Out of all the NHL draft tendencies that have popped up in recent years, few have been more interesting or controversial than the hesitancy towards Russian-born players.
The so-called "Russian Factor."
Despite Russia being historically one of the world's top producers of hockey talent, NHL teams have become very wary in recent years when it comes to drafting players of that descent.
On one hand, it's easy to see why given recent events. Alex Radulov, taken 15th overall in 2004 by the Nashville Predators, spent two seasons in the NHL before darting back to his home country and greater money in the Kontinental Hockey League. Despite a brief return in 2012, he is back in the KHL again with no signs of returning. Evgeny Kuznetsov, picked 26th overall in 2010 by the Washington Capitals, has yet to play a single pro game in North America, regardless of persuasions from the Caps, although it appears that he finally might be coming over soon.
These fears of many NHL teams, of Russian players choosing the KHL, have shown themselves come draft day.
In 2011, only one Russian, Vladislav Namestnikov, drafted 27th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, was selected in the first round. There were three in 2012. Mikhail Grigorenko, taken 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, plummeted down the draft board after very high pre-draft rankings, while 1st overall choice Nail Yakupov has always been a point of heated debate.
These fears showed up again on the day of the draft in 2013. However, they turned out to be a major blessing in disguise for the Dallas Stars.
Valeri Nichushkin, a tantalizing Russian forward with fantastic size and supreme skating ability and the KHL's 2013 rookie of the year, was routinely ranked as a Top 5 (and sometimes Top 3) talent in the draft, but fell all the way down to Dallas, who gladly picked him up at 10th.
Can you guess how that's turned out for them?
Nichushkin didn't hesitate for a second about where he wanted to play this season, uprooting to Dallas immediately after the draft. With 28 points in 55 games so far at just 18 years of age, Nichushkin is one of the NHL's top rookies. He is playing on the Stars' top line, is firmly in the hunt for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, and was even selected to play for Russia in the ongoing Winter Olympics in Sochi, where he scored a goal in his first game.
The Stars, led by new general manager Jim Nill, weren't scared off by the Russian Factor, and have been rewarded handsomely for it. The question now, with the 2014 NHL Entry Draft a few months away, is simple: will lightning strike twice?
Based on current league standings, if the current NHL season ended today the Stars would draft 15th overall. (New Jersey forfeits their 1st round pick because of the Ilya Kovalchuk contract from 2010...hey, look, another Russian star that chose the KHL!) It just so happens that, when looking at current pre-draft rankings, there will be not one, but three, Russian-born top prospects that are predicted to be selected around the time when Dallas will be drafting. Making matters even more interesting, all three players currently play in Canadian Major Junior leagues, showing that they are open to playing in North America.
Aiming for another Russian in the draft makes sense for the Stars. Not only is there a repeat chance of an elite talent sliding down the draft board because of the Russian Factor, but having another young Russian in the organization could help ease the cultural transition for Nichushkin and possibly enhance his development.
Let's now take a look at the top Russian-born prospects in 2014:
Ivan Barbashev - Moncton Wildcats
Position: Left wing
Stats: 66 points in 46 games, -9 rating
Future Considerations Draft Ranking: 12th overall
- Nicely balanced set of offensive skills.
- Physical player with good size; isn't afraid to finish checks or crash the net
- Committed to 2-way game
- Natural LW, which is an area that the Stars' prospect pool is thin on
- Although good in many areas, doesn't truly excel in a single one, which could hurt how he fits into an NHL lineup
- Could use better foot speed
Barbashev is a skilled playmaking winger with impressive vision and passing ability. He thrives in a high-paced offense. Has a good, hard shot and isn't transparent about making a pass or firing it on net. Has dynamic talent but inconsistent in his efforts
Nikolay Goldobin - Sarnia Sting
Position: Right wing
Stats: 82 points in 58 games, -20 rating
Future Considerations Draft Ranking: 26th overall
- Wildly skilled offensively, one of the top raw talents in the draft. Excellent vision combined with great hands, passing, and shot
- Despite being paired against the top lines from other teams due to playing on a terrible team, still manages to score a ton of points
- That -20 rating is ugly. Sarnia is bad defensively overall, but concerns persist about Goldobin's dedication away from the puck
- Standing under 6'0", Goldobin's size is less than ideal
- The Stars are deep on right wing prospects. Is there room for another in the system?
Goldobin is a dangerous shooter with a wicked release on his wrist shot. He is quick and creative and can make defenders look foolish. He's weak against bigger opponents and can look lost in his own zone but is extremely dangerous and can quietly slide into prime scoring areas
Nikita Scherbak - Saskatoon Blades
Position: Right wing
Stats: 71 points in 55 games, +5 rating
Future Considerations Draft Ranking: Not rated
- One of the fastest-rising draft prospects
- The heart and soul of a woeful Blades team, he does a ton offensively with little to no support and against top lines from other teams
- Only playing in his first year in North America, so his numbers could continue to climb as he gets used to the smaller ice
- Like Goldobin, another RW might not make the most sense for the Stars
- Not tiny, but size could be an issue
- Needs to be more consistent
Scherbak is a skilled but gritty forward who has a strong shot and offensive senses plus the ability to evade would be checkers by using his quick agility and slick hands. He puts pressure on opposing defenses every game. Has some work to do with regards to rounding out his defensive game and effort levels