How prominent is “The Russian Factor”?

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Updated: August 24, 2014
Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 - Russia v Norway

The Russian Factor can be described as the asterisk attached to a Russian born player, or a player playing in the KHL, that can determine just how high a player will go in the draft. NHL teams do their homework on all potential draftees but when it comes to the Russian players, that extra assurance is needed that they will not bolt to the KHL if they are unhappy.

But just how much does a player’s passport draw into decision where teams draft them? When looking at recent drafts, some very talented Russians dropped due to uncertainty if they will come over or not. In 2010, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov dropped in that draft but if the draft was re-done, chances are they would go higher than 16th and 26th respectively as both are currently in the NHL. At the 2013 draft, Valeri Nichushkin unexpectedly fell to the Dallas Stars at No. 10 after many pundits had Nichushkin going as high as fifth overall. Nichushkin made the Stars roster straight from the draft and at 6’4″ and well over 200 LBS with a strong offensive skill set, he is a big part of the revival in Dallas.

Alexander Burmistrov, who was a top ten pick in the same draft as Tarasenko and Kuznetsov, played a season with OHL Barrie and eschewed the thought of playing the KHL. But a strenuous relationship with former Jets coach Claude Noel was a big part in Burmistrov bolting back to Russia. He spent this past season in the KHL and has one year left on his contract.

Burmistrov has expressed interest in returning to the NHL but it’s a question of with who. Winnipeg still holds his rights and Paul Maurice is now the coach. When looking at a situation like this, Burmistrov’s development plan played a big role in his struggles. He jumped to the NHL too soon when in reality, he needed more time in junior. The KHL has seen Burmistrov revive his offensive game and continue to develop away from the glare of the NHL.

Another example of failed development would be Nikita Filatov. After two seasons in Columbus in which he yo-yoed between the NHL and AHL, Filatov was loaned to the KHL for the rest of the 2009-10 season. Filatov would return to Columbus, get traded to Ottawa, go back and forth again between the NHL and AHL before being let go by the Senators. Filatov has played in the KHL the past three seasons. Filatov simply didn’t have what it took to be an NHL player as his defensive game, compete level and attitude were left wanting and when times got tough, the KHL was his escape.

A huge poster boy for KHL flight risk would have to be former Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov. Despite playing two seasons in the QMJHL and nearly two full seasons in the NHL with Nashville (he played 11 AHL games in his rookie year), he signed a three-year contract in the KHL where he currently ranks in approximately  $9.2 million dollars a year and has a league championship to his name. He returned briefly to Nashville in 2012 but a team imposed suspension for  breaking curfew in the 2012 playoffs virtually ruined the relationship between Radulov and the Predators, who let him walk as a UFA, to which he returned to Russia.

Last summer the KHL scored its biggest coup to date, luring sniper Ilya Kovalchuk away from the New Jersey Devils, just two years into a massive 15-year contract that he signed with the team in August of 2011. Kovalchuk “retired” from the NHL, and the Devils and the league let him out of his contract in order to make the deal happen.

The KHL has become an option for elite hockey players, as it is arguably considered to be the second best hockey league in the world. Russians make up a good percentage of the league but it is also rife with North Americans and Europeans who weren’t good enough for the NHL but wanted better money and competition than the AHL or another league could offer.  It is hard to blame young Russians who choose to stay home as the KHL provides quality competition, decent money and no culture shock.

But lost in the Russian Factor and KHL talk is the number of current Russians who are making an impact in the NHL. Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk are amongst the best forwards in the league as each bring a unique skill set to the table whether it’s Ovechkin’s phenomenal goal scoring, Malkin’s slick playmaking and of course Datsyuk’s outstanding two-way game. In net, Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov are game stealers for their respective teams. There aren’t as many prolific Russian defensemen but Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Dmitri Kulikov, and Slava Voynov are all good players that play big roles on their NHL squads.

The power of the Russian Factor may be falling as this summer has brought questions based on the ongoing conflict with the Ukraine, as well as the financial stability of the league. Gagarin Cup finalist Lev Prague has ceased operations, as has Spartak Moscow and Donbass Donetsk. With three teams folding in one off-season (though it should be noted that three other teams were added to the league) questions about the financial viability of the KHL are again rearing their head.

This off-season has seen an exodus of both Russian and non-Russian KHL players to NHL teams at a level that hasn’t been seen since the start of the KHL. Non-Russians Petri Kontiola, Leo Komarov, Jiri Sekac, and Jori Lehtera have all signed with NHL teams despite having either contracts or significant offers in the KHL. Russian Evgeni Kuznetsov crossed the pond late last season, and Andrei Vasilevsky is doing so this year to play for Tampa’s AHL team. Three of the forwards led their KHL team in scoring last year, while Sekac was second and Kuznetsov fourth and Vasilevsky was one of the league’s best young goaltenders.

The decline of the KHL has been seen in lower levels as well. The top 3 Russian prospects taken in the 2014 NHL draft, Nikolay Goldobin, Nikita Scherbak, and Ivan Barbashev were all playing hockey in the CHL; while Czech prospects Jakub Vrana and David Pastranak were playing in Sweden instead of the KHL.

In the end, the Russian Factor is a very real thing NHL teams have to consider. Teams have to be sure when drafting a player, that they are committed to working hard to be a part of the NHL team one day. Teams have the right to know the intentions of said player especially if they are considering using a high pick on them. Russians just have the little extra risk to them due to the influence of the KHL but stereotyping them to the likes of Radulov and Filatov isn’t fair to the countless other Russians who have what it takes to succeed in the NHL.

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