On the flip side, playing in a junior league or being loaned to a minor league team may not provide the same degree of challenge. However, it usually offers the benefit of providing much more ice time in a variety of different situations.
There is no one right or wrong path. Every situation is unique. It must also be kept in mind that European hockey organizations, especially those in Russia’s KHL, operate to meet the needs of their own parent clubs and not to factor in where a prospect’s drafting NHL organization would ideally prefer him to play.
Selected by the Flyers in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft, Mikhail Vorobyov is a good example of a promising young player who earned a promotion from the junior level to the elite league but it came at the expense of playing time.
In the big picture, Flyers Russia-based scout Ken Hoodikoff feels that Vorobyov is progressing.
“His game is coming along,” Hoodikoff said. “Skating is fine. He should be a strong candidate for next year’s World Junior Championships.”
Adding strength, which will also allow the 6-foot-2 Vorobyov to add a little more power to his skating and his work in puck battles, is one big key to taking the next steps.
In Russia as with most European hockey countries, teams operate their own development programs with junior (under-20) feeder clubs providing a training ground for young talent. Specific to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the top junior league is the MHL.
Vorobyov’s parent team in the KHL is Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Its MHL junior team is Tolpar Ufa. Vorobyov started the 2015-16 season with Tolpar. Despite a three-assist opening game, Vorobyov struggled early while coming off an injury.
“He started off slow this year after his operation, and quickly regaining his previous form after around 10 games or so into the regular MHL season,” Hoodikoff said. “Worked hard, started to show more offensively, playing with the puck, was able to take some chances offensively at that level, creating offensive opportunities for himself and his linemates. He began putting up some numbers.”
The Russian regular season starts about a month earlier than their North American counterparts. Through the first month of the season, Vorobyov did not have much to show for his efforts. However, as October rolled around, he caught fire.
Over a five-game span from Oct. 3 to 16th, Vorobyov tore apart opposing teams for four goals, eight assists and 12 points. The parent KHL club took notice. The teenage center, who turned 19 on Jan. 5, earned his first KHL recall to Salavat Yulaev Ufa on Oct. 20th. A healthy scratch for the first game he was available, Vorobyov made his debut two nights later in a 3-1 win over Dinamo Riga. Over his next three games, Vorobyov received 4:40, 3:16 and 8:56 of ice time then was a healthy scratch again for two games.
“In the KHL, everyone is bigger, and everything is faster,” Hoodikoff notes. “Mikhail was expected to play a simple, defense-first type of game – forecheck, backcheck, short shifts. No mistakes! He spent the majority of those games just warming the bench.”
Vorobyov was returned to Tolpar in mid-November. He promptly rattled off a four-game point streak (two goals, four assists, six points) and won more than 60 percent of his faceoffs in that span. After that, except for a two-game return to the MHL squad in February, Vorobyov spent the rest of the year in the KHL with Salavat Yulaev. His MHL log finished with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 21 games.
Once back with the KHL team, Vorobyov reached double-digit ice time only twice. On Dec. 5, he scored his first KHL goal, stealing a puck at the defensive blueline, skating up the left wing and firing a shot home from the top of the left circle. He celebrated with a little taunt of the HC Sochi fans. On Jan. 10, Vorobyov scored his second goal and skated a season-high 12:56 over 19 shifts.
For the KHL season, Vorobyov appeared in 28 games (two goals, one assist, three points). However, there were many games where he saw the ice for less than five total minutes including one game where he skated all of a single 35-second shift. This is not uncommon for young players in Europe and is a key reason why early-career offensive stats are often a poor barometer for progress.
One area of mild disappointment was that, when the playoffs rolled around, Salavat Yulaev opted to keep Vorobyov with the big club as a spare forward rather than assigning him to Tolpar for the MHL playoffs.
“I was hoping that Ufa would have at least allowed Mikhail to join his junior team in the MHL playoffs but, unfortunately, they didn't. His MHL team lost three straight games and was eliminated in the first round. Salavat Yulaev is still alive in the [third round of] KHL playoffs, but Vorobyov has only dressed in one game – playing just 1:29 over three shifts and taking two faceoffs – while sitting out the rest as a healthy scratch,” Hoodikoff said.
Hoodikoff remains bullish on Vorobyov’s long-term potential and believes the player will receive greater responsibilities in 2016-17. Nevertheless, the Flyers scout admits that he would have preferred to see Vorobyov play a little more this season even if it was at the MHL level.
“UFA management likes him. They have high hopes for Mikhail next season,” Hoodikoff said. “But from a development point of view, in my opinion, it would have been better if they would have given him more time in the MHL, given him more time to develop his offensive abilities against his own age group.”
Despite the lack of KHL playing time he received, Vorobyov at least had the opportunity to practice daily among a group of highly skilled pros. The Salavat Yulaev roster included the likes of former NHL forwards Igor Grigorenko, Linus Omark, Enver Lisin. Teemu Hartikainen and Oleg Saprykin. Vorobyov also had opportunity to test himself in practice against former Boston Bruins goaltender Niklas Svedberg and defensemen such as Sami Lepisto and former Flyers prospect/ Phantoms defenseman Denis Bodrov.
For his part, Vorobyov has told the Russian media that he would be interested in playing for the Flyers when the time is right for both sides.
Speaking to Russian outlet vyborSports.ru, Vorobyov said that he was excited to be drafted by Philadelphia although he did not attend the NHL Draft or the team's development camp in Voorhees.
Although he is unlikely to play in North America for several years, the player said he'd like in the near future to visit with the team and become acquainted with the people and training facilities.
"I want to go - to see there, to meet with the leadership," Vorobyov told vyborSports.
Vorobyov said it was a Russian Under-18 national squad teammate, captain Yegor Rykov, who called him up and was the first to inform Vorobyov that he had been drafted by the Flyers. Vorobyov said he was mildly surprised but he had talked to scouts from many different NHL organizations over the past year and the Flyers and Vancouver Canucks were the ones with whom he'd the most contact.
The player was asked if he considered coming overseas -- either last year or now that he's been drafted -- to play Canadian junior hockey. Although there were overtures from CHL clubs, Vorobyov wanted to remain home. The big center, who turned 18 on January 5th, was ultimately not selected in the CHL Import Draft.
"Yes, there were such thoughts [to play North American junior hockey], but I talked to my parents, agent and coach we came to the decision that it is better to stay in Russia," Vorobyov said. "What's the difference where to play? The main thing - to work on yourself and [develop]."
For more on Flyers prospects playing in the NCAA, junior and European hockey leagues see below…