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The "Russian factor." Is it a myth or a reality?
Before I even go into what my thoughts on this are, I hope those who have already made up their minds — and are about to yell "Those Russians are prima donnas!" — could just hold on one minute and read the argument.
The number of Russian players drafted in the first round in the last 10 years has dropped from eight in 2000 to just one in 2009. This year, there is a chance we could see as many as four young aspiring Russian players drafted high.
But we all keep hearing about this mysterious Russian factor that allegedly make teams reluctant to even consider drafting Russians high. I asked Mark Kelley, director of amateur scouting for your Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, to provide his expert opinion.
"I think it's fair to say that there is a Russian factor," Kelley said. "It's because the KHL is such a viable alternative for the players that you have to weigh it in."
Kelley is right. KHL is a viable alternative for young players. But not just Russian players.
Last year Linus Omark and Johan Harju signed in the KHL. It just so happened that Dynamo Moscow was euthanized and the young Swedes were released to pursue opportunities in the NHL. Thus, the KHL is becoming a true alternative to young Europeans, who may not be drafted high in the NHL, who have heard stories about playing in minor leagues in North America — they may just decide to stay in Europe, play in the KHL.
How does that make it a Russian factor? Shouldn't it be called a KHL factor? Why put a nationality into this picture?
Besides, if a young Russian player decides that he wants to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL, will anything stop him?
Kelley agreed with me that nothing will. "No. No. NHL teams obviously want the best players. They won't discriminate because the player is Russian. But the opportunity for some of the Russian kids is making it harder for them to decide where they want to play."
From TSN, another take: "Alexander Burmistrov feature — Flight risk?"
I call it a "fear factor" more than the Russian factor. While NHL teams open dialogues with teams from other leagues when it comes to drafting players from those teams, nothing like this is happening when it comes to Russian teams.
"I don't think it's fear," Kelley concluded.
"I think teams are hesitant. But a lot of times what you get is a lot of kids who have an opportunity to play in the KHL against better competition and, obviously, the financial compensation is a lot better than some of the other developmental leagues, which may be Canadian junior or the American league. That's an obstacle."
While Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson may disagree that developing in the KHL is better than busing across the country in the AHL, at least there are others who think otherwise. Moreover, drafting a Russian player with no transfer agreement in place is actually an advantage for any NHL team. This is because without a transfer agreement, an NHL team would hold his right indefinitely.
Who needs this agreement anyway? Why not draft a player and loan him to the KHL?
There is no benefit for the player and there is no cap issue. Watch him develop in a strong league, be patient. Isn't it an advantage?
"You're right. That's definitely an advantage," Kelley told me. "When you look at this international agreement, in some ways it's a myth that it's better for NHL teams that we have an agreement because if you draft a Russian player you can be more patient with his development in the KHL. You are right there. It's an advantage when drafting Russian players. You don't have to make a decision as quickly to sign them."
Little do we know, but the NHL has a separate transfer agreement in place with Sweden and Finland. My sincere congratulations to the NHL for figuring out that dealing with European hockey federations directly is the only way to go, because the IIHF is just not credible and too political.
Anyway, under the old agreement a player drafted in the NHL and playing in Europe could be put on a "defected status" by his NHL team that would hold his rights indefinitely. This is no longer the case with Swedes and Finns. If an NHL team drafts a player from either of these two countries, it will have to sign that player to a contract within two years or lose his rights. A draft pick could be wasted and a team could be pressured into making a decision when it's not ready to.
At the same time, drafting a Russian is now even more of an advantage. Isn't this the case? Kelley agrees.
"Yes, for sure. And it's the same when it comes to drafting young players playing in colleges and universities in North America because you hold on to their rights for longer."
But in the meantime, for the first time since the Cold War and Alex Mogilny's interview to the North American media after he defected, we hear Russian youngsters saying things like they want to change their citizenship (courtesy of Kirill Kabanov to NHL.com) and that they "hate the KHL" (by Alexander Burmistrov at Fanhouse). Why make such radical statements?
"Those are statements by 17-18-year-old kids. They might believe it when they say it, but they might have a good night sleep and feel different in the morning. I don't think you should ever take 17-18-year-old kids and hold them to their word for the rest of their lives based upon what they say when they're 18," said Kelley.
I am not into conspiracy theories, but I do believe it is political. Is this a new low a Russian player has to fall to in order to make a point that he wants to play in the NHL?
Is this music to the ears of those who just never celebrated New Year after 1992?
"Once you start mixing politics with sports, then I think we have a problem. Was he coached to saying this to enhance their draft status? I don't know. With Kirill [Kabanov], he is a nice kid, he is a smart kid. But when you talk to him he changes when the wind blows. He does have a ton of skill. For sure," said Kelley.
Kabanov is definitely one of the most talented guys to come out of Russia recently. But his skill is overshadowed by his remarkable ability to come out like a complete... ahem, bad person after virtually every interview; beginning with allegations of corruption in the KHL to Rick Westhead of the Toronto Star in 2008, which Kabanov later claimed to be "mistranslated." (My favorite word.)
His antics and those of his father led to him being dropped by four agents, including JP Barry recently. Such amateurish behavior should make teams think twice before spending a high pick on the highly talented prospect?
"Let me ask you: if you were drafting where would you draft him?" Kelley asked me.
Not high. Not at all. He hasn't proven that he has the ability to say nothing and simply work hard to earn a spot on any team, let alone an NHL team.
"At some point we have to take this into account. He has all the talent in the world. But is this a maturity issue? Is he going to mature? When can we take a chance? No matter when you took him in the draft — the first round or the seventh round — if he matures, he can become the type of player we believe he can be because of his skill. But if he never matures, if he never develops into a hockey player we all know he has a chance to be, then it's a bad pick."
Are there any other factors, apart from the KHL, that makes it tough for Russian prospects to be drafted high? I actually do believe that because of the great history of Russian hockey tradition a lot is expected from Russian youngsters, even though the infrastructure of producing talent is nearly destroyed in Russia. Somehow, Russia can still produce true gems like Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk...
"Once you say those names, you have to add Datsyuk too," Kelley said. "Whenever you talk about the best Russian player playing in the NHL, his name has to come into it. And he's the player who, when he was drafted, was a great pick by Detroit. He was 150 pounds his draft year. But look, there is no Russian factor when you look at Pavel Datsyuk(notes). He is just a great player."
"Every kid picked high is a risk/reward, there is always some kind of a gamble. Somewhere along the way it becomes the myth of the Russian factor. But there is no Russian factor when you start talking about players like Malkin, Ovechkin, Datsyuk. What about Kovalchuk? I think on July 1 there is no Russian factor when it comes to Ilya."
Kelley continued: "Evgeni Kuznetsov, Alexander Burmistrov, Kirill Kabanov, Vladimir Tarasenko — they are not as defined as Malkin or Ovechkin were at the same age, but that doesn't mean they can't achieve that. This year's draft is a deep draft. But I think the definition of this draft is more of a projection of how all these players are going to develop. I don't think players from one to 30 are as defined this year as some years past. You have two kids at the top of the draft. Then you have got four defensemen, then a couple of players who are injured. And then, after 15, every team is going to define this draft a little bit different."
There isn't really a Russian factor if you think of it. Drafting a Russian player may now be of even more advantage than drafting a Swede or a Finn. And at the end of the day, NHL teams want to draft truly the best players. And it doesn't matter if they are Russian or Czech or Canadian. There is no Russian factor, but there is a myth of it. I hope that's one myth that will be put to rest soon. On Friday.