Top 10 Russians eligible for the 2011 NHL Draft

By Alessandro Seren Rosso
Photo: Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was taken in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Washington Capitals, will wait at least one more year before playing in North America. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Just like every year there is a lot of buzz around Russia‘s top prospects, not only due to their undeniable skill level, but mostly due to the infamous Russian factor and the risk which Russian players bring to their organizations. Just to stick to some recent facts, the Montreal Canadiens had to wait seven years to get Alexei Emelin signing a contract with them, while top talents Evgeny Kuznetsov (WAS) and Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) aren’t considering a move overseas for now.

After a standout performance at the U18 World Championship, Nikita Kucherov is now the top eligible player playing in Russia for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Please note that this article is relative only to players playing in Russia. For major junior players, please refer to the leagues sections.

Top 10 at a glance

1. Nikita Kucherov, F
2. Maxim Shalunov, F
3. Zakhar Arzamastsev, D
4. Albert Yarullin, D
5. Alexei Marchenko, D
6. Nikita Nesterov, D
7. Sergei Barbashev, F
8. Nikita Gusev, F
9. Nikita Zaitsev, D
10. Sergei Shmelev, F

1. Nikita Kucherov, RW
5’10, 163 lbs, Playing for CSKA Moscow

After an incredible U18 WJC, Nikita Kucherov deserves to be on the top of the list of players coming from Russia for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The small sized right winger put on a show in Germany averaging three points per game and breaking the scoring record held by Toni Rajala (EDM).

Kucherov showed at the U18s his full potential: goals, assists, dominant play and even some physical edge in spite of his relative small frame. Kucherov is a natural goal scorer with evident game breaking abilities. His one timer, wrist shot, puck skills, agility, and dangling abilities make him a truly entertaining player to watch and a constant threat for the defense. The CSKA Moscow player already declared that he wants to play another two years in Russia, but this is actually a good option for him as he needs to mature physically. First round material, but will probably fall due to the Russian factor.

2. Maxim Shalunov, RW
6’3, 185 lbs, playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk

Shalunov didn’t have the best U18 tournament, scoring only two goals, but he remains a very attractive prospect as per the NHL point of view thanks to his big 6’3, 185 lbs frame and his very good offensive abilities. A gifted skater with plenty of speed, Shalunov should be able to make a smooth transition to the North American game due to his more direct game if compared to other Russian players. At this stage of development Shalunov is still a project pick, but he can surely become a good top six forward thanks to his NHL body, strong shot, excellent skating and good mobility. His stock might be hurt by his recent statements about his commitment to his KHL team.

3. Zakhar Arzamastsev, D

6’0, 180 lbs, playing for Metallurg Novokuznetsk

Arzamastsev had a decent season in the KHL and this is noticeable as it’s not easy at all to get playing time in Russia at such young age and it is actually the only player on this list (with Zaitsev) to have a constant spot in pro hockey. Arzamastsev plays a defense-fist style of hockey, but without avoiding going forward should he get a good chance. He showcased some interesting offensive potential as he can score with his good shot from the point and he can deliver good, accurate passes in the defensive zone. But prior considering a move overseas, Arzamastsev must improve his defensive coverage and also he should definitely be less shy when contrasting forwards. His skating also needs some work.

4. Albert Yarullin, D
6’0, 194 lbs, playing for Ak Bars Kazan

One of the U18s top blueliners, Albert Yarullin is another player whose stock has dramatically risen after the tournament. The Team Russia captain displayed some much needed leadership on the Russian side, coupled with excellent reading of the play and anticipation. Yarullin doesn’t have a very big frame at 6’0, 194 lbs, but he is physically very strong and can deliver big hits. Offensively, Yarullin isn’t a classic Russian offensive defenseman, but he showed some offensive skills, especially on the passing area. The Kazan, Russia native should improve his defensive coverage and he needs to be more active while on the back end, and should also improve the effectiveness of his strong shot, as well as its release speed. Yarullin is yet another player whose ranking would be overall higher should he not come from Russia, but the infamous Russian factor is going to play a major role here. He also might need to seek some alternative options as Ak Bars Kazan historically tend not to give their young players much ice time.

5. Alexei Marchenko, D
6’2, 183 lbs, playing for CSKA Moscow

Marchenko is back on track after being not selected last year due to a serious injury (had his spleen removed), and probably many NHL teams have his name on their notebooks. Marchenko is an excellent two-way defenseman with excellent offensive skills with the potential of becoming an NHL powerplay quarterback. His puck skills, skating and hockey IQ are his strong sides, but he needs to work on his shot and release. A very coachable player, Marchenko did progress since last year and is now ready to get drafted in the NHL, especially considering his actual play and top-four potential. The CSKA Moscow prospect is definitely capable to play in the NHL within a couple of years.

6. Nikita Nesterov, D
6’0, 185 lbs, playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk

Nesterov is definitely a player whose stock has been hurt during the season already as he was expected to join the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, but he opted to stay in Russia instead. The Chelyabinsk, Russia, native has a good shot from the blue line, but he might get some work on his skating and production. He didn’t have an exceptional year in the Russian junior league and he didn’t really stand out at the U18s and thus his stock is decreasing. But on the draft day most likely some NHL franchise will be intrigued by his combination of size, physical play and good puck skills.

7. Sergei Barbashev, F
6’0, 165 lbs, playing for CSKA Moscow

After being surprisingly ignored during last year’s NHL Entry Draft, Barbashev had another good season in the Russian junior league and earned a chance to play in three KHL regular season games, without scoring any point. Barbashev is a very gifted offensive player who can get easily on the score sheet, however, his size might be cause of concern. He needs to develop fast before his chances of crossing the pond shy away. He is the older brother of Ivan Barbashev, one of Russia’s top prospects for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (a late 95 born).

8. Nikita Gusev, F
5’9, 161 lbs, playing for CSKA Moscow

A prototypical Russian winger, Nikita Gusev is a small forward with wizard-like puck-handling and speed to burn. Gusev is an exceptional offensive talent with great playmaking abilities, but he is small and a bit soft for the North American standards and thus he wasn’t drafted last year. With that being said, Gusev has significantly progressed since last season and spent a portion of the year within the KHL lineup, scoring his first pro goal. Forecasting an eventual pick might be not easy in his case, but should his name get called during the second day of the selections might be not such a big surprise.

9. Nikita Zaitsev, D
6’1, 175 lbs, playing for Sibir Novosibirsk

After being invited at the NHL Combine and not being picked last year (he was reportedly being hardly scouted by the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers), Nikita Zaitsev kept on playing in Novosibirsk, where he spent his second full pro hockey season. Zaitsev did progress since last season, earning better minutes and a bigger role within the team, however, his impact on the team was pretty limited, even if his game matured and progressed. This year he was also a member of gold medal Team Russia at the WJC. While he doesn’t have the kind of ceiling to become a top shut-down defenseman, nor an offensive blue liner, Zaitsev might develop into a solid, reliable, low-paring player.

10. Sergei Shmelev, F
5’10, 161 lbs, playing for Atlant Mytischi

Shmelev is a small, agile, versatile offensive player who had a good season in the Russian junior league, but didn’t get much exposure due to his lack of play within the national team. Shmelev is a very talented player with interesting skating and puck skills, but as he didn’t play much outside of Russia, hearing his name during the draft will be hard, but not impossible

Honorable Mentions

Nikolai Prokhorkin, F

A talented player with some size at 6’2, 183 lbs, who was left out from the U18 WJC team. Prokhorkin is a talented goal scorer and has some good potential.

Nikita Dvurechensky, F
The overage forward had a critical impact over Team Russia during the WJC triumph and it was already a mystery why he was passed over during the last two draft. Dvurechensky can develop into a very interesting forward, able to play in both scoring and checking lines.

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