Despite some of the big names on the blue line that have come from Russia, like Alexei Kasatonov or Vyacheslav Fetisov, or the more recent Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov, the nation is not known for producing NHL caliber defensemen.
Moreover, this summer most of the top young defensemen, such as like Maxim Goncharov (PHX), Andrei Zubarev (ATL) and Yuri Alexandrov (BOS), left Russia last summer to play in North America, thus leaving the defensive prospect pool in Russia pretty thin.
Top 5 at a glance:
Dmitri Orlov is the defenseman to get this year’s honors after last year’s third place in the rankings. It’s true that the two players in front of him left Russia, but he also progressed a lot since last year. Orlov is now playing in his KHL team’s top four and this speaks loudly about his adaptation toward the pro game. The recently WJC success, in which he was named for the All-Star team, showed all his offensive capabilities, but also many defensive liabilities. While Orlov definitely has NHL potential, the next few years will show if he’s going to become a solid all-around defenseman or a one-dimensional player like Marc Andre Bergeron. We’re going to discover it soon as the 19-year-old decided to cross the pond this coming summer.
Alexei Yemelin developed into a very solid defensive player with some interesting offensive abilities. After a couple of years of stagnation while playing in KHL powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan, last year Yemelin rebounded back with a great season followed by a monster playoff performance in which he scored 13 points in 22 games and was perhaps the best player on ice during the final series won by Ak Bars with a thin 4-3 margin.
The problem with him is that he always preferred staying at home rather than risking some time in the AHL, and he never reported as he wasn’t guaranteed an NHL spot or an easy trip back to the Motherland. However, Yemelin’s contract will run out soon and the Habs might try a last attempt to lure him to Montreal. It won’t be a matter of money, but of chances: he is obviously not interested in playing in the AHL – which is understandable due to his status – thus the Canadiens could give him a realistic chance to play in the NHL. His playing style should translate well to the different North American game, even if he will have to be less aggressive because in the NHL he’ll have to pay a higher price for some of his "cowboy" actions.
A solid defensive defenseman, Mihail Pashnin is a player with NHL potential, but is still very raw and very much a prospect. Pashnin needs to work on several areas of his game including skating, physical play, and defensive coverage. Some more offensive creativity wouldn’t hurt as this year he is yet to score a single point for the Red Army, while last year he scored five in total, even if his production is getting harmed by the bad season his team is having. However, Pashnin is a hard worker and a determinate kind of player so it won’t be really a surprise to see him soon with the New York Rangers.
After playing a solid half of the 2009-10 season in Adirondack, Denis Bodrov signed a one-year deal in Russia to stay home with his pregnant wife, already announcing that he’ll be back in America for the 2011-12 campaign. Will he be able to join his country mate Sergei Bobrovsky in the Flyers’ lineup? Hard to say. He’s not having his best season in Spartak, where to all the problems of a struggling team added some reported disciplinary issues which resulted in him being scratched or riding the pine for multiple games. In any case Bodrov, a former Yemelin teammate in Togliatti, is a solid all-around defenseman with a very good shot. He can be a valuable weapon with the man advantage thanks to his strong one-timer and slap shot from the point, which is where most of his goals come from. Already 24, he might still need some seasoning in the AHL before to get a chance to pat Bobrovsky’s pads before and after the game.
23-year-old Buravchikov has been recently traded to CSKA Moscow from Ak Bars Kazan for Habs’ former draft pick Konstantin Korneev. The Sabres’ prospect is indeed a solid guy and has developed in the recent years some solid penalty killing skills, but he never showed a particular interest in reporting to the Sabres. We’ll see if this is going to change this year, but Buravchikov appears more like a player who’s going to be a career KHLer.
Soon to be included:
The thin defensive prospect pool for Russia might be widened by two other players after this June’s NHL Entry Draft
6’0", 179 lbs, currently playing for Metallurg Novokuznetsk
Dmitri Orlov’s teammate Arzamastsev is having a decent rookie season in the KHL with two goals and six points so far. The defensive defenseman showed some interesting offensive skills and instincts, but needs to bulk up and get some further experience and ice time.
6’0", 183 lbs, currently playing for Chelyabinsk White Bears in the Russian junior league
Nesterov showed some flashes of NHL potential during last year’s U18s, where he played as underager and scored two goals. Nesterov plays a more direct style of game if compared to usual Russian defensemen and this might be an advantage for an eventual translation to the different North American game. He can play with an edge and has a very good shot from the point. He is very raw, but this is definitely not a problem at 17.