The Real Winners of the NHL Draft? Belarus

Belarus and the NHL draft have had a nice relationship over the past decade, but the 2021 NHL draft proved to be a successful one with three players selected in the first three rounds this past weekend. It could be the start of good things to come.
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Danila Klimovich

From 2011 until 2020, Belarus had 10 players selected over seven years. 

From 1988, the year where Yuri Krivokhizha became the first player from Belarus taken, until 2020, 32 players had their name called – including a handful of guys who weren't listed from Belarus until late in their careers.

NHL prospects from Belarus aren't a rarity anymore. We're usually talking about one or two (from 2018-2020, six names were called) a season, but it's still big for a nation on the edge of all the major international tournaments each year.

Over the weekend, for just the second time in the nation's history, Belarus had three players selected in the NHL draft for the first time since four were taken in 2004 – although Danny Taylor was listed as Canadian back then. But this time, all three players were selected in the first 82 picks of the draft – Danila Klimovich went to Vancouver at 41, goaltender Alexei Kolosov went to Philadelphia at 78 and Winnipeg took defenseman Dmitri Kuzmin at 82. Of the 35 players taken all-time from Belarus, all three of those picks make it into the top 10 in terms of overall pick, with a majority of the picks coming in the fifth round or later.

Klimovich was the first Belarusian taken on Saturday, and perhaps in a surprising spot early in the second round. Klimovich seemingly came out of nowhere late in the season with a six-goal run at the U-18 World Championship, leading a Belarus team most expected to roll over and just come last. They didn't, and part of that is because of the five goals he had against Switzerland and Latvia in the second and third games of the tournament. 

Unfortunately, Klimovich failed to score at 5-on-5 and couldn't score in the final two games, but that was asking for a lot against Canada and Russia – the two teams that played for gold. Klimovich made the men's World Championship team with Belarus and skated in two games, playing a minor role in both and taking a bit of a beating against Switzerland. 

Still, the Canucks clearly see something in him. Klimovich only had a goal in six Belarus men's league games but ripped apart the Belarus U-20 league with 52 points in 37 games – good for 16th in scoring. Klimovich can clearly shoot, and if you give him space, he really can cause damage. The sample size is a bit worrying at this point, but there were many rumblings teams that had interest in Klimovich in the second. Klimovich is signed to play with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL next year but was drafted by the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL in 2020 and might still go there. 

An overage prospect, Kolosov was originally set to make his North American debut in the OHL with Erie this season, but with that season never getting underway, he has remained in Europe for the time being. Kolosov made a name for himself with Belarus at the 2020 Division IA World Junior Championship en route to bronze, but his adjustment to life in the KHL was impressive for a 19-year-old. 

His 3-5-1 KHL record was nothing special, but Kolosov tied top prospect Yaroslav Askarov in terms of starts from a U-20 netminder. Kolosov's flexibility and athletic style can make him an entertaining goalie to watch, and while entertainment isn't an actual goaltending trait, you can never count him out on a scoring chance. Kolosov is a small goalie and that can be a disadvantage, but he's got the raw abilities that make you take notice.

Kuzmin is one that Winnipeg potentially stole in the third round. He's not big at 5-foot-10 and physical strength can be a downside of his, but his offensive talent is incredible. Whether it's his multiple lacrosse goals this season, his ability to run a power play or his overall strong play as a 17-year-old in the top Belarus league, Kuzmin had a nice draft season before putting up a point-per-game in five games at the U-18 World Championship. 

A product of the Flint Firebirds, Kuzmin was set to play in North America before the pandemic put an end to the OHL season but will have that opportunity next year. Winnipeg had a quietly good draft, and Kuzmin could really become one of the better Belarusian defensemen in recent years. He just needs to iron out some parts of his game, but as a base to work with, there's a lot to like about Kuzmin right now.

Belarus is a team that, for its entire hockey history, has struggled to be a contender in any meaningful way. The U-20 team hasn't been in the top tournament since 2016 and 2007 before that. Belarus has bounced between Division IA and the top division of the men's World Hockey Championship the past few years and despite beating Sweden this year, they would have been relegated again had COVID-19 prevented that from happening for next year. 

But the fact that three prospects were drafted quite high should give the team something exciting to look forward to over the next few years as Belarus tries to assert itself worthy of remaining with the big boys moving forward like they did for over a decade.

So, if any country can feel excited about the draft, it's Belarus.

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