TORONTO -- The names Alexander Radulov and Nikita Filatov won't get mentioned a whole lot this week at the NHL Scouting Combine, but their specter certainly hangs over more than a few teams and top prospects.
With so many talented players of Russian descent available for teams to choose from heading into the 2010 Entry Draft in Los Angeles June 25-26, teams have to weigh more than just how skilled these players are on the ice. They have to judge whether they are committed to staying and playing North America.
"You like to think the top Russian players will want to play in the National Hockey League," Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Rick Dudley told NHL.com. "It's the best league there is. There is some trepidation, I'm sure, and naturally so, because there is, financially, an avenue they could take that may be as good as or better than what you can offer them with an entry-level contract in the National Hockey League."
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That was the case with Radulov, who elected to return to Russia in 2008 with a year still remaining on his contract. Radulov, who was coming off a career-best 26-goal season in 2007-08, was expected to remain a major part of the Nashville offense. Without him, the Predators missed the playoffs the following season and have struggled to find a similar scoring threat.
Filatov's case was a bit different. The Columbus Blue Jackets selected the flashy forward with the sixth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft. He scored in his first NHL game and had a hat trick in his sixth. It was expected he would compete for a top-two line spot this season.
However, he never adapted to how coach Ken Hitchcock wanted him to play, and after scoring just twice in 13 games and finding himself a healthy scratch, Filatov and GM Scott Howson agreed the youngster would be better served finishing the season in Russia.
Filatov had 22 points in 26 KHL games, and while Howson said he expects Filatov to be back in Columbus this season, nothing is guaranteed.
How do other teams see those incidents? Are they isolated to two players -- one who left over money, the other in a dispute with a coach -- or something that affects how all Russian-born players are viewed by NHL teams?
"I think those are more isolated (incidents) than normal," Dudley said. "In Filatov's case, I expect him to be back. In Radulov's case, I think eventually he'll come back, too."
At the draft table, however, teams don't want to hear maybes -- especially not in the first round. So with all things being equal, will teams choose a North American player ahead of a Russian-born player?
"Apples for apples, I would say that would be true," Dudley said. "That just makes sense."
Tim Burke, the San Jose Sharks' Director of Scouting, had a different opinion, and believes teams will take their chances with the Russian players.
Nikita Filatov (Getty Images)
"They might say they will (pick a North American ahead of a Russian), but the proof will be when they get drafted," Burke told NHL.com. "This group of Russians in particular has been good for two or three years. It's not like they haven't performed at a pretty high level. … These kids are that good."
"Some teams may say this is the best player available and we'll eventually get them. That goes down to the philosophy of the general manager and the scouting staff. You definitely want to make sure you have as many I's dotted and T's crossed as possible so you know what you're getting into with that pick."- New York Islanders Director of Amateur Scouting Ryan Jankowski
"Some teams may view it as a gamble," New York Islanders Director of Amateur Scouting Ryan Jankowski told NHL.com. "Some teams may say this is the best player available and we'll eventually get them. That goes down to the philosophy of the general manager and the scouting staff. You definitely want to make sure you have as many I's dotted and T's crossed as possible so you know what you're getting into with that pick."
This year the debate centers around a number of highly-touted players, including Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov, forwards ranked Nos. 2 and 3 on NHL Central Scouting's list of European skaters for the 2010 Entry Draft, as well as Barrie Colts center Alexander Burmistrov and Saint John Sea Dogs right wing Stanislav Galiev, both of whom are ranked among the top 20 North American skaters by Central Scouting.
"When you meet a kid like Galiev and Burmistrov, these kids are really good kids," Burke said. "One kid makes one mistake, some teams might be saying no … and the next thing you know they take him. You don't know."
Galiev started hearing those questions during the interview process at the Combine. He met with seven teams Monday, and each team questioned his commitment to playing and staying in North America.
"If I wanted to get more money, big money, I can go to the KHL," Galiev told NHL.com. "But I want to play in the best hockey league (the NHL). That's why I came to North America."
The 2009-10 season was Galiev's second in North America; he played last season with the Indiana Ice of the USHL prior to joining Saint John. That shows a certain level of commitment that likely impressed some teams.
But those teams also likely were impressed by what Radulov and Filatov said prior to being drafted. Radulov, in fact, played two seasons in the QMJHL after the Predators selected him.
As with anything else when it comes to scouting, the final decision comes down to learning everything you can about the player in question, and then hoping for the best.
"You have to do your homework," Dudley said. "We like to think we do our homework pretty well. There are no guarantees in life, but you hope you get a pretty good indication of what the player wants to do prior to drafting him."