Uncertainty surrounds small crop of Russian defensive prospects in KHL

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Rushan Rafikov - Team Russia

Photo: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl defenseman and Calgary Flames prospect Rushan Rafikov took part in the Subway Super Series with Team Russia and was a late cut from Russia’s 2014 World Junior squad (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

In spite of producing great defensemen like Sergei Gonchar, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and Sergei Zubov, Russia has a better reputation for developing forwards. This is well reflected in the NHL prospect situation in the KHL, where there are a number of intriguing offensive prospects, but only a few defenders with solid NHL potential.

This summer, some Russian players returned back home from North American leagues, which most likely means that their overseas career is over, like Maxim Goncharov, who spent three years in the AHL without breaking the Phoenix Coyotes roster. Goncharov signed with CSKA Moscow, and then was traded midway through the season to Avangard Omsk with former Vancouver Canucks draftee Sergei Shirokov in a multi-player deal for former Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers forward, Alexander Frolov.

Last year, two of the most interesting Russian defensemen, Alexei Marchenko (DET) and Nikita Nesterov (TBL), left the country to play overseas, leaving very few defensemen in Russia to be followed in this regards. Both players are having good seasons in America and seem to have higher ceilings compared to some recent defensive prospects like the aforementioned Goncharov, or players like former Boston Bruins draftee Yuri Alexandrov, Pavel Valentenko (MTL, NYR), or Andrei Zubarev (ATL/WPG).

Maxim Chudinov, SKA St. Petersburg
Drafted by the Boston Bruins, 195th overall, 2010 NHL Draft

Chudinov has taken a long time to progress from being a good prospect to become one of the top KHL defenseman. The Cherepovets, Russia native moved two years ago from his home club, Severstal Cherepovets, to one of the league’s top teams, SKA St. Petersburg, while also playing regularly for the Russian national team. His play during this season has been so strong that he was one of the KHL candidates for a trip to the Olympics.

Chudinov is a player who is very valuable at both ends of the ice, since he can guarantee a good offensive contribution, mostly thanks to his great slap shot, but he is also a gritty player who can play a more stay-at-home style if needed. With SKA he plays more of a stay-at-home game, while with the national team he has more freedom and has had very good offensive games. The future intentions of the 23-year-old player are now unclear. His contract will run out this April but he is very well paid and plays a key role on one of the KHL's strongest and richest teams. Both his permanence in St. Petersburg or seeing him crossing the Atlantic would not be surprising.

Valery Vasilyev, Spartak Moscow
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers, 201st overall pick, 2012 NHL Draft

Recently representing Russia at the WJC, Vasilyev is progressing very well despite playing for one of the KHL's worst teams. The situation within Spartak Moscow went downhill midway through the season when they lost the sponsorship of the banking group that was supporting the team. In spite of all these difficulties, a number of Spartak players have had very good seasons, and Vasilyev is among them. On a team with a goal differential of more than -50, Vasilyev managed to stay “only” at -9. Vasilyev is a tough defenseman with good physical skills, and he undoubtedly can adapt very well to the more demanding North American game. He was very good at the latest U20 WJC and played an important role with the team. It will be hard to forecast what Vasilyev will do next year, though. His contract will run out this April, but it might be a bit early for him to cross the ocean. On the other hand, due to financial problems, Spartak’s participation in the KHL next year is in jeopardy, therefore anything can happen.

Mikhail Pashnin, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
Drafted by the New York Rangers, 200th overall pick, 2009 NHL Draft

An aggressive, rough defender, Pashnin now has very good experience in pro hockey since he is now in his fifth season in the KHL. The Chelyabinsk native is constantly among the KHL penalty minute leaders and should probably try to control himself a bit more, in part because North American coaches don't look favorably on players taking avoidable penalties. Pashnin has had a good progression in recent seasons and may be ready to move on to the overseas challenge. He is a defensive defenseman who can deliver well-timed hits and back-checks hard. His contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL will run out in April of 2015, so he will likely spend at least another season back home in Russia.

Rushan Rafikov, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (MHL)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames, 187th overall pick, 2013 NHL Draft

After surprisingly being drafted last spring, Rafikov stated that he was not too focused on the NHL right now, preferring instead to work on himself and his play. And rightfully so, since he didn’t manage to break the KHL roster, playing instead with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's affiliate in the MHL, Russia's junior league which also features teams from other former USSR and European countries. Rafikov is an interesting two-way defenseman with good speed and some physical ability. He needs to bulk up a bit as his size right now isn’t enough for pro North American game. Rafikov was among the last cuts for this year’s WJC squad that took home the bronze medal last month. He has a very good first pass, an attribute that allows Rafikov to get on the score sheet. His contract with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv will run out in April of 2015.

Top undrafted defensive prospects

Andrei Mironov, 1994, Dynamo Moscow
Nikita Tryamkin, 1994, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg
Alexei Bereglazov, 1994, Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Albert Yarullin, 1993, Ak Bars Kazan
Zakhar Arzamastsev, 1992, CSKA Moscow
Viktor Antipin, 1992, Metallurg Magnitogorsk

Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso