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Examining NHL team drafting success in Russia

Russian players have made a big impact in the NHL, but on some teams more than others.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since the late 1970s, 620 Russian players have been drafted by NHL teams. Only Canada (6,083), the United States (2,408), and Sweden (697) have more drafted players. Out of those 620 players, 584 have been non-goaltenders.

Since the easing of restrictions (and the fall of the Soviet Union), Russian players have had a big impact on the NHL. Their style and creativity have changed the way the game is played in an incredible fashion. We still see many Russian offensive gurus making their way into the NHL, like the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov.

Today, scouting Russia has come a long way, but there still seem to be teams that go deeper and have a better handle on it than other teams. I wrote this mostly because I was curious about the kinds of success different teams have had with drafting Russians. I decided to look at the statistics of Russian skaters from the 1970s to the present to see how successful they were.

How I measured success: All stats that I used below are the players’ career NHL regular season stats as of the end of the 2017-18 season. Players drafted in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft have not been included since they could not have played in the NHL yet. I also eliminated goaltenders from the group of players that we’ll be examining since their stats are significantly different from skaters. This leaves a total of 566 players. I did not combine relocated teams with their old franchises, however, because of how the data worked. So the Winnipeg Jets have their old and new picks combined, even though they are different franchises.

When referring to a team being “successful” with a draft pick, I don’t necessarily mean that they made successful decisions after acquiring the player. In some cases, the teams traded the player away before they became NHL stars or otherwise lost their rights and ended up elsewhere. Success is defined here as the team making a decision to draft a player that turned out to be good and have a positive career in the NHL.

The Averages

The average drafted Russian skater played 103 career games with 21 goals, 35 assists, and 56 points. Not bad considering that there are a good number of misses in this group. If you drafted a player in the fourth or fifth round or later that had that kind of career, they would generally be considered a successful draft pick.

There are also many players, especially from the early 2000s, that were drafted in the very late rounds with the hopes that maybe some day they would come to North America, but never did. Those players that never played, or barely played, bring the averages down. On the flip side, the many star players, some of whom will continue to push their stats forward in their careers, also has helped to buoy the average number.

On average, teams have picked 16 Russian skaters in their draft history. The Lightning and Devils lead with 30 each. The Vegas Golden Knights have only picked one Russian, and that came in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, so they are not included here. The Carolina Hurricanes have only picked one Russian skater, but had six when they were still the Hartford Whalers.

The Most Successful Teams

The Detroit Red Wings are rightfully thought of when you think about teams that capitalized on the Russian market. After all, the Russian Five are perhaps the best five-man unit to ever play together in the NHL. But New York Rangers draft picks are right up there with the Red Wings.

Rangers draft picks have 5,100 career games played, most of any team. They also have 1,023 goals, 1,886 assists, and 2,909 points. The most notable draft picks of theres are Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Zubov who both eclipsed the 1,000 games mark with Kovalev scoring over 1,000 points. Fyodor Tyutin, Sergei Nemchinov, and Artem Anisimov have also had successful NHL careers with over 600 games and 250 points a piece.

For Detroit, it’s not quite as deep of a group, but there is some extreme talent, as well as one player in particular who had his career cut tragically short by a car accident. Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov lead the charge with over 1,000 games each and Fedorov finishing his career with 1,179 points. Pavel Datsyuk recently retired from the NHL with 953 games played and 918 career points. Vladimir Konstantinov was paralyzed in a car accident and finished his career with 446 games played, but certainly would have gone on to many more games if not for his accident.

The Washington Capitals also have to be listed up here with their 23 players drafted coming up with 3,849 career games played. Alex Ovechkin is a name that any fan of hockey should recognize and he has eclipsed the 1,000 game mark. But Sergei Gonchar was also a Capitals draft pick back in 1992 and played 20 seasons in the NHL with 1,301 games played. They also have produced Alexander Semin, Dmitri Orlov, and Evgeni Kuznetsov.

Those three teams are also the only teams to have their Russian draft picks score a combined 1,000 goals and 2,900 points or more.

The Quebec Nordiques, had some of the best luck in drafting Russians. They only selected six players but hit big with four of those players. All four players played between 596 and 637 games. The two defensemen scored 167 and 188 points and the two forwards scored 379 and 501 points. Their successors, the Colorado Avalanche though...

The Not-So-Successful Teams

The Avalanche haven’t ventured very far into drafting Russian skaters. They have made 11 such picks, but have only gotten 16 games from three different players. Mikhail Kuleshov and Yuri Babenko both recorded three games each without a point. The Avalanche do have some hope though in 2015 fourth round draft pick Andrei Mironov who has scored three points in 10 games.

The Minnesota Wild have also not ventured very far into Russian draft picks either with just seven skaters. Maxim Sushinsky, a 2000 fifth round pick is the only one to have made the NHL and played 30 games with 11 points.

The Dallas Stars have spent 19 picks on Russian players, three more than the average team. You could also add the Minnesota North Stars one pick and that still doesn’t help since he never reached the NHL. They have gotten a grand total of 400 games played out of those 19 players. Valeri Nichushkin has been their most successful with 166 games played and 64 points. In total, five Stars Russian draft picks have made it to the NHL.

The New York Islanders likewise have made an attempt with 20 draft picks. They have gotten more out of their Russian picks than the Stars to a tune of 846 games played and 367 points. If not for Vladimir Malakhov, a 10th round pick in 1989 that played 712 career games, the Islanders draft picks would look even worse. In fact, they selected a player two different times in 1996 and 1998 that only played in 42 career games.

The “Spray and Pray” Teams

Some teams have taken the approach of just pick a bunch of Russians and hopefully one turns out to be good... right? The Tampa Bay Lightning and the New Jersey Devils are two such teams with 30 Russian skaters each, but have not had the same level of success as the teams in the Most Successful category. The Chicago Blackhawks are also up there with 27 picks, followed by the Philadelphia Flyers and Calgary Flames with 25 each and the Edmonton Oilers with 24.

These teams are all well above average in their numbers of Russian skaters drafted. The Devils are the closest to the “Average Russian Draft Pick” described up above, but the rest come in well below those averages.

Leading the way is the New Jersey Devils. They have three players, including Slava Fetisov, who broke the 500 game barrier and 200 points. In all, 11 of their 30 Russian skaters have made it to the NHL, with four playing less than a full seasons worth of games. Five players broke 250 games and 160 career points.

The Flames have had five of their draft picks back it to the NHL, but none since Oleg Saprykin was their first round pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. German Titov and Sergei Makarov broke 400 games player and 375 points each. Saprykin made it to 325 games and 137 points. Their other two topped out at 55 and 49 games.

The Blackhawks have likewise not had recent success. Their most recent draft pick to make it to the NHL was Anton Babchuk from the 2002 draft and he played in 289 games with 107 points. They did hit on Igor Kravchuk who played 699 games on defense and Sergei Krivokrasov with 450 games and 195 points as a forward. Four other players were in the 40-60 games played range and another that just played a single NHL game.

The Edmonton Oilers have had some more decent successes over the years. Anatoli Semyonov from the 1989 draft played in 362 games with 194 points. They also had two other players that broke the 100 game mark and another over 50 games while three players played less than five games. Oh, and then there’s Nail Yakupov, the former first overall pick. He made some noise early in his career but faded off quickly and has only put up 136 points over a 350 game career.

For the Flyers, they have some early success with a couple of 1991 draft picks and a 1994 pick that broke the 200 game and 100 point mark. Dmitri Yushkevich, a defenseman, had the biggest impact with 786 career games and 225 points. Alexander Selivanov also had a solid career with 459 games and 235 points. Ivan Provorov is their most recent success, with 164 games and 71 points so far. He has the makings to be a player that eventually becomes the franchise’s Russian leader in games played and points.

Last but not least, the team that most of you have probably been waiting for, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning’s draft picks are a very interesting mix. Like a lot of teams, they took a lot of fliers in the late rounds in the early 90s on Russian players. Then they did it again in the early 2000s. Dmitri Afanasenkov was decent pick in the third round in 1998 with 227 career games and 54 points. Evgeni Artyukhin is an easily recognized name for Lightning fans, but only played 199 games with 49 points.

But the two big names up at the top of the list are Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, both selected in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Kucherov has amassed 365 games and 334 points. Namestnikov has since been traded to the New York Rangers, but has 282 games and 127 points and should continue to improve on his career totals as he enters his prime years.

In total, the Lightning have had ten of their 30 Russian skater draft picks make it to the NHL. They also have a few promising prospects drafted in the past three years that could very well make it to the NHL in the next few years as well in Alexander Volkov, Alexey Lipanov, and Oleg Sosunov.

Conclusion

Some teams have seen market inefficiencies in scouting Russian players and have taken advantage. Some teams have just thrown a dart at the board and hope it works out. There’s no sign that the pipeline of talent in Russia will stop any time soon. Teams would be wise to continue to up their scouting budgets and work more on properly researching Russian players.