Thanks to his play at the Five Nations tournament in Sweden, Russian left winger Valery Nichushkin has become all the rage in the prospect world this week. The 6-foot-4, 196-pound power forward bulled his way to 11 points in four games, playing against very good competition. He has worked his way up from junior to the farm team to the Kontinental League this year and is contributing. He sunk Canada at the world juniors with an incredible overtime goal to seize the bronze medal.
But he is Russian.
With the rise of the KHL as a viable alternative for top talent in the past few years, the ‘Russian Factor’ has become a very real thing when it comes to the NHL draft. But the glowing reports I’m hearing from NHL scouts and execs about Nichushkin seem to indicate that his stock won’t drop very far when all the 2013 hopefuls are picked in New Jersey this summer.
“As far as talent, he’s top three,” said one scout.
“After watching him, you throw the Russian Factor out the window,” said another.
Take a look at last year’s draft and you’ll see where the collective heads of NHL talent evaluators were at: The cream of the crop and those Russian players willing to prove they wanted to play over here by suiting up in major junior were rewarded. The Russians penalized were the ones who either had question marks surrounding them or stayed home.
Edmonton took Nail Yakupov with the first selection because he was the consensus best player available in the draft and had effusively expressed his dream of playing in the NHL, via two years with the Ontario League’s Sarnia Sting. While he played in the KHL during the lockout, he returned immediately and went straight into the Oilers’ lineup.
Buffalo’s Mikhail Grigorenko also went straight to The Show after the Sabres caught him 12th overall. Though he was seen as a top-five talent, some of the GMs I spoke with prior to the draft knew he would slip because there were questions about attitude. Nonetheless, he had proven his commitment to North America by playing with the Quebec League’s Quebec Remparts and went straight to the Sabres lineup this season.
Even Nikolai Prokhorkin, whom the L.A. Kings landed with a Russian Factor-aided drop to 121st overall, came over to play for American League Manchester, where by all reports he was excited to fit in and begin to learn English. A contract objection from his KHL team sucked him back across the ocean after eight games, but the fact is he wanted to be here and will likely return in the future. Kings GM Dean Lombardi had talked with Prokhorkin before the draft, telling the fiery winger that if he listened to the Kings and played for Manchester (Slava Voynov did the same years earlier), he would be put on the right track to get to the NHL.
Meanwhile, left winger Anton Slepyshev, predicted to go in the second round out of Metallurg Novokuznetsk, wasn’t selected at all after some so-so showings at big events. The logic seemed to be: Why take a chance on a Russian kid you’re not sure of when there are project players in major junior in reach?
Along with Nichushkin, the most interesting Russian prospect to watch this year will be Pavel Buchnevich. While Nichushkin lit up scouts’ eyes at the Five Nations, there was less praise for his teammate.
“Stereotypical Russian. Selfish, one-dimensional, yells at his teammates when things aren’t going right,” said one scout. “Very talented player. Someone’s going to take him because of his ability, maybe in the late second round or early third.”
It just won’t be that scout’s team, we can assume. But how many other franchises feel this way? Another checkmark for Nichushkin is that he considered coming over to play major junior this year before Traktor Chelyabinsk offered him a contract extension. If it’s a three-year pact, NHL teams won’t blink; getting him at 20 is no big deal and a contract buyout could always be negotiated with Traktor.
“There is a mitigating circumstance with the Russian Factor,” said one exec. “That’s a whole due diligence process.”
But at least it’s now a familiar one for NHL GMs. And if Nichushkin continues to dazzle, don’t be surprised to see him get selected very high in the draft – exactly where he belongs, regardless of where his passport comes from.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.