VAUGHAN, Ont. -- The Russians are coming.
Unlike last year, when Vladislav Namestnikov was the only Russian-born player selected in the opening round -- going to the Tampa Bay Lightning at No. 27 -- there could be as many as four selected among the first 30 picks at the 2012 NHL Draft, which will be held June 22 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
That list includes lightning-quick Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting, big center Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts and goalie Andrei Vasilevski of Ufa 2 in Russia's minor hockey league.
The fourth happens to be Russian-American -- center Alex Galchenyuk of the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting. Galchenyuk was born in Milwaukee, but lists Moscow as his hometown on his NHL Central Scouting questionnaire. His Russian-born father was playing for the American Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals when Alex was born. The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Galchenyuk, who speaks Italian, Russian and English, has lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Russia.
If Yakupov and Galchenyuk are chosen with the first two picks in this year's draft, it would mark the first time in 43 years that teammates were taken with the top two picks; in 1969, Montreal Junior Canadiens teammates Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif were drafted by the Montreal Canadiens with the first two picks.
It also would make the second time ever Russian-born players were taken with the first two picks -- in 2004, Alex Ovechkin went No. 1 to the Washington Capitals and Evgeni Malkin was taken No. 2 by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 18-year-old Galchenyuk, who spent most of the 2011-12 season out recuperating from ACL surgery in October, made his regular-season debut March 14. He played one game before departing a March 16 game against the London Knights with an upper-body injury.
He's returned for the OHL playoffs, and in six games, he has two goals and four points for the Sting. Despite missing most of the season, the evaluators at NHL Central Scouting feel teams would be crazy to pass on such a talent.
"I'd be shocked if he didn't go in the top 10," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "In the two playoff games I went to, he was noticeable in both games. He can really pass and handle the puck. He didn't look like he had any lingering effects from knee surgery. To me, he looked like he was 100 percent."
Playing alongside Yakupov last season, Galchenyuk had 31 goals and 83 points in 68 games. Galchenyuk and Yakupov were the top two prospects on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of the top 25 skaters from the Ontario Hockey League in November. In January, Yakupov was listed as the No. 1 North American skater eligible for the draft; Galchenyuk wasn't ranked, instead being listed as "limited viewing" due to his injury
One thing is certain -- Galchenyuk will not be listed under the "limited viewing" tag when Central Scouting unveils its final list of North American players eligible for the 2012 Draft in two weeks. There appears to be as many as six Russian-born players in this year's draft class who could be considered future stars. Five of them played in the Canadian Hockey League this season, while one was honing his skills back home.
While Director of NHL Central Scouting, Dan Marr, believes it is a personal preference where those top Russian players decide to play in their draft year, spending at least one season in North America does have its benefits.
"I think it's an individual thing with each player, but I do think [playing in North America] gives them an advantage," Marr told NHL.com. "They've had the time to transition and it's a whole new lifestyle living in a different country. I do think it helps prepare them, but there are also many players who come over mature and physically developed … they don't need that transition time."
Here's a closer look at each of the six Russian players on Central Scouting's radar entering the June draft:
Nail Yakupov, RW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
2011-12: 42 games, 31 goals, 38 assists, 69 points, plus-15, 12 power-play goals
The Skinny: Yakupov has been the consensus No. 1 pick all season. He has been described by scouts as a "difference-maker" on offense on virtually every shift.
NHL Central Scouting: "I'm surprised that Sarnia doesn't sell out every game as this player is worth the price of admission to watch him in warm-ups," Gary Eggleston told NHL.com. "I haven't seen a kid like this with hand speed in some time. He has quick reflexes and his decision-making and reactions are lightning-quick. He might have the quickest stick I've seen in memory; he protects the puck well and is a franchise-type player in the waiting. He beats defenders with ease with the puck on a string."
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
2011-12: 59 games, 40 goals, 45 assists, 85 points, plus-35, 8 power-play goals
The Skinny: A gifted 6-foot-3.25, 200-pound center who may turn out to be a franchise centerpiece.
NHL Central Scouting: "He's got pretty much everything you need: Size, great hands and makes great plays," Chris Bordeleau said. "He can really shoot the puck and it's just a matter of getting accustomed to bringing that work ethic every night, every game, every situation. That will come with maturity."
Alex Galchenyuk, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
2011-12: 2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists (missed 66 games, ACL surgery)
The Skinny: The report from Central Scouting during their final meeting in April was that Galchenyuk appears 100-percent recovered from the knee injury that hindered him all season long. If he drops in the draft, some team is going to be extremely fortunate.
NHL Central Scouting: "Now that he's back, every NHL scouting staff has a history with this player," Dan Marr said. "Everyone is seeing the things they expected to see. Going into this draft, he was considered one of the top '94 birth years available and I think he has earned the respect of all the NHL clubs at this stage."
Daniil Zharkov, LW, Belleville Bulls (OHL)
2011-12: 50 games, 23 goals, 13 assists, 36 points, 9 power-play goals
The Skinny: The 6-foot-3, 197-pound forward left his native St. Petersburg in the middle of last season to play with the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League, where he had eight goals and 11 points in 36 games. He joined the Bulls in 2011-12 and, despite being sidelined by a broken collarbone early on, has made an impact.
NHL Central Scouting: "He's got size and plays with energy out there, is a strong skater and has a knack to get open on the play," Marr said. "He's learning the game here and it's caught up with him a little bit, but he's back on track in the playoffs where he gets opportunities and seizes them."
Anton Zlobin, RW, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
2011-12: 66 games, 40 goals, 36 assists, 76 points, plus-42, 8 power-play goals
The Skinny: The 5-11, 195-pound right wing is an interesting prospect as he was passed over during the 2011 draft but certainly has a lot to offer. He led his team in scoring this season and has 63 goals and 121 points in 125 QMJHL games.
NHL Central Scouting: "He's another talented Russian player in the 'Q,'" Bordeleau said. "He's got a good shot and great hands, but for some reason he's been a little inconsistent. Then again, we can say that for a lot of guys, and he did score 40 goals. He's got the skills; it's just a matter of working through all that stuff … he has a chance."
Andrei Vasilevski, G, Ufa 2 (MHL)
2011-12: 27 games, 2.23 goals-against average, .931 save percentage
The Skinny: He might have overtaken Malcolm Subban of the Belleville Bulls as the top draft-eligible goalie this June. Vasilevski, selected in the first round (No. 7) of the 2011 KHL Junior Draft by Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, has spent most of his time playing in the MHL with Tolpar Ufa. He opened some eyes with his remarkable play at the 2012 World Junior Championship for silver medal-winning Russia. In seven games, he went 5-2 with a 2.01 goals-against average, two shutouts, and a .958 save percentage. The only thing that may sway teams from drafting Vasilevski early is the "Russian factor," but his talent and size (6-3.25, 204) will be hard to ignore.
NHL Central Scouting: "He played two great tournaments in North America and was the key player for Russia's Under-18 team in November," Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a big guy with excellent size and that helps him cover the net very well. His angels and positional play are excellent and he has very good instincts; reads the game well. He's a game-winning goalie and will be the key player for Russia at the [World Under-18 Championship] in the Czech Republic [April 12-22]."
Added Al Jensen: "He's a big, athletic, strong goalie who has NHL pro written all over him. … No doubt."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale