The “Russian factor” has been a topic of discussion for years in the National Hockey League. Whether it was in the early 90s when the first wave of Soviet players made the jump to the NHL or more recently in the 2010s following the creation of the KHL, a bias against players coming out of Russia has been persistent for a long time.
While the Russian factor has not been as significant as it once was immediately after the creation of the KHL in 2008, we have still seen star players take longer to come over to North America, such as Kirill Kaprizov and Igor Shesterkin, enough to make some teams hesitant to use significant draft picks on these players.
Entering the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, the Russian factor has a whole new meaning. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the NHL and KHL has been altered, as has the potential development path for prospects still based in Russia. It has already been reported that some teams are not considering drafting Russian players whatsoever, while on the whole a tentative approach to these prospects will almost certainly be taken from the rest of the league.
This sets up a fascinating question mark as we quickly approach the draft. While there aren’t any Russian prospects that were legitimate challengers in the top five, Danila Yurov, the consolidated top prospect based in Russia, now goes from a top ten threat to an unknown even in the first round entirely.
For teams selecting at the end of the first round, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, serious discussions about the validity of drafting a Russian-based prospect that is falling down the draft board will have to be had.
In past years, a prospect with the pedigree and potential of Yurov would be a slam dunk selection as late as the Maple Leafs’ first-round pick at 25th overall. But today, with this uncertainty surrounding the control a team will have on a Russian player’s development path, makes this much more of a debate.
While obviously not the same situation, the best comparison to the circumstances surrounding Russian players in the 2022 draft is to look back to the 2010 draft.
The 2010 draft was the first that had legitimately high-end prospects based in Russia following the creation of the KHL in 2008. After a shallow class for Russian players in 2009, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the way as potential top ten talents in 2010.
Despite their significant success in the KHL, results that if they were replicated today would have seen Tarasenko challenge for first overall and Kuznetsov slot in the top ten, both players fell outside of the top 15 picks. St. Louis selected Tarasenko at 16th overall, while Kuznetsov went 10 selections later to Washington.
This isn’t revisionist history either. Tarasenko was ranked 4th overall on ISS Hockey’s final list in 2010, while Kuznetsov was ranked 11th by McKeen’s.
Of course, having seen how both players panned out, St. Louis and Washington are ecstatic with the apparent risk they took in drafting Tarasenko and Kuznetsov.
Another Russian with promising KHL totals that would’ve seen him be a projected first-round pick today was in that 2010 draft class as well, but he went undrafted entirely. Some guy by the name of Artemi Panarin, I wonder what ever happened to him…
This isn’t to suggest there is some Tarasenko or Kuznetsov-level talent in the 2022 draft that will fall gift-wrapped into the Maple Leafs’ laps at 25th overall. Yurov is the top Russian-based player on the consolidated board, currently ranked 11th on that list. He’s dominated the junior league in Russia but has yet to play any meaningful minutes in the KHL or even the second-tier pro league, the VHL.
Whether Yurov even makes it that late in the first round remains to be seen. Given how history played out for the 2010 draft, I have to imagine teams will be willing to take a risk on the high-end Russian prospects in the draft.
The more likely scenario, if the Leafs are willing to take the risk, is that the second tier of Russian prospects, those ranked more so in the second round and later, will be the ones that see their stock drop the most. This could mean an intriguing talent like Gleb Trikozov, who is currently #28 on the consolidated list, may be available much later than anticipated and a potential option for Toronto closer to their third-round pick.
All of this to say, the “Russian factor” is back in another form at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. How it impacts the draft board and what potential steals various teams could get is one of the more fascinating storylines to keep an eye on during both days of the NHL draft.
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