Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.
Prince George coach and former NHL defenseman Richard Matvichuk can understand the hype surrounding left wing Nikita Popugaev.
Popugaev has learned how to get the most from his 6-foot-6, 217-pound frame in his second season in the Western Hockey League. He understands the benefit of shielding the puck, using his reach and when to unleash his NHL-caliber shot.
"Once he gets the puck he's very strong down low; you can see why people are touting him as a potential first-round pick because the ultimate potential is there," Matvichuk said. "You can see he's still young, being new to Canada, but everything he does is the proper way. He wants to learn. He walks into the coaches' office and asks the right questions."
Matvichuk won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, part of a 14-season NHL career, so he has a good idea of what's needed to succeed at the next level.
"With how big these guys are, how fast they can skate, I do feel Nikita has the qualities," Matvichuk said. "I was fortunate to play in both eras, when there was clutching and grabbing and then at a time where if you couldn't skate, you couldn't play. The way guys get below the tops of the circles and protect the puck now is amazing, and Nikita can do that."
Popugaev was selected by Moose Jaw with the No. 23 pick of the 2015 CHL Import Draft and had 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 70 games in 2015-16.
"I wanted to play hockey in Canada because here the hockey is better for your draft position," said Popugaev, No. 28 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters. He had 51 points (22 goals, 29 assists) in 40 games with Moose Jaw and was traded to Prince George for two players and two draft picks Jan. 5.
"I didn't mind the trade because I don't know how many more years I'd play in the WHL," Popugaev said.
At the time of the trade, Prince George general manager Todd Harkins referred to Popugaev as a game changer. In 31 games after the trade, Popugaev had 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists), and three points (one goal, two assists) in a six-game loss to Portland in the 2017 WHL playoffs.
Popugaev, a right-shot forward, played left and right wing for Prince George.
"I haven't had him at center, but he's been on the left wing and he plays right wing when I need him," Matvichuk said. "The best thing about him on left wing is when he comes across on his forehand. He's so big and strong that he gets that leverage and it's really hard to take pucks away from him when he gets inside the offensive blue line."
Popugaev also played on the top line for Team Orr at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Quebec City on Jan. 30. His line, which included Halifax center Nico Hischier and Spokane right wing Kailer Yamamoto, combined for six points (two goals, four assists) in a 7-5 loss, but the chemistry between them was evident from the outset. Popugaev had one assist and three shots on goal.
"I've played against [Popugaev] for two years now and he's unbelievable," Yamamoto said. "He's putting up points in the WHL at a good clip."
Popugaev compares his style of play to Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. John Williams of NHL Central Scouting said he sees a bit of Montreal Canadiens forward Nikita Scherbak in Popugaev's game. Scherbak, who made his NHL debut this season, spent two seasons in the WHL and was selected by the Canadiens with the No. 26 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft.
"[Popugaev] has an NHL shot; we're going to continue to work on his release," Matvichuk said. "We want to help add that little two-inch pull where you can change the angle of a shot on goalies. We worked on that with him quite often but the good thing is we have him playing his off wing so he's getting used to shooting it in stride.
"We show him video clips on a constant basis, work with him to get that release to where we feel it's going to freeze goaltenders."