't been signed to an entry-level contract, and there have been no negotiations between Korostelev and the Leafs, the native of Moscow has a solid understanding of where he sits with the NHL club.
"They just said they're pretty happy with me, just go back and show that I can do it in Sarnia here, the junior level, for the whole season," Korostelev said. "Just work hard every shift, the skating has improved, just keep working on it. Work hard is the biggest thing for them."
Korostelev's focus is the NHL, but having completed his high school education three years ago, he's begun taking post-secondary courses online in sports management in case his dream doesn't pan out.
There's no telling if or when he'll one day suit up for the Maple Leafs, but he could be on the ice at Air Canada Centre as soon as December, representing Russia at the IIHF World Junior Hockey championship.
"Absolutely it's my goal," he said. "The past two years I attended the world junior U-20 camp in Sochi. Hopefully I'm still going to have a chance to play there."