SUNRISE, Fla. -- The race by NHL teams to fill their prospect pools with talented Russian players began early and continued throughout the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center.
There was a time when drafting Russian players, particularly those playing overseas, came with a warning label: Proceed with caution.
That was due in large part to the "Russian factor," the perceived risk associated with drafting a Russian player who could opt to sign and play in the Kontinental Hockey League instead of coming to North America. A team drafting a Russian player who decided to play in the KHL effectively had wasted a pick.
Those days seem long gone.
Based on what NHL general managers and scouts have concluded in the past five NHL drafts, the Russian factor has basically become a moot point so long as the necessary research and homework is done.
In 2014, a dozen NHL teams drafted a total of 13 Russian players, the most in eight years. At the 2015 draft in South Florida, 14 NHL teams selected a total of 17 Russian players, the most in 11 years.
The 2004 draft, which saw Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin selected Nos. 1 and 2 by the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, had 18 Russians come off the board.
"If you're comfortable with your due diligence process and comfortable that the player will come over and play, I think the Russian factor has started to become less of a factor, no question," Florida Panthers director of scouting Scott Luce said. "The onus is on the organization to do their due diligence and do their homework. Once that's done, then you could look at the player for what he is as a hockey player. They're all good players and they deserve to be placed and picked where they were."
Four players born in Russia were selected in the first round Friday, including defenseman Ivan Provorov to the Philadelphia Flyers, right wing Denis Gurianov to the Dallas Stars, left wing Evgeny Svechnikov to the Detroit Red Wings and goaltender Ilya Samsonov to the Washington Capitals. It marked the most Russian players drafted in the first round of the draft since four were chosen in South Florida in 2001 (Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Svitov, Stanislav Chistov, Igor Knyazev).
Samsonov was the only goalie selected in the first round (No. 22), by the Washington Capitals.
"I was very surprised because I didn't have much contact with [the Capitals] and I didn't get a chance to go to Buffalo for interviews at the NHL Combine, so when they selected me I was very surprised," Samsonov said. "[Being selected the first goalie] is a big honor for me. I want to thank Washington. I'll work hard and do whatever I need to do to play well and succeed in the NHL."
Samsonov had former NHL coach Mike Keenan behind the bench for one game in the KHL with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2014-15.
"He's a pretty good coach; at times he could be very strict, but overall he's a great coach," Samsonov said. "He's a good person to learn from. He's a winner, and that's all I want to do: win."
The Red Wings used their highest draft pick ever on a Russian to select Svechnikov, who had 32 goals and 78 points as a rookie for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"He's magic," Svechnikov said when asked about playing with fellow Russian Pavel Datsyuk. "I am so happy. This is the best day ever."
"Our philosophy has always been that no matter where the player is from, do your homework, find out if he wants to be an NHL player, he's willing to spend time in the American Hockey League, and if the guy checks all those boxes than we've never been shy," Tampa Bay Lighting director of amateur scouting Al Murray said.
In Murray's initial year with the Lightning, he and his staff identified three Russian players for Tampa Bay's first three picks: center Vladislav Namestnikov (No. 27), forward Nikita Kucherov (No. 58) and defenseman Nikita Nesterov (No. 148). In the 2012 draft, Murray used the No. 19 pick to select Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"All three players we took (in 2011) indicated to us there was no issue about wanting to come over, that they'd play in the minors if they had to," Murray said. "They are all on our team at this particular time, and we have Vasilevskiy with us as well."
The Flyers selected three Russian players Friday and Saturday, including the first off the board in Provorov with the No. 7 pick. Provorov has spent the past four years in North America, including the 2014-15 season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League. The Flyers then selected center Mikhail Yorobyov (fourth round, No. 104), who spent the past season with Ufa 2 in Russia's junior league, and goaltender Ivan Fedotov (seventh round, No. 188) of Nizhnekamsk 2.
"I think that a lot of things come into effect when considering Russian players," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. "When a kid is playing in North America, you feel a lot more comfortable that a kid is going to come here and stay here. The kid playing over in Russia is the one you're not so sure. Those are they kids that typically drop. We feel more comfortable with the kid playing major junior."
The Stars selected the first Russian playing overseas in right wing Denis Gurianov of Togliatti 2. The 6-foot-3, 192-pound left-hander, who compares his style to Dallas forward Valeri Nichushkin, was chosen No. 12.
"I think you start looking at success in the League, you look at Tampa Bay and the Russian players they had on their team," Stars GM Jim Nill said. "Washington as well; these guys are good players. I think the KHL isn't' quite the threat it was because of the changing economy in Russia. In the end, good hockey players want to play in the best league in the world, so I think they're coming over here more."
NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory feels NHL teams are a lot more confident in drafting Russian players.
"There's more of an understanding in the development and understand there are outs in contracts that could get them to the NHL, so getting back to the NHL teams has increased," Gregory said. "With more knowledge and experience, confidence grows in making the picks, and teams are willing to take that player because he's too good to pass up."
Dan Marr, the NHL director of Central Scouting, feels the NHL Scouting Combine has become an important tool in meeting those Russian players unfamiliar with the North America culture.
"I don't think there's any hesitation where the passport is concerned anymore; it's all based on the projection," Marr said. "The team's comfort level is there, and the Combine helps when they come over.
"Today's hockey players are just far more educated about their options, about what lies ahead. They've kind of been prepared for the next step in their hockey career."