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The Big Three Russians: Yakupov, Grigorenko & Galchenyuk

August 18, 2011

Alex Galchenyuk of the Sarnia Sting.

The NHL’s Research and Development Camp out of Etobicoke, Ontario has been all the buzz this week. It’s a brilliant idea by the NHL to test out various rule and rink changes, even if most won’t be implemented. It looks like the curved stanchions (if they can even be called stanchions any more) and the goal verification line will make the 2011-2012 NHL season, whereas others, like hybrid-icing, are still in their conceptual stage. Yes, this camp could be an anathema to diehard hockey fans who see no reason for innovation, but I think the forward-looking nature of the camp is a positive. It keeps things fresh.

Making waves though are the prospects who participate in this camp. They are nearly entirely from North America, or at least playing in North America (ie, Martin Frk plays for Halifax). All are 2012 draft eligible and this is their first splash into the NHL world, even if it’s merely an NHL-sponsored event lasting a couple of days. It’s an important move for the NHL in terms of streamlining exposure and entrance to the league.

Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk, both forwards of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, were in attendance. Both are seen as top 10 locks for next year’s draft. Not there, by virtue of geography, was Mikhail Grigorenko, of CSKA Moscow. He will however be joining the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL for this upcoming season. They have been termed as such, but in my mind, they are already “the big three Russians.” After several quiet years of Russian players on the draft front, Yakupov, Galchenyuk and Grigorenko are bucking the trend and shooting up the charts. They are, however, all different. And they are markedly different from their predecessors, too.

It was the 2004 draft in which Ovechkin and Malkin were taken 1st and 2nd overall, respectively. The lockout and the advent of the KHL had a significant effect on the drafting of Russian players. Surely, elite talents have been drafted, but in many instances, at positions lower than expected. And many have never come. Talent from certain countries ebbs and flows, and a few dry years here and there are to be expected. But the last six years have been dry for the NHL. I am not one of those folks that believes EVERY great Russian must come play in the NHL. I think there are many different options and all should be explored. But when you look at the drafting process, the stance on Russian players is peculiar.

The first Russian taken in 2005? Vitali Anikienko, drafted by the Senators, who still plays for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. In 2006, Semyon Varlamov and Ivan Vishnevskiy rounded out the Russian pool late in the first round. In 2007, the sole first rounder was the late Alexei Cherepanov. 2008 ushered in (nearing bust) Nikita Filatov and Viktor Tikhonov, 2009, Dmitri Kulikov. 2010 was a banner year in some respects, brought Burmistrov, Tarasenko and Kuznetsov, all players many scouts considered better than their final draft rankings. And in 2011, it was Vladimir Namestnikov of the OHL’s London Knights that was the sole first round Russian. This is not to neglect the bevy of Russian talent taken in later rounds: it was there and it was good. And that’s the so-called “Russian factor” for you: fear that wasting a first round pick on a Russian a risky gamble, as they may never report. And, yes there are those lingering, age-old stereotypes about Russians being flighty and overly concerned with money and offensive production that probably compounded matters from the media’s perspective.

Which brings us to 2012. In 2012, the are three Russians poised not to go merely in the first round, but in the top 10. It’s only August 2011, and many predictions made by people more knowledgeable than me fall short in just a matter of months. I am no draft expert and I’m no scout. But my interest has been piqued by the three Russians looking to explode across the CHL this year. It’s not fair to lump the triumvirate together, after all, as I’ve said, they’re very different. They are united only as Russian forwards playing in the CHL this year.

Alex Galchenyuk has lived all over, following his father wherever he played, before settling in Michigan. Born in Milwaukee, it looks like he’ll be playing for American teams. Like his residency, he has played all over. But much of his later minor hockey was played in North America, making the OHL a natural choice. His play may be the least loud of the three, but he put up at 31 goal, 52 assist rookie season.

Nail Yakupov, Galchenyuk’s roommate and linemate, was born in Nizhnekamsk and is ethnically Tatar and Muslim. He drives hard to the net and has a sweet set of hands. He is supremely creative and quick, and will be vying for first overall, it seems, with Grigorenko, if not one of the superb Canadian defensemen on the docket.

Mikhail Grigorenko was born in Russia’s far east, Khabarovsk, to be precise. He is the least known, and in some cases, most highly touted, of the three. He is a natural, smooth-skating center with preternatural awareness and keen senses. He has played for CSKA Moscow, where he played for their junior squad, but will call Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts home. How he adjusts to the QMJHL and to life in North America are big unknowns still.

They all look to be excellent players. And none of them are encumbered by KHL contracts that run until they’re 21 or lack NHL escape clauses. They are “NHL ready” not from a playing perspective, but from an international/contractual perspective. All the chatter about needing Russian players “to prove they want to play in North America” will finally be absent. Their decision is resounding–they’re here. In some ways, it seems a shame the Russian system should lose Yakupov and Grigorenko, players it developed. In other ways, it’s wonderful these players won’t be ensnarled in IIHF transfer disputes, as they are acted out of their own self-interest early on. And, they’ve decided the CHL is best for honing their skills. Credit should be given where credit is due, when it comes to Yakupov and Grigorenko in terms of where they got their start, though.

Three Russians from the Russian school, if not technically, then culturally. Perhaps their move to the CHL will strengthen that league, or perhaps it will exert more pressure on the NHL and KHL to devise more than a mere handshake agreement on how players’ contracts and moves are managed. Their cases beg the question, what would have happened had Tarasenko or Kuznetsov played in the CHL? Where would they have been drafted? Where would they be now? It’s not the right move for every player, as many need more time to mature at home, or to grow physically, and thus a longer timeline to the NHL is not only permissible but desirable. Yakupov and Galchenyuk are both under the tutelage of Russian great Igor Larionov, who has steered them both well.

The NHL will hopefully be receiving three excellent Russians from the 2012 draft in the coming years. This is a good thing, even if it was a winding road to get there

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