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The Russian Factor

by Jamie Kelly / Tampa Bay Lightning

When it comes to scouting in the National Hockey League, every team has a different philosophy leading up to the annual NHL Entry Draft.

Some teams favor players from specific leagues or nationalities, while others use robust tactics and generalizations to add depth to their prospect pool.

The Buffalo Sabres, for instance, used ‘video scouting’ just a few years ago under former owner Tom Golisano until new owner Terry Pegula came on board in 2011 and axed that method, eventually re-hiring a full-time scouting staff.

Despite all of the diverse and unique ways scouting staffs around the league go about solidifying their pre-draft rankings, players holding a Russian passport have had a high risk/high reward label tabbed on them that, as recent history has shown, has made scouts err on the side of caution.

From the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, all the way through the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, a total of 85 players from Russia were selected.

In 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League was founded and has since become the strongest hockey league in Europe, and considered by many as the second best league in the world behind the NHL. 20 of the 26 teams in the KHL reside in Russia and the league has become a haven for Russian-born to make their living playing there.

Statistics have shown that the creation of the KHL has had an effect on the five NHL Entry Drafts since the formation of the league.

From 2008-12, only 45 players from Russia were selected in entry drafts, a significant drop off compared to the five drafts prior to the creation of the KHL.

You could argue that Russia has just not produced the same high-quality talent the last five years as they have in the past, but one would be remiss not to recognize the effect the KHL has had on the NHL Entry Draft, especially during the expansion of the KHL.

Al Murray, the Lightning’s director of amateur scouting, believes the KHL had an initial effect on where Russians stood at the draft, but thinks teams are no longer scared at the prospect of picking Russians.

“For sure, I think initially teams were worried about the KHL impact,” said Murray. “But as things have gone along I think teams realize that the best players want to play in the best league if the finances are comparable.”

Murray spent 19 years in the Los Angeles Kings organization, first as a western area scout from 1988-94, than as director of amateur scouting from 1994-07. After almost two decades with the Kings, Murray moved on and became the head scout of Hockey Canada where he was responsible for orchestrating the 2008 and 2009 National Junior team rosters that won gold at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.

After Jeff Vinik became owner of the Lightning in 2010, one of his first moves was hiring Steve Yzerman as general manager of the club.

With a new direction firmly in tow, and an ownership group fully intent on bringing a championship back to Tampa Bay, Yzerman followed in Vinik’s footsteps by making the shrewd move of hiring Murray away from Hockey Canada in August of 2010.

Through the two drafts that Murray has been responsible for with the Lightning, the club has selected five Russian players, the most out of any team in the NHL.

So why have the Lightning been so apt to select Russian players since Murray came on board? The answer is simple.

“There is no connection or secret to why our drafts have turned out that way,” Murray notes. “We don’t care what nationality you are, as long as we do our homework and make sure the players want to come to North America than we have no problem picking them.

“When I came on board, a group of us sat down with Steve (Yzerman) and we looked at our team philosophy and what we would be looking for in players and there was a number of different criteria we wanted to reach,” Murray said. “We wanted a certain level of hockey sense, competitiveness, skill, size and skating and at no point did the nationality of the player ever come into the equation.”

The KHL will always pose a risk as an eventual option for these Russian prospects, but Murray points to an interesting stat that proves elite-level Russian prospects aspire to play in the NHL.

“We did a check of all the top Russian prospects since the last lockout in 2004-05, and with the exception of one player, anyone drafted within the top three rounds has come over to North America to pursue the NHL,” Murray said.

“When these players tell us they want to come and play in the NHL, for the most part they do,” Murray notes. “In this case, the top Russian players will always come over; we are never worried about that.”

One of those players is Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov, who was a second-round draft pick, 52nd overall, of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

The Maikop, Russia native chose to leave home this year and ply his trade in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he was intent on learning the North American game.

Prospect Nikita Kucherov indicated his desire to play in America leading up to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

When the highly skilled Russian was still on the board late in the second round, Murray and the Lightning staff jumped at the chance to select him.

“Nikita made it evident he wanted to play in North America when we spoke to him at the NHL combine,” Murray said. “We thought it was a reasonable selection in the second round with his talent level and what we expected was a genuine interest in coming over.”

“At the time when we drafted him he had a four-year commitment to his team in Russia but we viewed that as a high school kid having a commitment to a college team after he graduated, so we thought it was a good development situation.”

With Kucherov getting out of his contract in Russia early, he found himself caught in a numbers game this season with the Quebec Remparts, where Canadian Hockey League teams are only able to carry two European imports. With imports Nick Sorenson, and fellow Russian Mikhail Grigerenko being returnees on the team and not missing any time with injury, Kucherov was the odd man out and was traded to the Rouyn Noranda Huskies.

Having already faced the adversity of missing time with a shoulder injury and being traded so early in his junior career, Kucherov has performed admirably considering the circumstances, collecting five goals and 14 points in just eight games.

Murray is happy with what he sees in the youngster.

“I think what you’re seeing is a player with high-end skill adapting really well to the North American game,” Murray adds. “His hockey sense is top notch and he can score points at will. We were really pleased with his decision to come over this year and he is proving to be a dominant player in the QMJHL.”

Noting fellow countryman Pavel Datsyuk and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman as his favorite players growing up, Kucherov maintains his goal is to one day follow in his idols footsteps.

“My only goal is to play in the NHL as soon as possible,” Kucherov said. “I have never wanted to do anything else in life and that is the only goal.”

The number of Russian players being selected in NHL drafts is slowly getting back to the level it was before the KHL was formed, and that is a testament to these young prospects showing a willingness to come to North America and play in the NHL.

With Lightning prospects, and Russian-natives, like Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov already in North America developing their games, the Bolts are hopeful Andrei Vasilevski ,who is arguably their top goaltending prospect in the system, will join them in North American next season to play goal for the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League.

And oh yeah, he’s Russian too.

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