Senators Russian prospects season review

By Eugene Belashchenko

Of the Ottawa Senators seven Russian prospects, Alexei Kaigorodov has the most long-term potential, but Igor Mirnov is the most NHL-ready.

Alexei Kaigorodov, C
47th overall, 2002

While it’s great that Kaigorodov was again one of the point leaders on his team, the statistics don’t really show the struggles that the young forward went through early in the season. The expectations for him were very high, as he one of the Super League leaders in assists just a season earlier. Still, he recovered nicely from the slump and was especially effective during the second half of regular season. While it would have been great to see the young forward skating for the Senators this season, Kaigorodov’s stay with Metallurg was not without benefit, as he got a chance to work with a NHL coach in Dave King, and skate on the best club in the Super League with experienced NHL veterans and Super League players. He continued to be the club’s second center behind Evgeni Malkin (PIT).

Kaigorodov needs to be brought over this summer, as he has reached a level in the Super League that would be hard to surpass. The young forward’s imaginative vision of the ice, and his puckhandling ability would make him fun to watch in the new NHL. Ottawa’s offensively oriented style of play should be a good fit for the young forward, but he would definitely need to adjust to the physical aspects of the game which he doesn’t face as often in the Russian Super League, where some players can avoid the additional contact without much effort.

Igor Mirnov, C
67th overall, 2003

This young prospect is ready for the NHL. His aggressive style of play would do well on the smaller NHL ice. Unlike many Europeans he is a north-south kind of player, driving towards the net. Additionally, with the departures of some of the club’s long time members Mirnov has become one of Dynamo’s leaders and “elder statesman” as he is one of the few remaining players who has spent his entire career with the club.

He did miss some time this season due to injury, and at least part of the missed time was due to a knee injury, but not the entire time. The injury was a knee strain and had little to do with the previous, serious knee injury he suffered a few seasons ago while still in the juniors. Still, his knee injury should not be chalked up to chronic knee problems quite yet.

Overall, Mirnov delivered another strong season with Dynamo, but at this point he really needs to make a move to North America. His NHL readiness is very high, almost as high as that of Kaigorodov. Mirnov may actually adjust faster to the NHL because of his style of play, as Kaigorodov is more of a European playmaker.

Alexander Nikulin, C
122nd overall, 2004

This was Alexander Nikulin’s first full Super League (Russia 1) season and he really performed beyond expectations. The young center sees the ice well and has an impressive top speed. He showcased both abilities on CSKA’s second and third lines, skating with the club’s veterans and fitting in quite nicely. He was an imperative supporting cast member for the club, along with other young players, including Nikolai Lemtyugov (STL) and Sergei Shirokov. Nikulin’s success not only rested on his scoring and playmaking ability. His ability to fit in on any line, his work ethic and his abilities in his own zone is what made Nikulin a full-time CSKA member and get more than 15 minutes in most games. Still, with that said, Nikulin still has a lot to work on, including his scoring touch and performing under higher pressure. He has established himself as a full-fledged Super League player, but now he has to prove he can continue to grow and take on more responsibility. Bykov is a capable coach and Nikulin will need to perform in these playoffs and stick with the club for the 2006-07 season in order to move up in the depth chart to the second or first line.

While it is hard to pinpoint when a young prospect is ready to make the jump to North America or when his stock is at its highest in contract negotiations, Nikulin needs two more seasons in Russia before he would fully tap all the league’s benefits to his development and growth. A re-evaluation would need to take place next summer, as considering the young forward’s quick development over the past three seasons, he could be ready even then to move over and spend a season in the AHL.

Kirill Lyamin, D
58th overall, 2004

Lyamin finally made his way back to the Super League after a season’s absence that took place because he did not return to Russia in time for the 2004-05 preseason, which lead him to be overtaken by another 86-born defenseman Anton Belov. This time Lyamin was ready and logged regular minutes during September, the first month of the regular season. Then, unfortunately, he suffered a wrist injury and was sidelined for a month before making it back into the lineup in late October. At that point he again got his spot back, though his ice time was somewhat reduced. He traveled with Russia’s U20 squad to Vancouver for the U20 World Junior Championships, where his performance was strong and he showed a physical edge to his game that helped make him such a high selection in 2004. Upon his return though, Lyamin again had to compete for his spot in the lineup, appearing in only a handful of games down the stretch. Part of the reason for his absence was the club’s freefall in the rankings after a strong start, when Bykov instituted changes that included an increased reliance on putting the veterans on the blue line. Since the club boasted five or six forwards who were born in 1986 or after, cutting back the ice time of his young defenseman was an obvious move. Overall, Lyamin delivered a strong comeback from his season long absence. Unfortunately, the gap in his development was visible, though he did recover quite nicely.

Lyamin is not at this point ready for the NHL, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he would benefit better from skating in Russia or the AHL. If he can come back to CSKA and receive regular minutes on one of the top two pairings, Lyamin would be better off spending at least one more season with the club. If he comes back and spends the season in a reduced role, Lyamin would be better off in the AHL. A lot depends on him and his ability to continue to take on more responsibility. This is season was an important one, as he showed his ability to play well at the Super League level and that his rookie season in 2003-04 was not a fluke. However, there is plenty of room to grow and while he has the skill and the talent, he needs to continue to push forward.

Dimitri Megalinsky, D
186th overall, 2005

Megalinsky was hands down one of Russia’s top two defensemen on the U20 national team at the 2004 World Junior Championships. His performance for the national team finally got the 85-born prospect drafted. This season some have hoped Megalinsky would finally take his place in the Super League and skate regular shifts with Lokomotiv. These expectations partially materialized, as the young defenseman spent the entire season with the Super League club, though he only skated in about half the games. His absence had a lot to do with the club’s hefty performance expectations and the fact that he had to compete with other veteran defensemen for a spot in the lineup, while someone like Vitaly Anikeyenko still qualified for the U20 requirement (where each Super League club must field at least two U20 players in each game), and by fielding him the coaching staff would kill two proverbial birds with one stone by developing the youth and fulfilling the requirement. Still, the Megalinsky made a strong step in the right direction by delivering a consistent season in the Super League. Additionally he became a regular in the club’s line-up in early March and has actually skated for Lokomotiv in every game thus far in the playoffs. One noticeable improvement in Megalinsky’s game has been his mobility, as he has lost around 15 pounds that have caused some concern when he weighed in at 220 a couple of seasons ago. Now he has grown and lost the extra weight to become a filled out, solid blueliner at around 6’2 and 205lb. Megalinsky was not by any means bothered by the extra weight or overweight, but his mobility did improve with this change.

Megalinsky like the physical hockey and his style of play would transfer very well to North America. The young blue liner is well suited to move over and spend the 2006-07 in the AHL. There he could not only continue developing his defensive skills, but also work on his abilities as a power play quarterback, something he has done in the Russian High League (Russia 2) a couple of seasons back, but has not had a chance to develop as a junior member of the experienced Super League squads.

Ilya Zubov, C
98th overall, 2005

Zubov delivered a spectacular rookie Russian Super League season. The move from the High League to the Super League’s Spartak (Moscow) was a wise one, as Zubov took less money to get more ice time with a lower echelon team. He could have just as easily commanded a significantly higher salary with a club like Ak Bars Kazan or Avangard Omsk, but would have had little chance for significant ice time. With Spartak, Zubov was in the mix and soon rose as the club’s go-to second/third line center. Considering how young the prospect is, he did hit a wall in November when he became fatigued after skating for two months in the Super League and also playing for the U20 national team, but Zubov recovered nicely, delivering a very impressive performance at the U20 WJC and in the Super League. The trust instilled in him by Spartak’s head coach Valeri Bragin was very important to his development and it showed, as the young prospect grew significantly during the 2005-06 season. He developed well in just about every aspect of the game ranging from his skating to his ability to make quick decisions and see the ice. His diminutive stature is still a concern, but there is little Zubov can do about that besides continuing to grow in every other area of his abilities.

Zubov is Russia’s top 87-born forward and he has lived up to the hype during the 2005-06 season. He got a great chance with Spartak and he needs to continue to build on his strong rookie season in the Super League during 2006-07. This was a great pick for Ottawa so late in the draft at No. 98. Considering his contract situation of not being tied to any club for five or six years, as many young players are in Russia, expect to him in North America in the next two or three years.

Vitaly Anikeyenko, D
70th overall, 2005

Vitaly Anikeyenko delivered an unspectacular rookie season in the Super League. While it is impressive that a defenseman of his age would even get any ice time in the Super League, a player of his potential should have made more with this great chance. At this point he has been overtaken in the Lokomotiv depth chart by another 87-born defenseman Alexei Schvalev. Anikeyenko has great size, above average skill and a good vision of the ice. What he seems to lack is the drive and the aggressiveness that is imperative for him to continue his development. The young blueliner started the season in the Super League and got a lot of opportunity to prove himself for over the first two and a half months of the regular season. While not impressive, Anikeyenko did not look out of the place in the Super League. Still he did not impress enough and was sent down to Lokomotiv’s farm team, Lokomotiv 2. Since November, he has skated in only two Super League games and it is unlikely he will be able to dislodge Schvalev for the U20 spot at least until the 2006-07 season.

Anikeyenko has very solid NHL potential, but he really needs to put all the pieces together and continue to push forward and jump-start his development. The young forward was all but assured a U20 Team Russia spot when the season started, but was left off the roster after a sub-par performance in the Super League. With that said, no one is giving up in the Lokomotiv organization on this young blue liner, as his upside is significant. Anikeyenko is not ready for the jump to the NHL or the AHL, and will need to find his motivation in Russia in a controlled environment. While Zubov should have probably been picked ahead of Anikeyenko, the young blue liner was still a strong pick by Ottawa.

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