It wasn't by accident that the Tampa Bay Lightning scored a natural hat trick on Russian-born players chosen at the 2011 Entry Draft.
What was a tad surprising to Tampa Bay Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray was the fact the organization snared three of the top Russian prospects at their position with their opening three picks, spanning five rounds. Only eight Russians were drafted last month, meaning Tampa Bay cornered 37 percent of the Russian market at the draft.
The club's first-round choice (No. 27), center Vladislav Namestnikov
of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, is the only one of the group scheduled to participate in Tampa Bay's summer development camp, which runs through July 13 at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, Fla.
The team's second-round choice, right wing Nikita Kucherov (No. 58), has returned to Russia and will play in the KHL with CSKA in 2011-12. Meanwhile, fifth-round pick Nikita Nesterov (No. 148), a defenseman, awaits word on whether or not he'll join the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League for the upcoming season. Tri-City had drafted the 6-foot, 183-pound blueliner with the 16th selection of the 2010 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
"We talked to (Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman) a month before the draft and played out this scenario happening," Murray told NHL.com. "Some people seem to be backing off Russian players, but we want the best ones. We want the ones that are NHL-caliber and we had four (including Kitchener Rangers center Alexander Khokhlachev) on our list and ended up having three of them there when each of our picks came around.
"It wasn't planned ahead of time but something we discussed, so when it materialized, we were going to react according to how Steve wanted to do it. He wanted the most talented guys available."
In Namestnikov, Murray feels the organization scored an exceptional two-way player with solid skating and a tremendous skill set. He also had little concern over the Russian factor. While Namestnikov was born in Russia, he learned to play hockey in Michigan and was a frequent visitor to the Red Wings locker room as a youngster, courtesy of his uncle, Vyacheslav Kozlov.
"If you talked to him, he realizes he's a North American kid who had some training in Russia," Murray said.
In his first season in the OHL, Namestnikov had 69 points and a team-leading 30 goals, 11 on the power-play, and a plus-12 rating. His father, Jevgeni Namestnikov was drafted No. 117 by the Vancouver Canucks in 1991 and played 43 NHL games with the Canucks, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators between 1993 and 2000 before returning to play in Russia.
"He has a lot of similarities to (Winnipeg's) Alexander Burmistrov as a player as far as size and style of play," Murray said of Namestnikov. "Vlad was chosen a little later than we expected, so we're certainly happy to get him. From (Yzerman's) point of view, there's no reason to keep players out of the lineup if they're ready. The best philosophy is let's get everyone to training camp, see how they do, see who gets invited to main camp and then let the chips fall."
Kucherov represented bronze medal-winning Russia at the 2011 Under-18 World Championship, where he produced a tournament-leading 11 goals and 21 points in seven games en route to being named the event's best forward. He recorded 27 goals and 58 points in 41 games with CSKA's junior team, and then had 13 points in 10 games to help the team win its league title.
"The fact he came over to the (NHL Scouting) Combine, did the interviews and took the testing leads us to believe he's very interested in the NHL," Murray said. "As a skill player, we ranked him as a first round-caliber talent. His agent was very clear to us that he has a four-year contract with his team in Russia and expects him to be on the KHL roster full-time this year."
Interestingly, Namestnikov's father actually coached Kucherov as an assistant on CSKA's junior team and will be doing the same thing with CSKA's senior club in 2011-12.
"We talked to (Jevgeni Namestnikov) after the first round, after we had drafted his son, and got more information (on Kucherov)," Murray said. "(Kucherov) didn't speak any English but looked right at you when he spoke and didn't talk to the interpreter with his head down; he told us he wants to be an NHL player."
Despite being under contract in Russia, Kucherov said there would be a provision where he could leave when he felt he was ready to make the move to North America.
Nesterov wasn't listed as the best Russian defenseman according to NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters, but the right-handed shooter was the first Russian blueliner off the board at the draft. In 46 games for Chelyabinsk's junior team last season, he had 5 goals, 19 points and 72 penalty minutes.
"He's a very good skater with an edge to his game," Murray said. "He was drafted by Tri-City a year ago and was going to give the WHL a shot, but they couldn't get the paperwork done so he stayed in Russia this past season. They are hoping to be in Tri-City from the get-go this campaign."
In seven games at the World U18's, Nesterov had 2 goals, 4 points and a plus-11 rating.Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer