Changing of the (Red) Guard

ovi-tarasenko (Photo courtesy of Dave Sandford)

The 80s saw the first hockey players from the Soviet Union make it to the NHL. These early pioneers risked much to defect so they could play in the US and Canada. Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov broke the barrier that allowed Soviet players to more freely move to the NHL. Since then, we have seen many great names come from Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.

Some have excelled and some have stumbled, but it has given hockey fans in North America a chance to see and revere such players as Fetisov, Larionov, Bure, Federov, Konstantinov, Kovalev and many others. Throughout the 90s, even more Russian players made their names in the NHL. Many of those players have already retired and more are on their way to retiring.

Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin are the most well known and established Russian stars in the NHL right now. Datsyuk, while still a great player, is nearing the end of his career at 37 years old. Ovechkin and Malkin are both in the latter part of their prime playing years at 30 and 29 years old respectively. While they should remain stars for a while longer, a new crop of Russian skaters has come up and are establishing themselves as the next wave of Russian stars.

RW Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis Blues

For anyone that was following the KHL, you probably knew who Tarasenko was when he signed with the Blues and made his NHL debut after the 2012-13 lockout. For everyone else, it took a little bit to realize what he was about. An incredibly talented winger, it took some time for him to establish himself in the league where his point production has improved over his KHL numbers. He is well rounded, just as able to snipe the puck as he is to dish it to his teammates. In the regular season in the KHL, he had 66 goals and 66 snipes. In the regular season in the NHL, he has 66 goals and 69 assists through his first three seasons. His postseason numbers are a bit more skewed with 10 goals a 6 assists in the KHL and 10 goals and 1 assist in the NHL.

Coming off of his three year entry level contract, the Blues and Tarasenko signed an eight year extension at $7.5 million a year this past summer. Tarasenko is a player with a great work ethic and Blues fans should be happy with the deal. The team is paying more for him over the next few years, but have bought up some unrestricted free agent years at what will likely be seen as a bargain of a deal in the last 3-4 years of his contract. And the crazy thing is, he’ll still have some good playing years ahead of him when his deal is done.

RW Nikita Kucherov – Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov is a name that should start becoming more well known throughout the NHL. As one third of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Triplets line, he broke out scoring 29 goals and 36 assists for 65 points in 82 games. He capped that off with 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points in 26 playoff games. Throughout the year, Kucherov showed that he could score many different ways. Several times in the playoffs we saw him beat elite goaltenders in Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist with his lethal wrist shot. He’s a wizard at tipping and deflecting pucks at seemingly impossible angles into the back of the net. And he’s a solid passer. It would not be a surprise to see his production tick up in his third year much in the same way that Tarasenko’s did as his ice time and power play participation is expected to be higher this year. It’s not hard to imagine Kucherov approaching the point per game mark.

Kucherov is entering the last year of his entry level contract this season and next summer could be in a position much like Tarasenko. While he lacks the star power of Tarasenko, he’s got the offensive skills to be a highly productive winger in the NHL. He is smaller though, listed at 5’11” and 178 pounds versus Tarasenko’s 6’0” and 219 pounds. His production this year will go a long way to determining what his next contract will look like.

C Evgeni Kuznetsov – Washington Capitals

Kuznetsov has yet to produce at the level that Tarasenko or Kucherov have, but it will not be a surprise to see him break out in his second full year to the tune of 40-50 points much like those two players. He should be seeing time as the second line center for the Caps and will be looking to build off a strong second half of last season as well as a strong playoff performance where he contributed 5 goals and 2 assists in 14 games. He is a little more of a playmaker so far in the NHL than a goal scorer, but he’s still more than capable of finding the back of the net. He’s not a star yet, but he’s a name to keep your eyes on.

G Andrei Vasilevskiy – Tampa Bay Lightning

Sergei Bobrovsky firmly has his grip on the title of best Russian goalie in the NHL. Semyon Varlamov might like to argue with that, but he hasn’t been as consistent in his play as Bobrovsky. Vasilevskiy though could be in a position to take over that spot in the next several seasons. As a teenager in the KHL, he had a 2.22 GAA and .924 SV% in 8 games played in his first season followed up with a 2.21 GAA and .923 SV% in 28 games in his second season. He also led his team to the finals posting a 1.99 GAA and .934 SV% in 19 playoff games. He followed that performance up by making his pro debut in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. He posted a 2.45 GAA and .917 SV% in 25 AHL games while making a few spot starts in the NHL before replacing fellow Russian Evgeni Nabokov as the Lightning’s back-up goaltender mid-way through the year.

He has incumbent Ben Bishop in front of him and has been sidelined to start the season with a blood clot issue, but the future looks bright for Vasilevskiy. Within the next two or three years, he should be establishing himself as a star and an elite goaltender in the NHL. In Bishop, the Lightning have a slightly above average goaltender that has flashed elite skills in big games and that has been enough to make them one of the best teams in the NHL. With Vasilevskiy, they could become even harder to beat if he develops into an elite goalie as expected by many scouts and goalie experts.

LW Artemi Panarin

Only a month and a half older than Tarasenko, Panarin is just now making his move to the NHL after developing a bit more slowly. Undrafted, he developed in the MHL and KHL with Vityaz. He was mostly a half point per game player before being traded to powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg. With SKA St. Petersburg, his production picked up to the tune of 40 points in 51 games in his first full season. Then he led the team in the regular season with 62 points in 54 games plus 20 points in 20 playoff games as his team won the Gagarin Cup, the KHL championship trophy.

Now Panarin is stepping into a deep forward group with the Chicago Blackhawks to make his NHL debut. The Blackhawks needed cheap forward talent to fill in for the losses of Sharp and Saad and the rising cap hits around the team. They’ve gotten exactly that with Panarin. While the questions around him will be about how well he adjusts to the smaller ice, less room, and more physical game, he’s got the tools and the talent around him to succeed in the NHL this year. Definitely a player to keep your eye on.

Keep Your Eye On

There’s still a lot of young Russian players out there that are still finding their way into the NHL. More and more players are choosing to come to North America and play in the CHL junior leagues before their draft years. This gives them a leg up on adjusting to the smaller ice surface and more opportunities for NHL scouts to see them in action before they are drafted. While not inclusive, here is a list of players playing in North America that I have on my “watch list” to see how they develop over the next 3-5 seasons.

Organization listed first, then where the player is expected to play this season.

C Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay Lightning – NHL)
D Nikita Nesterov (Tampa Bay Lightning – NHL)
W Sergei Tolchinsky (Carolina Hurricanes – AHL)
C/LW Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues – AHL)
W Valentin Zykov (LA Kings – AHL)
C/W Alexander Khokhlachev (Boston Bruins – AHL/NHL)
W Nikita Scherbak (Montreal Canadiens – AHL)
RW Nikita Soshnikov (Toronto Maple Leafs – AHL)
D Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia Flyers – WHL)
W Nikita Korostelev (Toronto Maple Leafs – OHL)
W Evgeni Svechnikov (Detroit Red Wings – QMJHL)
LW Vitali Abramov (2016 Draft Eligible – QMJHL)
RW Nikita Popugayev (2017 Draft Eligible – WHL)

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