Russian 2008 draft review

By Eugene Belashchenko

In the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, only the following nine Russians were taken.

Nikita Filatov (6th overall, Columbus Blue Jackets)

There is no surprise that this young player was picked this early. A lot of scouting services have voiced the opinion that Filatov was a top five selection talent.  However, prior to the draft, the main concern was whether Filatov personally would be able to overcome the doubts of many NHL clubs regarding the willingness of Russians to move over to North America.  Clearly, the young prospect was successful in this bid, demonstrating his strong fluency in English and his intention to move to North America right after the draft.  In regards to the club that selected him, the Blue Jackets appear to be a very good match, with their strong recent history of drafting Russian-born players, Nikolai Zherdev (2003), Maxim Mayorov (2007) Sergei Mozyakin (2002), Dmitri Kosmachev (2003), and Andrei Plekhanov (2004).  Additionally, with Plekhanov and Zherdev coming over and enjoying certain levels of success in North America, the Blue Jackets seemed like a club more willing to take a chance on the speedy and skilled Filatov.  

In regards to his well-being on a team that has struggled to make the playoffs and also lost the services of Alexander Svitov, Filatov may be just what this club needs with his high level of energy and competitive spirit. Despite the struggles in the finals against Canada, the young prospect has sparked Russia’s junior national team with his high tempo and may do the same in Columbus, if protected properly (while aggressive, Filatov is still only 5’10 and 170 some pounds).  Still, such high aspirations may not even be up for discussions, as the club and the young player both appear to agree that he needs more time in the Canadian juniors (picked by the OHL Sudbury Wolves).  Filatov has voiced his willingness to come over and skate in the juniors next year.  He has already shown his strong ability to compete internationally at both the U18 and U20 levels, but has yet to skate more than a game or two at the professional Super League level.  

While it is no question that strategically the Canadian juniors are a great next step for Filatov, development wise it is debatable, as the young forward has shown his ability to play well at a very high international level. Signed by Columbus this week, it would be unfortunate if he becomes a lone star on a losing team without anyone to learn from and just depend on his prior experience (draft busts Anton Volchkov and Artem Rybin come to mind).  Being rushed is also not a good idea, as was shown for example by a Colorado Avalanche prospect Evgeny Lazarev, who bypassed the juniors and signed with the Avalanche, skating for Hershey right after being drafted.  The young player never fully developed, partially because of the high pressures and a relatively limited role with the Bears.  Still, each player is different and it is apparent that Filatov is on his way to the CHL and will likely be highly successful in that league next year.  Columbus got a very promising and highly motivated young prospect who is capable of becoming an impact winger on the club’s top two lines.

Viktor Tikhonov (1st round, 28th overall, Phoenix Coyotes)

Tikhonov was a very pleasant surprise being drafted so high.  Tikhonov is a special player who has been able to take his game up a notch each time he had to face a new situation.  Growing up in the United States, he finally got a chance to skate for the national team, which has invited him several times earlier, after returning to Russia and first spending some time practicing with his grandfather’s former club CSKA before signing a two-year pro deal with Cherepovets club HC Severstal in 2006. During the 2006-07 season, Tikhonov worked hard, improving his conditioning, speed and proving to the coaching staff that he could be trusted.  That trust materialized into some playing time late during that season and throughout the following 2007-08 campaign, which he spent in entirety with the Super League club and made a significant impact through scoring and also other things he did on the ice.

On the international level, Tikhonov impressed at a couple of U20 tournaments before he simply shown as one of the team’s leaders at the U20 World Junior Championships, being also awarded the “Best Forward” award.  While Filatov may have been the overall scoring leader there, Tikhonov’s performance was definitely more surprising and he appeared to be a stronger and more valuable overall player to the team. To avoid a head to head comparison, Tikhonov playing in some ways better than Filatov at the U20 WJC does not mean he is a more talented prospect, since he has two more years of experience and is physically more mature, growing about two inches and filling out his large frame in the past couple of seasons. 

Beyond his achievements prior to the draft, Tikhonov also impressed the scouts and management of many clubs with his good natured attitude and an almost American demeanor. He speaks fluent English and as with Filatov the lack of a Russia-NHL transfer agreement and North American acclimation were not critical decision-making factors in his draft position. Like Columbus and possibly also Ottawa, Phoenix is a club that has not minded drafting Russian players high, picking Enver Lisin and Dmitri Pestunov in the second and third rounds of the 2004 draft, with Lisin turning out to be quite an interesting addition to the NHL club.  Still, the 28th spot was a bit aggressive and Phoenix may have pulled the trigger this early because they have either heard of a team looking to pick Tikhonov early in the second round or could not have traded down a bit to pick him a little later.  This used to happen when the Russians were picked a lot more often at the draft, with Anton Kadeykin’s case coming to mind when the New Jersey Devils picked the unheralded Russian with their first pick in the draft (#51 overall in the 2nd round) after hearing that Tampa Bay reportedly also had their eye on the young prospect. 

Whatever the reason, Phoenix officials, especially Wayne Gretzky, appear convinced that Tikhonov will be arriving at the upcoming training camp ready to compete for a roster spot.  Hopefully they are correct, but if they are not, it looks like Tikhonov will not much mind getting his nose dirty in the AHL either.

Vyacheslav Voinov (2nd round, 32nd overall, Los Angeles Kings)

If this selection was made last summer when coach Andy Murray was still at the helm, there would have been some cause for concern.  While personalities of course matter and each player is different, the coach reportedly clashed heavily with Russian players, including first round selection and current Edmonton Oilers defenseman Denis Grebeshkov and with the up and coming youngster Kosntantin Pushkarev since traded to the Dallas Stars.  With all that said, it is a new situation in LA and talented defensive prospect Vyacheslav Voinov.  Considering his slightly dropping stock, it was surprising to see his name being called so early in the second round, but if the Kings were looking for a talented defenseman, Voinov was definitely one of the top prospects still available in this year’s draft. 

While not very big, Voinov is strong positionally, a smooth skater, capable of carrying the puck up the ice and quarterbacking the power play. He has also demonstrated on the international arena and in the Russian Super League his poise, ability and willingness to effectively play physical hockey and take on bigger opponents. No wonder his former Chelyabinsk coach Gennady Tsygurov publicly stated when he first fielded Voinov at just 16 that the young defenseman is the most talented and overall capable blueliner he has seen to come out of Russia in many years.  Voinov’s immediate plans for next year are not clear, but his high draft position in the CHL Import draft where the Moncton Wildcats picked him fifth overall seems to support him coming to North America.  Considering his two year old professional career in Russia, it does raise the question whether Voinov would be better off skating in the AHL for a season rather than the juniors.  Thus, the AHL door should be left open throughout the training camp instead of projecting Voinov straight to the QMJHL

Dmitri Kugryshev (2nd round, 58th overall, Washington Capitals)

Ever since drafting Alexander Ovechkin and enjoying a successful 2007-08 campaign and a short but eventful playoff run, the Caps appear to increasingly warm up to Russian-born players.  Kugryshev is a skilled scoring winger who also doesn’t hesitate to get his nose dirty at the boards.  He could benefit from further improving his skating and his passing, the latter in order to better utilizing the scoring chances he already creates for his linemates.  Considering the NHL club’s past track record with Russian players, Kugryshev must have impressed during the interview process and has shown his willingness to skate in the juniors next year. Thus he better strike while the iron is hot and cross the pond and show his commitment to the NHL club.

Kiril Petrov (3rd round, 73rd overall, New York Islanders)

After a few questionable early Russian selections in the past years of Dmitri Chernykh, Evgeny Tunik and Sergei Ogorodnikov, the Islanders have struck absolute gold with their third-round selection of Kiril Petrov.  Yes, his willingness to come to the NHL is questionable and his appeal in Russia is very high, but the same could have been said for Evgeni Malkin and a number of other prospects.  This is not to say that Petrov is a Malkin caliber talent, but he is definitely closer to that than to that of a classic third-round selection. Petrov is a potential first line impact player and his fall this far in the draft is reminiscent of Cherepanov’s fall last year, with the lack of a transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL playing a very big role. A good sized player, he has grown a lot during his first two professional Super League seasons, showing a good skill level, impressive skating for a player of his size and solid vision of the ice.

Petrov does need to become more consistent in the offensive zone, shore up some of his defensive play and improve his play in traffic and finally learn how to better use his big frame.  With drafting Petrov, the Islanders were thinking several seasons ahead, as it is clear that Petrov will not likely come over before then and is a type of player who will come over primarily with NHL in mind, completely bypassing the juniors and having a limited willingness to work his way through the AHL, as was earlier the case with Phoenix prospect Enver Lisin. Considering all that, Petrov’s selection this low is still one of the best long-term picks of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.  

Evgeny Grachev (3rd round, 75th overall New York Rangers)

Another player who dropped lower in the draft order, Grachev’s third-round selection was not as Petrov since he has proven less during his short career than the Ak Bars forward and has not had any Super League experience. Still, a big, physical power forward, Grachev has impressed on the international arena and also has reportedly performed well during the pre-draft NHL combine.  Another factor that played in Grachev’s favor was his rather strong grasp of English.  The Rangers have become more willing in drafting Russians high in the draft, picking up Artem Anisimov and Alexei Cherepanov in 2006 and 2007.  

However, while Grachev is Russian, he may simply have been one of the best players from any country still available at the 75th spot, dropping past his projected second-round selection due to the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russia.  Grachev is a project pick for the Rangers and he is likely headed to the juniors to further round out his skills where the NHL club could have some influence and better guide his career.  The young forward appeared to lean in this direction during a recent interview.

Andrei Loktionov (5th round,123rd overall, Los Angeles Kings)

The Kings once again looked to Russia, selecting talented center Andrei Loktionov early in the fifth round.  Loktionov is a solid two-way player who can fulfill various roles on the team ranging from a defensive expert on shorthanded units to a playmaker on a power-play unit.  He sees the ice well and effectively uses his linemates, creating a number of scoring chances.  A couple of more significant improvement areas for Loktionov include his faceoff skills and his scoring ability.  Specifically in regards to his scoring ability, while always a danger in the offensive zone, Loktionov prefers to pass rather than shoot and in a shot-filled North American style of hockey a more multi-dimensional game would make him more dangerous and hard to contain.  

The selection was a strong one for the Kings so late in the draft.  Loktionov’s immediate future is unclear, though he will likely spend another season in Russia making his Super League debut, though it can’t be ruled out that he may cross the ocean and skate in the juniors.  In some respects, it may be better for his development to remain in Russia for another season, as he has already skated a few games for HC Lokomotiv, and may get a better chance in the upcoming season.

Maxim Trunev (5th round, 138th overall, Montreal Canadiens)

Trunev’s selection was a bit of a surprise, considering his relatively quiet 2007-08 campaign.  He hasn’t been a member of U18 (1990 born) Team Russia for quite some time and only spent a handful of games in HC Severstal’s main lineup.  Clearly, Montreal’s scouts must have loved him elsewhere, which was likely the junior tournament where his HC Severstal 2 participated in Canada and this young forward shined.  The young forward delivered an all star performance at the tournament and even scored a hattrick in the finals, showcasing his high-tempo game and smooth hands.  Similar things have happened in the past, when Mikhail Tulyapkin, for example, was selected by the Wild despite a disappointing season because of his previous success in a similar tournament. 

Additionally, Trunev is likely willing to come over and play in the juniors, something that is an increasing trend with the Russians.  A dynamic offensive forward, Trunev is an interesting package of skill and speed. What he does however unfortunately lack is size, so it remains to be seen whether he can adjust to a more physical brand of hockey.  While the quality of this selection can be questioned, Trunev has a significant offensive upside and he is definitely a project selection.

Alexander Pechursky (5th round, 150th overall Pittsburgh Penguins)

Some may be surprised at Pechursky’s selection in the draft if they remember Russia’s disastrous final against Canada at the U18 World Championships. However, one thing should be very clear, Pechursky is a talented starting goaltender for the silver medal winning squad and what happened in the finals was not by any means his fault. The entire Russian squad, especially the defense is to blame for that loss and in fact Pechursky at times held the team together, preventing the score from being much worse, as hard as that is to believe.  A talented hybrid goalie, Pechursky has an above average reaction speed, especially on the glove side. He is also mobile in the crease and picks his positions well, but does need to improve his lateral quickness. While a decent pick in the fifth round, Pechursky is still a project selection for the Penguins and with him the NHL club partially replenishes a fairly thin goaltending system by using a late pick in the draft to select a player who has starting potential.  He probably won’t be another Rustam Sidikov – the U18 starting goaltender who was picked up by Nashville a few years back never to be heard from again. 

Still, if the club looked to Russia for a netminder, why not select older up and coming prospects such as Stanislav Galimov or Sergei Bobrovsky? Part of the answer could be that despite the seemingly higher risk, Pechursky has a higher potential upside than the other goaltenders and is less entrenched in the Russian system that currently has a high demand for goaltending talent, thus making the latter two, already somewhat proven on the Super League level, prospects much harder to lure to North America, as has been shown by other promising NHL-caliber netminders such as Konstantin Barulin and Vasily Koshechkin.