Author: Harrison Rubin (Weinberg ’23)
NHL teams select players from many different countries around the world (USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, etc.) and place certain weight on the competitive level of each country’s amateur leagues — e.g. the Ontario Hockey League (Canada) versus the Erste Liga (Finland). In several drafts, there have been many Russian prospects that were “passed over” by almost every team in the NHL, possibly because Russian prospects have the option to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), commonly known as the second-best hockey league in the world. KHL players are in a unique situation; the league consists of prospects and older players, some of which formerly played in the NHL — such as Nigel Dawes, Cody Franson, and Dmitri Jaskin. Some of these players, though initially passed over, have gone on to accrue many numerous awards, and lead the league in numerous individual statistics. This being said, on the order of the picks in recent drafts, it seems that the KHLis not as valued as a source of NHL hockey talent. The following Russian-born hockey players have become some of the most polarizing and talented, but their draft positions would lead you to think they would be better suited in the bottom-six of any NHL team’s roster.
In terms of Russian-born forwards, most casual hockey fans know the names Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Both Ovechkin and Malkin were highly-regarded prospects and were selected first and second overall in the 2004 NHL Draft, respectively. However, recent Art Ross winner Nikita Kucherov may have passed Ovechkin and Malkin as the best current Russian-born NHL player. Kucherov was selected 58th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 NHL Draft. As of March 11, 2020, when the NHL suspended its season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kucherov has scored 221 goals and 326 assists for a total of 547 points across 515 games, which averages out to an 87-point season – an incredible feat for any NHL player. Most notably, in the 2018-19 season, Kucherov led the NHL in points (128) and won the Hart Memorial Trophy (Most Valuable Player), the Art Ross Trophy (most points), and the Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player).
Another great Russian-born NHL player, Pavel Datsyuk, was drafted 171st overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 NHL Draft. From 2002-2016, Datsyuk, known as The Magic Man, scored 314 goals and 604 assists for a total of 918 points – averaging out to a 79-point season – across 953 games played. Datsyuk had his best season in the 2007-08 season in which the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, scoring 31 goals and 66 assists with a plus/minus of +41. In his 15-year career, Datsyuk, known as “The Magic Man” for his dynamic playing style and stickhandling ability, won the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) three times, four consecutive Lady Byng trophies (awarded for sportsmanship) from 2006 to 2009, and a one-time Hart Trophy nominee (2009). Datsyuk also captained the Russian Olympic team in 2014 and 2018.
In terms of the other end of the bench, arguably the best Russian-born defenseman, Sergei Zubov, was selected 85th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 draft. In terms of total points, Zubov had his best offensive year in the 1993-94 season, amassing 89 points in 78 games. However, Zubov was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995, and in 1996, to the Dallas Stars. Although Zubov did not get up to 89 points at any other point in his career, he was selected to all of his three All-Star Game appearances as a member of the Stars and finished with a career plus/minus of +148, which is incredible for a defenseman. In his career, Zubov won two Stanley Cups (1994 with the Rangers and 1999 with the Stars) and was elected to the NHL Hall of Fame in 2019.
In terms of goaltenders, arguably the best Russian NHL goaltender in 2020 is Sergei Bobrovsky, who currently plays for the Florida Panthers. Bobrovsky was not drafted by any team and made his NHL debut for the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010-11 season. After spending two seasons in Philadelphia, Bobrovsky was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he spent the next seven seasons. Bobrovsky’s best season was in 2016-17, winning one of his two Vezina Trophies (best goaltender) after accumulating a .931 save percentage and a 2.06 goals-against-average – both best in the NHL that season. Bobrovsky signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers after the 2018-19 season.
After looking at the aforementioned players’ career statistics, the question must be asked: why weren’t these players drafted higher, or even at all? Several aspects of the player’s amateur career must be noted when answering this question. In Kucherov’s case, he started out in the KHL and then played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) after being drafted by Tampa Bay in order to transition to the North American style of hockey. This transition period makes general managers and scouts wary of drafting these players since teams are looking for NHL-ready players in the first round of the draft. On the other hand, at the age of 22 — a bit older than most NHL prospects — Pavel Datsyuk went directly from the Russian Superleague (RSL) – which later became known as the KHL – to the NHL. There was no buffer period to learn the North American style of hockey. Sergei Zubov had a similar amateur career, playing in the Soviet Championship League from 1988 to 1993 before coming to the NHL. Like Datsyuk, Zubov had no buffer period to get used to the North American style. Sergei Bobrovsky played for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL from 2006 to 2010. Bobrovsky’s case is an interesting one: in 2006, the Flyers considered drafting Bobrovsky, but general manager Paul Holmgren decided not to draft him given the difficulty of signing KHL players away from their lucrative contracts. Four years later, Holmgren signed Bobrovsky as an undrafted free agent.
In sum, I believe that the “Russian factor” is real. Top Russian players, either in the KHL or in other major junior leagues, clearly have been overlooked when compared to the best North American prospects — which has occurred due to the transition period between Russian and North American hockey styles. Although I only touched on four players, there are many other cases of Russian-born players who should have been drafted higher given their career statistics. Some of these cases include Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, Sergei Gonchar, and Evgeni Nabokov. Each of these players has had great NHL careers despite being selected abnormally high for their respective skill levels.