By Ross MacLean
BELARUS – Russia has a plethora of top-end talent available for this year's NHL draft, but most are late ‘91 birthdates and therefore aren't eligible to play in the under-18 tournament this year.
That hasn't hampered the team’s ability to succeed once again. Evgeni Kuznetsov is projected as a top-two round pick and is the captain of this particular Russian entry. Kuznetsov has electrifying offensive skills and has put them on full display so far in Minsk. His extremely quick hands pull defenders out of position and fans out of their seats. He can handle the puck very well at full speed and is always a threat to the outside, inside and even right through opponents.
He has an explosive first step and is always the opportunist when it comes to taking advantage of open lanes. He has been used on the point to quarterback Russia's top power play unit and has set up players streaking to the back door with razor sharp passes on more than one occasion.
The biggest knock on Kuznetsov has been his emotional maturity; he has been noted to sulk every now and then when things don't go his way.
His first period goal in the quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic is easily the highlight of the tournament so far. On a Russian team that came in with so much uncertainty, Kuznetsov has been a constant and effective offensive threat and has been able to win over a few scouts with his rare abilities around the puck.
The jury is still out on him and he will certainly face more and more scrutiny as teams debate his draft worth, but his performance in Minsk so far has done a lot of good for both his draft stock and Russia's medal hopes.
Ross MacLean is thehead of European scouting and part of the management team at International Scouting Services. He specializes in major international tournaments and will cover the U-18s for THN.com throughout the event. Get more information about ISS at isshockey.com or purchase the 2010 NHL Draft Guide HERE.