Russia has proven to be fertile soil for NHL scouts over the past 30 years, nurturing some of the most skilled and creative players in the game today. The pipeline of talent continues to flow, providing nearly 60 players over the past five NHL drafts, including 17 in 2015 alone. While not all of those selected will make the cut, here are a dozen who are worth watching.
Pavel Buchnevich, forward, Rangers
There’s not much left in the Rangers’ prospect cupboard after three years of win-now hockey, but this 6'2", 194-pound forward will help ease the pain. The 75th pick in the 2013 draft, Buchnevich is an offensive spark plug. He’ll pot a few goals along the way, but his real strength is his playmaking. The 20-year-old has world-class vision and hockey sense and he uses them to make everyone he plays with better. He could step into New York’s roster for the 2016–17 season.
Ivan Provorov, defenseman, Flyers
Wasn’t hard to find a scout this time last year who believed Provorov was the best defenseman available in the 2015 draft. Though he lacks ideal size (6'1", 201 pounds), the 19-year-old has every other quality you’d want in a modern blueliner: excellent mobility, poise under pressure, high-end offensive skills and a nasty edge. It’s easy to imagine him suiting up for the Flyers as soon as next season and it won’t be long before he stakes out a spot on the team’s top pair.
Evgeny Svechnikov, wing, Red Wings
A multi-faceted winger blessed with a complete skill set, Svechnikov is on track to becoming a solid top-six winger for Detroit. Size (6'2", 205 pounds) and skating are his prime assets, making him tough for defenses to handle off the rush. He’ll probably be more of a playmaker at the NHL level, but he’s shown some finishing touch in the QMJHL, scoring 54 goals in 90 career games.
Nikita Zaitsev, defenseman, free agent
The 24-year-old undrafted rearguard is expected to leave the KHL to sign with Toronto this summer. He’s a nice get for the Leafs, a right-handed shot with offensive inclinations who can help on the power play. His puck skills make him a natural fit for Mike Babcock’s system.
Mikhail Sergachev, defenseman, 2016 draft eligible
The top-ranked Russian player for this year’s draft, Sergachev has all the tools to become a high-end, two-way defenseman. He’s an agile skater blessed with breathtaking acceleration, so most of what he does he does with his feet. That said, he has excellent vision and a cannon of a shot. He’ll produce points at the NHL level.
Nikita Gusev, left wing, Lightning
The Lightning took a flyer on Gusev back in 2012, and the 23-year-old might be ready to pay dividends. He’s grit-your-teeth small, just 5'10", 168 pounds, but has an explosiveness and creativity that jumps out whenever you see him play. He ranks among the league leaders in the KHL in both goals (20) and points (47) through 52 games. No surprise then that SKA St. Petersburg just last month extended his contract through the 2017–18 season. He’s a ways off, but worth keeping in mind.
Stanislav Galiev, right wing, Capitals
Too good to leave in the minors, not quite ready to take a regular shift for the talent-heavy Washington Capitals. That’s the tough spot the 24-year-old Galiev finds himself in these days. One year after he led Hershey with 25 goals and the entire AHL with 15 tallies on the power play, he’s languishing in the Verizon Center press box waiting for a break. Barring injury, he may not get a regular shot until next season when UFA Jason Chimera is expected to vacate a spot, but it’s clear the Caps like his potential.
Ilya Sorokin, goalie, Islanders
The 20-year-old Islanders prospect (78th, 2014) is enjoying a breakthrough season in the KHL, leading the league with a sizzling .956 save percentage and 10 shutouts in 26 appearances. He has the size, athleticism and competitive drive to become a solid NHL stopper. The key will be developing his technique. His contract with CSKA runs through 2017–18, so he has plenty of time to make the adjustments needed to his game.
Vladislav Kamenev, center, Predators
Named to the AHL All-Star team (though he missed out due to injury), Kamenev is close to competing for a top-six role in Nashville. A second-round pick in 2014, he’s a big, physical center who can dominate the middle of the ice. He made a big impression at the World Juniors, scoring five times in seven games to help Russia win the silver medal.
Ilya Samsonov, goalie, Capitals
With Braden Holtby signed through the 2019–20 season, it’s possible this surprise first-round selection of the Capitals in 2015 may never rock the red, but he’s still a name to remember. Though he played in just two games in the 2016 World Juniors he came up big when it matters, making 26 saves to lead Russia to a 2–1 win over Team USA in the semifinal. That poise, along with an aggressive, acrobatic style, has scouts pegging him for stardom in the NHL. He could be a trade chip as the Caps look to load up for a Stanley Cup bid.
Nikita Scherbak, right wing, Canadiens
It’s been a tough year for Scherbak, who’s been limited to just 17 games as an AHL rookie by two lengthy stints on injured reserve. Despite these setbacks, there’s high hopes in the Canadiens organization for the speedy winger. He has a projectable frame (6'2", 175 pounds) and natural instincts around the net, leading to expectations that he can become a top-six forward for Montreal as long as he adds some muscle and becomes more consistent in his effort.
Nikolay Goldobin, left wing, Sharks
Some fans bemoan any mention of the Russian stereotype, but Goldobin fits it to a tee: brash, lightning quick and dangerous with the puck; somewhat indifferent without it. The talent is there for Goldobin, the 27th pick in the 2014 draft, to mature into an first-line winger for the Sharks. But is the work ethic there? It’s up to him at this point, but if he ever makes the full commitment, the Sharks will have a true game breaker to help them move into the post Thornton-Marleau era.