This time around, it’s possible the first three players chosen in the NHL Entry Draft will have Russian blood. In fact, it is possible that the first six to eight forwards to go on June 22 in Pittsburgh will be from Europe.
“The forwards that are going to be taken high because of their skill level are all either guys playing in Europe or Europeans playing in North America,” Lightning director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. “It seems every kid that had talent in this age group in North America went and played defense.”
The United States can claim some ownership of Alex Galchenyuk, who was born in Wisconsin when his father, Alexander, was playing for the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. The younger Galchenyuk also played for Team USA at the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Regardless, the early portion of the first round should have an international flavor. Some mock drafts have Russians Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Galchenyuk going 1-2-3.
Yakupov, from Nizhnekamsk which is 500 miles east of Moscow, has shined for Steven Stamkos’ former team the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League the last two seasons. TSN Scout Craig Button says the dynamic right wing, at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, reminds of Pavel Bure or Marian Gaborik.
“He’s smart, competitive and he wants to make a difference in games,” Button said. “He’s an exciting player to watch.”
Grigorenko is a big, rangy center at 6-3, 200, who played for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season. His offensive game improved under coach Patrick Roy (85 points) and he had plus-35 rating.
“He’s really aware, smart and he’s a terrific skater,” Button said.
Galchenyuk played beside Yakupov in 2010-11 at Sarnia, but he suffered a torn ACL early this season. He returned to play six games in the OHL playoffs.
Button said there was no better player in the world than Galchenyuk when he was playing for the Chicago Young Americans amateur team in 2009-10. Galchenyuk has also lived in Germany, Russia, Italy, Switzerland and speaks Italian, Russian and English.
Russian Forward Vladimir Namestnikov served as the Lightning's first-round pick at No. 27 in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft last June.
“He’s not going to win the fastest skater award in the league,” Button said of the 6-1, 197-pound center. “But he’s the type of player that’s going to play in every situation.”
The player that is most likely to be the first non-Russian forward to be selected is Filip Forsberg from Sweden. Filip is not related to the great Peter Forsberg, but many say he has a similar style. Forsberg, a 6-2, 181-pound wing, was the youngest player on Sweden’s World Junior Championship team last January.
“He’s a blend of skill, power and will,” Button said. “His game needs to mature a little, but he’s got a great shot, hands and he’s very determined.”
Another wing Teuvo Teravainen from Finland likely won’t last past the 10th pick, despite being about 165 pounds.
“He’s diminutive, but he’s really elusive, quick and he passes the puck well,” Button said. “He had success for a team (Jokerit) that reached the league semifinals.”
Radek Faksa, a 6-3, 202-pound Czech, averaged more than a point a game for Kitchener of the OHL this season. Kitchener has produced forwards Gabriel Landeskog (2011), Jeff Skinner (2010) and Mikkel Boedker (2008), all of which went within the top-eight picks.
“He’s a big, thick, kid who really learned a lot about himself by coming over and playing in the OHL,” Button said. “He thinks fast, makes good plays. He may not go in the top 10 picks, but in two or three years you may be wondering why.”
The Vermont-bound “Latvian Locomotive” Zemgus Girgensons, talented Czech Martin Frk, who has had concussion issues and Swede Sebastian Collberg could also go high. Brendan Gaunce, who had 68 points in 68 games for Belleville of the OHL and stands 6-2, 215, is the highest-rated pure North American forward on the Central Scouting Bureau list at No. 13.
The Russians are coming along
The Lightning selected Russians with their first three picks last June and Murray said each player is progressing on schedule.
Namestnikov, a center, will be leading London into the Memorial Cup after scoring 71 points in 63 regular-season games. Through the first 19 playoff games, he had totaled 19 points.
“We took [Namestnikov] because, even if he never recorded a point, we felt he could be an effective defensive shutdown player,” Murray said. “He can skate well and gets himself in very good defensive position.”
Second-round pick Nikita Kucherov had injury problems, but the winger performed well on one of the top lines for the silver-medal winning Russian team at the World Juniors. Fifth-round selection Nikita Nesterov was the only 1993-born defenseman to play regularly at the World Juniors as well.
“All three guys did exactly what we thought they’d do,” Murray said. “They took significant steps.”
Will the Lightning add more European players to their prospect pool? The answers will come in about five weeks.