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Sleeper Picks: Alexei Lipanov has a little bit of Jonathan Toews in him

Russian center Alexei Lipanov can be counted on to be tenacious and responsible, a beast in the faceoff dot, with some skill, too. He will be worth a top-50 pick at the draft.

The 2017 draft is less than two weeks away and there is still a lot to go over before the first selections are made in Chicago. Every year there are “sleeper picks” that may not be familiar names to the casual fan, but end up being significant NHLers in the following seasons. This year, I’m putting out a short series of profiles on the players I believe fit that category for 2017. Here is the first…

Russian center Alexei Lipanov isn’t comfortable speaking English yet, but there was one answer he didn’t need translated in our interview at the draft combine in Buffalo. As soon as his translator asked him who his favorite player was, Lipanov quickly blurted out “Jonathan Toews.”

And that’s the style of play Lipanov can be counted on for: tenacious and responsible, but with the skill to complement elite talents such as top 2018 prospect Andrei Svechnikov – a frequent linemate in international tournaments.

Lipanov and Svechnikov had two big showcases together this season – the World Jr. A Challenge in Canada and the world under-18s in Slovakia. Russia took bronze at both events, with Lipanov wearing the ‘C’ for both victories and helping Svechnikov put up gaudy offensive numbers.

“They were really good tournaments for our team and for myself,” Lipanov said. “It’s super-fun to play with those who can give you a pass or score their own goals.”

Like most Russian teens, Lipanov is getting eased into elite hockey back home. He has not yet played in the KHL, but he did spend a good chunk of the season in the VHL, which is roughly equivalent to the AHL over here. With Dynamo Balashikha, he put up decent numbers in the regular season, but really showed his worth in the playoffs. Despite getting into only six games and averaging just nine minutes of ice time, Lipanov nabbed three assists and led the team in faceoff excellence, winning nearly 58 per cent of his draws.

“It was super-interesting to play in the VHL, because I got to play with older players,” he said. “You constantly had to prove yourself and fight for your spot; I loved that.”

While I’m sure there are a number of major junior teams over here that would love to bring Lipanov to North America to see what he could do with 23 minutes a night versus his fellow teens, the six-foot, 170-pound center does have a two-year contract with the KHL’s Moscow Dynamo (and yes, the legendary organization is being rocked by off-ice turmoil and investigations right now, but there’s no sense guessing how that will play out).

Nevertheless, NHL franchises are quite aware of the young man’s talents and they like what they’ve seen so far. The most glowing thing that can be said about Lipanov is that he’s very noticeable in games; he’s always making something happen and he can be an excellent penalty-killer. There’s also the leadership he brings.

“He’s an Igor Larionov type,” said one scout. “Playmaker, good on faceoffs and a good teammate – you see him give his guys taps with his stick out there.”

So while there might be a slight wait for Lipanov to arrive on these shores, the kid has certainly enjoyed his trips over here, including his stay in Buffalo for the draft combine.

“I absolutely loved the week,” he said. “I love the USA, I love Canada and really enjoy being over here.”

That’s great news for NHL teams, as Lipanov has the potential to become a fantastic two-way player in the league some day. He may not become Jonathan Toews, but that’s the loftiest of goals for any player. Even if Lipanov is a second-liner in the future, he’ll be well worth a pick in the top-50 at the end of the month.



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