The Russia factor: NHL teams wary of prospects who could bolt for KHL

TORONTO – There was one question Nail Yakupov couldn’t escape during the NHL’s scouting combine.

Mikhail Grigorenko and Andrey Vasilevskiy kept getting it, too. Even Alex Galchenyuk—an American despite his Russian-sounding last name—was unable to get through an interview this week without being asked why he’d rather play pro hockey in North America than the Russian-based KHL.

“I told (my parents) that since I was a little kid my dream was to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup,” said Galchenyuk, who was born in Milwaukee. “It’s not to play in the KHL and Gagarin Cup. I think I want to be a great player in the NHL and play against the best players. …

“I just want to play in the NHL and I see myself in the NHL.”

It’s become increasingly difficult for Russian teenagers to convince NHL teams of that fact. Consider that 47 Russians were selected in the 1992 draft alone, yet only 39 have been taken in the past five years combined.

The point will come into focus even more this month at the draft in Pittsburgh, where Yakupov is expected to be the No. 1 pick overall and Grigorenko and Vasilevskiy are potential first-round selections along with Galchenyuk.

However, even the top-ranked Russian players elicit concern from some NHL teams. It’s a taboo subject for many—general managers and scouts alike are loathe to speak publicly on the topic—but the continued threat posed by the KHL is causing many to think twice before drafting teenagers from Russia.

“Part of the problem is you never get them to buy in,” said Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “There’s always that little option that when you face some adversity, it’s easier just to say ‘nyet’ and go in the other direction (to the KHL) instead of making it work. You have that out.

“I think I can speak to probably every manager in the game saying there’s some hesitation there.”

That much was made clear to the current batch of Russian prospects as they were subjected to interviews from as many as 20 teams. Even Yakupov and Grigorenko, who both moved from their homeland to play in the Canadian Hockey League, found themselves repeatedly explaining their future intentions.

“All the teams asked me about this, about the KHL,” Grigorenko said. “I understand why they’re concerned about this, but I told them I will not go there for sure.”

The 18-year-old managed to display a sense of humour about the topic. He went through interviews on Thursday wearing a polo shirt adorned with a large red Maple Leaf that he picked up at a local mall.

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“Everyone was laughing,” Grigorenko said. “I came here last year to play in the NHL. It’s my dream, I will wait for the chance. I just want to play in the NHL.”

However, there’s no denying the strong allure of the KHL.

Both the Washington Capitals (Evgeny Kuznetsov) and St. Louis Blues (Vladimir Tarasenko) have had trouble luring recent first-round picks to North America. Players are able to earn a lot more money in Russia than they’d get on an entry-level deal in the NHL and they don’t have to worry about the possibility of being sent to the American Hockey League, where they make considerably less.

The chilling effect it has had on the NHL is undeniable, with only eight Russians selected in the 2011 draft and just 30 players from that country having appeared in a game this season.

Edmonton holds the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft and will have Yakupov visit the city this weekend for a follow-up interview. That organization hasn’t selected a Russian-born player since 2006 and GM Steve Tambellini is anxious to become better acquainted with Yakupov.

“You have to get to know the player, you have to get to know the person,” said Tambellini. “You have to find out what really motivates them and why and what their goals are. And then maybe you get a sense of if there should be some hesitation or not.”

Yakupov sat down with 18 different teams this week and fielded several questions about his nationality.

The consensus No. 1 pick in this draft for the past year, there have been some whispers that it could end up working against Yakupov. If Edmonton were to pass on him, Columbus might do the same with the second pick given the trouble that organization had previously with top-ranked Russians Nikita Filatov and Nikolai Zherdev.

However, Yakupov says he’s “not worried” about teams being unsure of him because of his homeland. He hails from Nizhnekamsk in the far east of Russia and insists that he’s his own man.

“Every player has his way, you know?” said Yakupov. “I’m Muslim, I’m not Russian. If you say what happens with the Russian factor, it’s his life. I have my life. I’ve got to work.

“It doesn’t matter what team’s going to (take me) in the draft. … For me, it will be my team, my first favourite team in the NHL. I want to play and do everything for them.”