Whenever the conversation shifts to the top Russian-born players available in the upcoming NHL draft, words such as "gifted," "talented" and "Russian factor" frequently are heard.
Some Russians prefer to hone their craft in North America during their draft season with an eye toward gaining an edge over those opting to remain at home.
The Dallas Stars selected the first Russian-born player at the 2013 NHL draft, choosing Valeri Nichushkin of Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League at No. 10. The ultra-talented Nichushkin was the first of eight Russian-born players selected at the draft, the highest total in five years.
Draft dandy of the week: Ehlers
There's no question Jonathan Drouin is the top draw for the Halifax Mooseheads this season, but rookie left wing Nikolaj Ehlers is the player on the "must-see" list of every NHL scout making the rounds in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Born in Aalborg, Denmark, the 5-foot-11.5, 162-pound left-handed shot perfected his game in Switzerland for Biel the past six seasons before joining Halifax this season. He was chosen by the Mooseheads in the first round (No. 6) of the 2013 CHL import draft and has been outstanding skating alongside Drouin.
"He's come over here and living up to the reputation that preceded him," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "One year ago Jonathan Drouin was the showstopper … but this year it was Ehlers. He's a skilled forward who can put together some highlight-reel moments when you put him with Drouin."
Ehlers, a "B"-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's October preliminary players to watch list for the 2014 NHL Draft, ranks seventh in the league with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists). He's also fifth in the league with a plus-17 rating.
"If you play with Drouin you have to be able to get the passes and dish the passes and Ehlers is that type of guy," Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau said. "He's a dynamic skater. I think this guy could play anywhere."
Ehlers acknowledged having the opportunity to skate with Drouin, taken by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 3 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, has been a great experience.
"Of course it's amazing to play with the third overall draft pick," Ehlers told NHL.com. "He's a great player, has a lot of skills and a great shot. I think I'm a fast forward and I like to use my speed, skill, vision and playmaking ability."
NHL team: Dallas Stars
NHL player: Mike Modano
Shootout move: "I have a few I like to use."
Goal celebration: "Difficult to describe; touching the ice with the glove and punch."
Video game: NHL14
Movie: Pearl Harbor
Actor: Jason Statham
Preferred music: "Mostly Danish music, but I like every kind of music."
Three you would invite to dinner: Mike Modano, Jason Statham, Frank Sinatra
Sport (other than hockey): Soccer, golf, tennis
Breakfast food: "Cinnamon Morning round, eggs, yogurt and chocolate milk."
-- Mike G. Morreale
The second Russian player off the board was defenseman Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo Sabres No. 16), who spent his draft season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Both players remain with their respective NHL teams.
For the 2014 NHL Draft, NHL Central Scouting identified three "A"-rated Russian-born forwards on its preliminary players to watch list in October: Nikita Scherbak of the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, Ivan Barbashev of the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Arkhip Nekolenko of Spartak in the MHL, Russia's top minor league.
Scherbak has been a pleasant surprise. Despite missing all of training camp and the preseason while general manager Lorne Molleken worked on his release from Kapitan Stupino in the MHL, Scherbak leads his team in goals (12), power-play goals (six) and plus/minus rating (plus-8), and is tied for the team lead in points (27).
"The best thing about him is that he's very coachable and teachable," Saskatoon coach Dave Struch told NHL.com. "Because he can skate he can get on the puck. But when he's not on it right away he's not afraid to make or take a hit. When you've got that part of a game from a Russian player it's exciting."
Barbashev is the only "A"-rated prospect from the QMJHL. He recently returned to the Moncton lineup after missing five games with a lower-body injury. He leads the team with 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) and is tied for the team lead with five power-play goals. Since returning from his injury Barbashev has two goals and seven points.
An illness has sidelined Nekolenko recently, but he had five goals and six points in 12 games to open the season. According to NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, the 6-foot-2, 176-pound right-handed shot should be back playing in about four weeks.
"He's a good player with mobility and can dominate on the ice," Stubb told NHL.com. "He can read the game well, is good around the net and in traffic."
The best Russian-born goalie at this stage might be Nikita Serebryakov, a "B"-rated prospect with the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League. Serebryakov (5-11.25, 170), who is listed among this week's "Prospects to Watch," is 1-1-1 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in four starts.
JUNIOR A CHALLENGE EVALUATIONS
Chris Edwards, who specializes in viewing top draft prospects from the Ontario Hockey League for NHL Central Scouting, is in Nova Scotia to witness the first four days of 2013 World Junior A Challenge.
Here are the players that caught Edwards' eye on Monday and Tuesday (listed alphabetically):
Cameron Hughes, C, Canada West: In a victory against Switzerland, the 5-10.75, 144-pound left-handed shot had two assists and, according to Edwards, probably should have been credited with a third since he "created the play." Hughes, who plays for the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2015. He has five goals and 16 points in 18 games in his second season with the Saints.
He had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 victory against the Czech Republic on Tuesday. Edwards told NHL.com that he was impressed with how the 17-year-old "had the puck all game and was full of energy."
"He was noticeable on every shift," Edwards said. "He was around the puck all game and showed great playmaking ability. He was excellent in the faceoff circle as well."
Vladislav Kamenev, LW, Russia: The "B"-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list was nimble and determined.
"On a line with [Kirill] Pilipenko and [Artur] Boltanov, they were creative and physical," Edwards said. "He handled the puck very well and made several great passes through traffic."
Kirill Pilipenko, RW, Russia: In two games, the 5-11, 183-pound right wing, who isn't eligible for the draft until 2015, led his team in points (five) and was tied for the team lead in goals (two). Pilipenko plays for HC MVD Balashikha in the MHL.
"He started the Russian comeback [against Canada East in a 6-2 win] and was dangerous every shift," Edwards said
Nick Schmaltz, C, United States: Edwards acknowledged that the "A"-rated prospect from the United States Hockey League was dominant on every shift. He finished with two goals and two assists to help lead the defending tournament champion to an 8-3 victory against Russia on Tuesday.
CJHL PROSPECTS GAME
A pair of Canadian Junior Hockey League Prospects Games this weekend will include six players identified by NHL Central Scouting as prospects to watch on its preliminary list that was revealed in October.
Team West will have five players, including Central Scouting's highest-rated player in center Tanner MacMaster of the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
MacMaster (5-9.25, 156), who earned a "B" rating, has four goals and 19 points in 21 games, including three power-play goals and one shorthanded. He is committed to Boston College in 2014-15.
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"He'll be ranked right up there with some of the best to ever come out of Camrose," Kodiaks coach Boris Rybalka told NHL.com. "But he also has an added feature and that's the tenacious side of him. Tanner is not afraid and sometimes we even have to pull him back. He just has God-given talent. He loves the game and plays with passion, heart and pride."
There are five players with "C" ratings competing in the game. Among that group for Team West are centers Tyler Busch of the Spruce Grove Saints (AJHL) and Mason Blacklock of the Vernon Vipers (BCHL), left wing Adam Rockwood of the Coquitlam Express (BCHL) and defenseman Luke Ripley of the Powell River Kings (BCHL). Team East has defenseman Brett Garvey of the Brockville Braves (CCHL).
REINHART NAMED TO WHL SUPER SERIES ROSTER
Sam Reinhart, who is projected to be among the first players picked at the 2014 NHL Draft, will be one of two draft-eligible prospects competing for the Western Hockey League against the Russian National Junior Team later this month at the 2013 Subway Super Series.
The league released a partial roster for Team WHL on Monday. The WHL will play Russia in Game 5 of the series in Red Deer, Alberta, on Nov. 27 and will conclude the series the following night in Lethbridge, Alberta. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will host the first two games of the series and the Ontario Hockey League will host Games 3 and 4.
Reinhart, a 6-0.75, 185-pound right-shot center who plays for the Kootenay Ice, was regarded as an "A"-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list from the WHL in October. Now in his third full season in the league, Reinhart has 74 goals and 179 points in 161 games. He has nine goals and 30 points in 18 games this season.
"Sam is extremely responsible in any area of the ice," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He has exceptional anticipation and is a very good opportunist, having the ability to make something out of nothing. He can dish the puck effortlessly to both sides and has a very high hockey IQ, is sneaky good and dangerous every shift."
Reinhart is the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart, who played 11 seasons with the Atlanta/Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. Sam also has two successful hockey-playing brothers. Max Reinhart was a third round pick of the Flames in 2010 and Griffin Reinhart was selected by the New York Islanders with the fourth pick of the 2012 draft.
In addition to Reinhart, center Colby Cave of the Swift Current Broncos was named to the WHL roster. Cave, who also is in his third full season in the WHL, has 10 goals and 20 points in 19 games for the Broncos. He is a "C"-rated prospect on Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list from the WHL.
PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
1. Keegan Iverson, Portland Winterhawks (WHL): A "B"-rated center on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list from the Western Hockey League, Iverson is in his second full season with Portland. He has six goals, 11 points and a plus-10 rating in 14 games. That includes five goals and nine points in the past eight games.
"He's a real north/south type of wing," MacDonald said. "He's a big, thick kid (6-0.75, 219), uses his size and has an effective forecheck. He has a physical presence and will help his team with good strong physical play and attention to the defensive side of game. He's offensively challenged but may come around more in that department as the season progresses."
2. Nikita Serebryakov, Saginaw Spirit (OHL): The 5-11.25, 170-pound goalie from Moscow, Russia, is in his second season in North America. He earned a "B" rating on Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list from the Ontario Hockey League, Serebryakov might be the first Russian goalie selected at the 2014 NHL Draft. Serebryakov might not see much action this season since he is playing behind one of the best junior goalies in the Canadian Hockey League in Jake Paterson, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round (No. 80) in 2013.
"He's very solid in all areas, has great instincts and is athletic," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com regarding Serebryakov. "He's very smart, has good reactions and quickness and is quick in his lateral ability. He has excellent strength and balance. He's not the biggest goalie but his net coverage is very good. He's a good goalie prospect to watch."
3. John Piccinich, Youngstown Phantoms (USHL): Committed to Boston University for the 2014-15 season, the Paramus, N.J., native is a "C"-rated prospect on Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list from the United States Hockey League. He is first on the team in goals (nine) and power-play goals (five) and second in points (12). The 5-11.5, 190-pound right wing is in his second season with Youngstown.
"He's got a quick release and has some finish," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen told NHL.com. "I like his short passing game down low and he was solid moving the puck on the rush. He has nice point totals for Youngstown early in season and we moved him up recently to a 'C' player on our watch list."