When Steve Yzerman announced the Tampa Bay Lightning’s second round pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Twitterverse was not prepared. Our staff was left scrambling to find anything we could about Alexander Volkov, the overage Russian draft pick. Google searches mostly picked up on a UFC fighter by the same name, not the mysterious hockey player. Almost none of the publicly available scouting services had anything on him.
In retrospect, the simplicity of the answer for why he was an unknown seems obvious. Most of these scouting services are just getting by with minimal budgets. Some, like Corey Pronman formerly of ESPN and now with The Athletic, are one-scout shows. They rely heavily on talking to scouts that work for teams and publicly shared knowledge.
Often, they have a blind spot to prospects in Europe for two reasons: they don’t have the budget to fly there and watch games and many of these games are not broadcast. The CHL, USHL, and NCAA ranks are a bit easier when it’s just a matter of turning on the TV or online stream to watch, or to drive an hour to go catch an OHL game featuring a handful of known prospects.
The Lightning have long had a philosophy of casting a wide net in their search for talent. Where a player comes from means very little to them, just that they can play and have the traits the team values in a hockey player.
This can be traced back to the first under-the-radar pick the team made when they selected Kristers Gudlevskis in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, he was playing in the MHL with Dinamo Riga’s junior team. He was a surprise pick and while he did not pan out as an NHL goaltender, he was still valuable to the organization in the time he was here.
Skip ahead to the 2016 draft, and the Lightning took another off-the-radar pick in Oleg Sosunov in the sixth round. He was a player that had to be seen in person. No public scouting service without a budget for a scout in Russia could have possibly found him. He was playing in MHL-B, the second tier of the Russian junior leagues, and had 12 points in 39 games. He was easy to ignore because if he was a good player, he’d be up in the MHL and producing points. At least, that’s what most would think.
He was followed by Volkov in the second round of 2017, which I will get back to later. The team also went way off the radar in the 2018 draft taking Dmitri Semykin and Magnus Chrona in the third and fifth rounds respectively. Like Sosunov, Semykin would have been hard to spot from afar. He put up 15 points in 41 games in the MHL playing for one of the smaller organizations in Russia. Being traded to SKA St. Petersburg made him a little more visible but only to those paying close attention to Russian junior hockey.
Chrona likewise was playing in a lower junior tier in Sweden. Much like with the previous Russians, there isn’t a lot of visibility below the SuperElit league, which is Sweden’s top junior league. Shortly after the draft, it was announced that Chrona would play for Skelleftea AIK J20 in SuperElit this year. Skelleftea is a middling team in the SuperElit, but is still a well known organization.
Getting back to Volkov, he is the best recent example of this trend. While some in the public scouting world had heard whispers of NHL interest in him, none expected Volkov to go in the second round. The pick was near universally panned as a reach and a bad pick. The Lightning’s draft grades suffered because of the unknown Volkov.
Many of the doubts were driven simply by his status as a 20 year old overager. But NHL front offices obviously knew of his interest in coming to North America to play. He was stuck in the SKA St. Petersburg system. They were and still are a supremely stacked team, especially at forward, and are one of the top organizations in the KHL.
He spent 2016-17 split between the MHL and the VHL, the Russian minor leagues. He was in his last year of eligibility for the MHL and was likely looking at spending the next season in the VHL. He got out of his contract with SKA St. Petersburg, was drafted by the Lightning, and signed an entry level contract right away to play in North America.
Volkov surprised many with his skill and hockey sense. While he struggled at times with consistency last season, he showed exactly why the organization was happy to select him. After a slow start like much of the team, he posted 23 goals and 22 assists for 45 points in 75 games. He added another three goals and six points in seven playoff games for the Syracuse Crunch. His point total put him fourth in scoring and he led the team in goals.
And with that surprise season in the books, he has jumped up the public scouting rankings. Corey Pronman has him as the highest ranked Tampa Bay Lightning prospect at #71 overall in his recently released Top 100 NHL Prospects on The Athletic. While Pronman’s rankings seem to be higher than others, it still underlines how simple visibility has improved the perception of Volkov as a prospect.
He has top-six upside, but needs to work on his consistency to realize his ceiling. He’s a 200-foot player, much like Ondrej Palat, but more of a shooter than a passer. His sophomore season in the AHL will give us an even better idea of where he stands as he is now comfortable with the smaller ice surface in North America. He’ll be counted on as one of the top wingers for the Crunch early in the season and before long, can put himself into the conversation for a call-up to the Lightning in the event of an injury up front.