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2011 NHL Entry Draft: Russian Prospect Preview

Its a bit of a weird draft for the Russians this time.  Next year projects to be an amazing year for the country, with a potential 1-2 showing much like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin back in 2004.  This year, 'the Russian factor' seems to loom large.  A lot of NHL teams have cut back in scouting Russia because they don't feel its worth dealing with KHL teams, and we're seeing a clear preference for players that come to play major junior in North America as a result.  The end result?  The best Russian players may not be the first taken, and nearly every Russian player seems to end up being a potential steal if the NHL team can convince them to come, slipping to the third round or later. 

These rankings are, to the best of my ability, based purely on potential and not factoring in the 'signability' factor that plauges many scouting services, especially NHL Central Scouting.

1.  Nikita Kucherov, RW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

OK, I know its a small sample size, but DEAR GOD....  ELEVEN GOALS AND TWENTY-ONE POINTS at the U18s and pretty much no one is projecting Kucherov as a first rounder.  Kucherov was the top scorer of all the 1993 born players in the MHL.  Before the inevitable gets asked, about why he wasn't in the MHL, it should be pointed out that his 8 games in the KHL was the most amongst his age group as well.  In short, he's no flash in the pan.  Of course, there's plenty of flash in Kucherov's game. 

All the things you look for in terms of ability with the puck, he's a step ahead of the competition.  His wrist shot is lethal, his stickhandling sublime, and he also displays a selflessness with the puck, distributing the puck well amongst his teammates.  He likes to play down low on the PP, getting into a good shooting position near the net, and sometimes right in front.  That's important to note, his willingness to get to the front of the net, due to his smaller stature.  He's listed currently at 5'11", 181 lbs., and that might be generous, considering he was significantly smaller according to his KHL profile.  So he's a bit physically immature, but as a June '93 birthdate, that's not uncommon. 

Its hard to believe that Kucherov will be playing anywhere but in the KHL next year, barring a back door deal with a CHL club to play major junior.  CSKA were a terrible team this past season, and despite his physical immaturity, the skill set of Kucherov is desperately needed.  There's really nothing left in the MHL for Kucherov to learn, and he should become a fixture on the U20 team starting this year.  A team that is drafting him will have to be willing to be patient, as he is likely a couple of years away from being able to play in the NHL.  That being said, the patience could pay off amazingly well. 

Anyways, less talk, more techno:

2.  Vladislav Namestnikov, C, London (OHL)

Scouting agencies are a bit underwhelmed by Namestnikov, but he's still a solid bet for a late first round selection.  I'm not entirely sure why the 'solid but unspectacular' label seems to be thrown around Vlad, who by all accounts is an excellent skater with solid instincts in all three zones.  He'll need to bulk up, there are no Evgeny Kuznetsov's in this group of Russian prospects, but he finished second in scoring on London just behind fitness freak Jared Knight on a fairly middling offensive team.  Combined with strong puck skills and a strong work ethic that has also been commonly noted, I just don't see much downside in him. 

3.  Alexander Khokhlachev, C, Windsor (OHL)

 I'm not as high on Khokhlachev as the majority, who seem to think he's a stronger prospect than Namestnikov. Khokhlachev has tremendous skill, but I'm not convinced his all-around game will ever develop to the level that I think Namestnikov's game could.  He can dangle with the best of them, but he lacks the speed that a player of his size usually needs to become a top offensive player in the NHL.  That's not to say he can't make it...  it just means he has to be that much better of a thinker of the game to overcome the speed/size issue. He might very well have that, but I think there are enough red flags to pass on him.  Then again, I thought similar things about Corey Perry, so what the hell do I know.

4.  Zakhar Arzamastsev, D, Metallurg Novokuznetsk (KHL)

The Copper and Blue did a great profile on Arzamastsev that you should read.  He came up on a KHL team that is, quite frankly, awful, but they do allow young players to play and grow quite nicely.  Novokuznetsk has produced Sergei Bobrovsky, Dmitri Orlov, and Maxim Kitsyn in recent years, and Arzamastsev is the latest to enjoy the benefits of playing for the crappy Metallurg of the KHL (Magintogorsk has the good one).  Arzamastsev plays a calm game, not chasing players out of position, and not making risky plays to join the rush.  But his puck skills are underrated, showing a keen sense for when to get involved offensively as well as making solid outlet passes from his own zone.  His skating is a concern, one that influences his conservative style.  If he had more skating ability, we might see a stronger physical game or a more dynamic offensive game.  But what we're left with is still pretty solid.

5.  Albert Yarullin, D, Bars Kazan (MHL)

Yarullin has yet to crack the KHL, but playing in the farm system for one of the KHL's elite teams can do that.  Yarullin really shone at the U18s, showing of a powerful shot and the ability to QB the PP in an umbrella formation.  It helps when the guys you're dishing to are the likes of Kucherov and probable 2012 top 5 selections Mikhail Grigorenko and Nail Yakupov, but it was a nice glimpse of a skill that maybe wasn't as obvious based on his junior stats.  Yarullin's game is similarly built on smarts and the ability to lead the transistion game.  He's pretty solidly built, but some feel he's lacking in muscle at this point.  For a defensman, he skates decently, though I wouldn't call it a strong suit.  He's a bit riskier to take unless a team can convince him to play junior hockey in Canada, as prying him away from Ak Bars Kazan in a couple of years could be very, very tough to do.

6.  Maxim Shalunov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)

Shalunov is kind of the opposite case of Yarullin:  he impressed more in his junior season than in the international campaign.  Shalunov is a big, goal-scoring winger who can bring a bit of a physical dimension that the other forwards on this list don't have.  However, he could be the case of a more physically mature player springing into the public conscious earlier, and having his peers surpass him when they mature.  In short, Shalunov's stock dove this year more than anything.  He did earn a 6 game call-up to the KHL this year, but he still had a tougher year than expected.  Shalunov isn't a fleet skater by any means, but he gets around the ice reasonably well and his shooting skills should still make him a good complimentary winger as a professional.

7.  Alexei Marchenko, D, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

Marchenko is a bit further down my list because he's a second time draft eligible, but he showed enough as an 18 year old in the MHL this past year to get picked.  Marchenko is an all-out flashy d-man, constantly pushing the play up the ice and running the offense from the blueline.  He also benefited from playing with Kucherov this year, but he has now been strong for two straight years and has 33 KHL games under his belt as a result.  He's got good size, and plays in every situation in the MHL, but in the KHL he was sheltered a bit but still showed glimpses of his potential.  There's a lot to like here, and he's flying under the radar a lot since he hasn't appeared in an international game in two years.  Hopefully that will change, and he'll be on Russia's U20 team this winter.

8.  Nikita Nesterov, D, Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk (MHL)

Nesterov's defining characteristic is his heavy point shot, but he has some other notable qualities as well.  He has good skating ability and is quite comfortable with the puck, but he sometimes just looks lost without it.  He has to be considered a bit of a project, but if a team is willing to invest some time in making improvements you have to like the potential.  He's getting good exposure internationally and generally doing quite well, and he has a bit of a mean streak to him as well.  He's an odd mix of a player, but if a guy like Dustin Byfuglien can come in and score a $5m+ contract, then there's no reason to be completely turned off by Nesterov's skill set. 

Like I said, it's an odd year for Russians, and I didn't put any players that were on the gold medal winning U20 team on here, of which a couple I'm sure will find takers.  There are some projects here, and teams might be concerned with the individual coaching that the players are getting.  That's as much of a risk as anything with Russian prospects these days.  I expect most of these players, if not all, will be drafted on Friday and Saturday, but don't expect many more Russians to find a NHL home.