Talk around the 2020 NHL Draft is continuing to pick up steam following the Draft Lottery. One of the most discussed players of the entire Draft pool is USHL star Daniil Gushchin. Gushchin’s abilities have created a very open dialogue, ultimately making Gushchin one of the hardest-to-rank players in this year’s Draft. Gushchin’s average ranking is around the high-to-mid second round. The Central Scouting Services’ final rankings, for one example, have him ranked at 41st. Last Word on Hockey’s own Ben Kerr has him ranked at 55th overall.
But Gushchin’s strengths far outweigh the negatives that have some people worried about his future. While the second-round ranking is a good one for Gushchin, his talent far tops it. In fact, Gushchin has a great case for a first-round selection.
Daniil Gushchin Has First-Round Ability
It’s admittedly easy to criticize Gushchin’s play. Over the last two seasons, both spent with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL, Gushchin’s poor defensive play has become notorious. In fact, Josh Tessler, Head Scout for Smaht Scouting, grouped Gushchin’s defensive ability in with some pretty poor company. “In the defensive zone, [Gushchin] reminds me of Alex Ovechkin in his earlier days in the NHL… Ovechkin was not known for his defensive play and stood around in the slot waiting for the Capitals to gain possession. Gushchin exemplifies quite a bit of Ovechkin’s defensive play.”
Nearly all NHL fans can attest to young-Ovechkin’s horrible defence, with it even becoming a running gag. As Tessler notes, Gushchin shares much of this same lack of care. It seemed like the Lumberjacks were short a man in their own end in first-hand viewing. Gushchin’s defence boiled down to simply hovering and waiting for the transition to offence, with the occasional half-hearted stick lift or swipe at the puck mixed it.
It’s a bad look, for sure. The lack of care in the D-zone is easily the biggest knock against Gushchin. It leaves a bad taste in any viewers’ mouth. Of course, he has plenty of other knocks against him. Gushchin’s consistency is cited as another notable issue by both Tessler and Dylan Griffing: MHL writer for Dobber Prospects, and the Fourth Line Hockey Podcast’s prospect go-to. Tessler notes that even Gushchin’s positives don’t seem consistent from shift-to-shift, with Griffing adding that the lack of repeatability further hurts Gushchin’s defensive performance.
All-in-all, the 18-year-old Gushchin seems to be the peak of worries that surround many young players. Through seemingly a lack of outright care, the winger has shown continuous slip-ups in his own end and an overall lack of entirely trustworthy play. While these are, hopefully, not going to be constant worries, they should definitely be taken into account when gauging his spot in the draft.
Daniil Gushchin turns into a completely different player when the puck shifts to his team. He’s only 5’8″ – another knock against him by many – but he seriously embraces the small frame.
Among Gushchin’s impressive repertoire, his stickhandling has been the trait that’s dropped the jaws of many scouts. Both Tessler and Griffing made sure to speak plenty on it. When asked what aspect of Gushchin’s play stuck out to him most, Griffing replied with, “I would be remiss if I said anything other than his stick work… When he has the puck on his stick, it’s nearly unfeasible to guess what he’ll do next.”
Tessler also emphasized Gushchin’s ability to control the puck, noting his uncanny talent at controlling the movements of the offensive zone. It’s the talent that’s earned Gushchin his high Draft ranking. He’s impossible to predict when the puck is on his stick, with Griffing even adding that he’s unbeatable on a one-on-one rush. Gushchin’s ability to get out of tight situations and make defenders look silly were all noted factors that led Griffing to refer to Gushchin’s stick-handling as simply, “next level”. He even went on to call Gushchin one of the best transition forwards he’s ever seen, thanks to his incredible puck control.
In a previous look at Gushchin, published last year, this elusiveness was noted. Referring to Gushchin’s ability to stick-handling as “uncanny”, with his ability being so emphatically above his peers, not much has changed now. He is still one of the most elusive players in the draft class with the puck.
Gushchin’s stick-handling is all-too-gushed over. While it is incredible, arguably the best in the USHL, his skating is what perfectly completes his small-man package. He has top-tier speed, agility, and edge-work. It’s everything a team could ask for in a 5’8″ winger. Gushchin’s skating is among the best in this draft when it’s at its peak.
It has allowed him to completely dominate play with the puck on his stick when combined with his stick-handling. It takes multiple defenders to strip him of the puck thanks to the elusiveness brought on by the two high-end traits.
But, unfortunately, his skating is another trait notably struck by his inconsistency. Tessler notes, “[Gushchin shows] glimpses of strong mobility and speed, but like his aggression, consistency is the issue.” This was also emphasized in the previous profile as well, which broke down one of Gushchin’s games. In it, he looked entirely invisible through the first two periods, nearly a liability more than anything. But in the third period, he looked like an entirely different player, quickly becoming the most dominant player on the ice. While an overt display in hindsight, it was a golden example of his strangely impactful inconsistency. It has the power to turn a lineup-liability into an incredible star in as little as one game.
Gushchin’s elusiveness creates plenty of open space, something he uses very well. His passing ability is terrific – almost telepathic – but it’s his shot that truly steals away scouts. Griffing and Tessler both gushed over it. Griffing noted that “his shot is not to be taken lightly because of his lightning-quick release and stellar accuracy.” This take is set in stone by Gushchin’s goal totals. He ranked 11th in goals through the entire league, scoring 22 in 44 games.
Gushchin’s forechecking is also noteworthy, although it remains as concerning as his other skills. Tessler comments on it, saying, “There are moments in which Gushchin demonstrates high-octane aggressive forechecking, but it does not seem to be consistent from a shift-to-shift perspective… consistency is the issue.”
Explaining the Inconsistency
The enigma surrounding Gushchin asks why he’s so incredibly inconsistent. Truly top-tier talent can vanish in a trace, nearly leaving Gushchin as a waste of a lineup role. And while there’s no way to defiantly answer this question but there’s a handful of theories surrounding it.
Gushchin’s lack of consistency, especially in the defensive end, likely boils down to one thing: he’s never had to worry about it much. Gushchin spent two years playing for Russia’s U16, U17, and U18 leagues before moving to North America. Those leagues are emphatically lacking defensively. Despite players only playing in 25-35 games in a year, it’s very regular for the league’s best to score at least 75 points. In the 2019-20 season, for example, the top-two leading scorers of Russia’s U17 league scored 133 and 103 points respectively.
They’re leagues that simply don’t focus on honing defensive skills. Instead, they give offensive dynamos like Gushchin the chance to thrive. The USHL, and American hockey as a whole, is a heavy step down from this. For such a young winger, this sudden change of style has, clearly, been jarring. And while the USHL is the best junior-league in America, its challenge might be a bit too low to completely remould Gushchin’s game.
A Rumoured Move
Of course, Gushchin isn’t confined to the USHL. Many have speculated that the winger may move to the CHL – where he was just selected fourth overall in the 2020 Import Draft – or even to Europe. These moves could work wonders on his long-term career.
A move to Canada would follow in the footsteps of many USHL stars. Many stars have started moving North after being drafted. And it’s an understandable move. It allows the player to move to the highest-regarded juniors leagues, effectively increasing their overall exposure. But it’s a move that wouldn’t serve Gushchin well. As Griffing noted, “[the CHL] may make him look more appealing to scouts if he can get a move there before draft time, but for his actual development, I don’t think there’s much need for him to play there.”
What would really benefit Gushchin would be a move to Central or Eastern Europe, in leagues like the SM-Liiga or KHL. Playing in a professional league would force Gushchin to finally come to terms with his less-than-ideal defence and aggression. Griffing comments on this. “Playing against men can really drive younger players to play a more physical and aggressive game, as well as a harder training regimen to really work on his strength.”
It’s a move that really enticed Tessler as well. “Playing against stronger competition in the Liiga and a bigger ice surface might help Gushchin develop consistent speed and acquire an aggressive playing style.”
The Grand Scheme
Gushchin could become the steal of this year’s draft very quickly with the requisite move to Europe. His play is seriously impressive when it’s at its peak. Griffing spoke praise to Gushchin’s top-end talent by commenting, “Gushchin’s pure offensive ability is towards the top of the class for the 2020 Draft… If he can work on getting physically stronger in the coming years, he is going to be a dangerous asset on any team’s forward unit.”
Gushchin’s offence is terrific. His skillset is the pinnacle of the small-man package. If consistency wasn’t an issue, he would push towards a mid-first-round selection, at least. Even then, it is hard not to be drawn to Gushchin’s talent. He showed flashes of brilliant goal-scoring ability, even-better playmaking, and overall elite offence, while in the USHL. If he can find his consistency in Europe, he can quickly become an incredibly exciting prospect.
While placing faith in hopes is admittedly thin-veiled, Gushchin shows all of the pieces of a great player. They just need to be pieced together. A late first-round pick spent on Gushchin isn’t going to waste. In fact, it could end up a steal as he grows.
Huge thanks to Josh Tessler and Dylan Griffing for their help. Check out their terrific works here and here.
Daniil Gushchin Main Photo:
Tonight’s game isn’t open to the public, but live audio will be available here: https://t.co/prLi5yS3lM Tune in a 5:30pm as Daniil Gushchin and the Jacks take on Team USA! #LGLJ pic.twitter.com/z5RpmS7IvF
— Muskegon Lumberjacks (@MuskegonJacks) September 12, 2018