Despite the difficulties of late for Russia producting defensive prospects, the top-end is certainly interesting, with many players who might adapt well in the jump overseas. Recently it has been very tough to decipher who would report to the NHL and who would not, and the apparent drive towards North America played its role in these rankings.
Top 10 at a glance
1. Maxim Goncharov
2. Yuri Alexandrov
3. Dmitri Orlov
4. Pavel Valentenko
5. Mihail Pashnin
6. Andrei Zubarev
7. Denis Bodrov
8. Vyateslav Buravchikov
9. Alexei Yemelin
10. Vitaly Anikeyenko
Despite not having a very good season so far, Goncharov gets the best blue line prospect honors thanks to his offensive game upside and readiness for the NHL game. He’s still a bit raw, but his combination of great shot, excellent skating and good physical play makes him an extremely valuable prospect. After last year’s great WJC and very good sophomore season in the Russian league, this year he has just one goal, but 10 assists so far in 41 games, not a bad performance considering the difficulty of scoring in Russia. As his contract runs out next April, most likely he’ll try the North American option this summer.
Alexandrov’s stock rose after he decided to try his fortunes at the Bruins’ rookie camp and even if he didn’t make the team he didn’t look too far off. He’s having a very good year in Cherepovets as he’s the top scoring blueliner there and gets the most ice time. So far he scored four goals and 17 points in 45 regular-season games. His hockey IQ and his vision would make him a capable NHL power-play quarterback.
Orlov is a very promising offensive defenseman who many compare to Florida Panther Dmitri Kulikov. Orlov is a very versatile player and has been played even at center, even if he plays better on the blue line, where he can take advantage of his good vision and big slapshot from the point. Even if his WJC wasn’t the best, like the rest of Team Russia, his stock surely didn’t go down and should be back at rookie camp again this summer. He has five points in 31 games for Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the KHL.
Despite leaving the AHL and bolting back to the KHL, Valentenko remains an appealing prospect with a good upside mostly thanks to his physical edge and very good slapshot. He did show all this in his stretch with the Bulldogs of the AHL, and he played not bad in the KHL too, but when the 2009-10 season was still young he suffered from a long shoulder injury. He’s back on ice just now and he will have to work hard to gain the game shape that he will need to survive to the more demanding playoff hockey. The Canadiens probably weren’t going to give him a second chance, we’ll see if the Rangers will. He has one assist in three games for Moscow Dynamo.
Even if he’s a player on the rise, Pashnin still has a long road in front of him in order not to become only the answer to the trivia question “Who was the first-ever player picked in the KHL junior draft?”
After a not bad 2009 WJC, where he won the bronze medal with Team Russia, Pashnin was drafted by the New York Rangers and many times he stated his will to report to the club. It will be tough for him as he needs to bulk up and to polish up his play as he’s still a bit raw and not creative enough nor used to the higher pace of pro hockey. But in his first KHL season he is doing well and doesn’t look out of place. He has four points in 39 games and should start scoring more now that he’s accustomed to the league. He has a three-year contract with CSKA, probably by that time he will be more than ready to try moving overseas to the AHL as it seems unlikely that he will make the cut right from the start.
Zubarev, a talented two-way defenseman, is another player with tons of upside who never showed a real interest in leaving for North America. He had a breakout season last year, thanks to his excellent playoffs, even if they lasted only seven games. He notched five points. This year he’s playing successfully as well, with five goals and 12 points in 43 games and it’s evident that his offensive game has really reached the next level. He would deserve a little higher place in this ranking, but his little determination to commit to the Thrashers penalizes him.
If there was an award for the most regressed prospect in the last few years, then the winner would be Bodrov. He was considered as almost NHL-ready not less than two years ago, then he was kicked twice off of the team he was playing for. First he was traded from Lada Togliatti to Atlant for having a bad influence on the younger players, then also Atlant decided to part with him after 12 games this year after not delivering in his second year in the team’s lineup. While the talent is there, his mental play and his professionalism might be a bit off, but moving to North America might do wonders for a young player. We’ll see where he will end up next season.
Twenty-two-year-old Buravchikov has had a couple of interesting seasons, but his development seems to have halted this year as he has dressed for only 25 games, with a disappointing total of three assists in 14 minutes of average ice time. While on the draft year he was thought of a premier offensive defenseman, he managed to develop into a defense-first type of player, being regularly used in penalty-killing situations. This season has been not the best one for him and thus it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him with another jersey next fall but unlikely he’ll get a chance with the Sabres, who tried to sign him a number of times, without any luck.
Yemelin is another player who didn’t meet the expectations around him. After a brilliant junior career and an early inclusion in Team Russia’s senior roster for 2007 WC, when he was just 21, his career stalled. This year he has been limited to 34 games because of an upper body injury, but he didn’t disappoint. He didn’t do great earlier, and while he remains a reliable defenseman he never improved his offensive production and only this season he interrupted a two-year goal-scoring draught. He now has a goal and three assists. Maybe all what he really needs is a change of scenery.
Anikeyenko is a tough, hard-nosed defensive defenseman with an NHL body and a cannon of a shot. It’s really surprising not to see a player with such credentials in the NHL, but the 2005 third-round pick never matched his true ceiling and had attitude problems early in his career as he never looked too motivated to reach the next level. In the latest two seasons he did look good, playing this year more than 20 minutes on average on a contender team, but probably he missed the NHL train. This year he has 17 points in 44 games.