NHL GMs have to be considering Russian draft prospects now.
After all, Washington Capitals prospect Yevgeni Kuznetsov and St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko put on spectacular shows last week at the IIHF World Junior Championship. Sure, there are risks with Russians -- mostly signability issues. But these kids were brilliant. Kuznetsov was the "single most spectacular talent" on the Russian team, according to ESPN Insider Gare Joyce. And Tarasenko tallied 11 points in seven game -- with broken ribs!
The most intriguing part, though, is that Kuznetsov slid to the end of the first round, and Tarasenko to No. 16, because teams were scared. But NHL GMs won't make that mistake again, right?
Well, it turns out they may be smart to let the Russians slide by. Our analysis shows that Russians are still huge risks, and, overall they're not worth it -- especially if you don't do your homework.
The obvious concern is signability. There's a chance Kuznetsov and Tarasenko will never set foot in an NHL rink, given the history. In the last 20 years, 465 Russians have been drafted -- and about 17 percent of them played 82 NHL games. Not too bad, considering only 21 percent of Canadian draftees reach that plateau. And once they establish themselves in the NHL, Russians are collectively better players statistically speaking. Of players with 82 NHL games played, Canadians average about .32 points per game; Russians clock in at .45 points a game.
Knowing that just 20 percent of all draft picks play 82 NHL games, the Russians aren't a huge risk at 17 percent -- especially if they'll be better players. But it's not so simple.
The eight percent club
If you look at more recent history, the number of NHL contributors from Russia has taken a big hit. There have been 216 Russian drafted since 2000, and only eight percent have played 82 NHL games.
That eight percent will likely rise to at least 10 percent in a few years, once the more recent draftees develop. However, as always, the Russians have a redeeming factor: The ones who have made it have averaged a stunning 0.52 points per game. No other country even comes close. Despite all that, teams have shied away from Russians to a great extent, which means they can be great value picks for NHL clubs -- but only if they pan out. So the challenge is simple: How do we find that eight percent of Russians?
Reducing Russian risk
There is no formula. But there are trends. For example, when it comes to physique, Russians who have played 82 NHL games have been about 215 pounds. The ones who haven't weigh in at 190 pounds. While weight is an indication of NHL success, it's far more pronounced among Russians.
Second, stick with Russian forwards. (No surprise.) In the last 10 years, only three drafted Russian blueliners have played 82 games: Denis Grebeshkov, Fedor Tyutin and Anton Volchenkov. And only one goalie -- Ilya Bryzgalov -- has reached the same plateau.
Finally: Bet big, or go home. It might be tempting to nab a Russian in the fourth round, since the risk is small. But since 2000, only one Russian drafted after the second round played 82 NHL games (Evgeny Artyukhin, 2001, No. 94). Everyone else has either been a first rounder (11 players) or a second rounder (5 players).
It makes complete sense. If things don't go well in America, Russians have the options of going back to the KHL. So mediocre Russian players don't come to the NHL -- or they don't stick around. However, elite Russian players seem to prefer being a star in the NHL over being a star in Russia; Ilya Kovalchuk made that clear this summer. So if we limited our search to Russians forwards who were more than 200 pounds and drafted in the first or second round, there are 18 players -- and nine of them have played 82 NHL games. Zeroing in on those factors can greatly improve your odds.
But while these trends reveal a lot, they aren't a silver bullet. (Tarasenko would qualify for all three requirements; at just over 170 pounds, Kuznetsov wouldn't, but we're not going to be against him.)
That said, GMs who passed on Kuznetsov and Tarasenko have nothing to be ashamed of. After all, the Caps did it because they thought Alex Ovechkin could lure Kuznetsov; the Blues did because they traded for an extra first-rounder. Otherwise, it's a pretty big risk; 17 percent of Russians drafted in the first- or second- round have played 82 NHL games since 2000; the league average is 25 percent. Given these trends, we'll probably see fewer Russians drafted in the late rounds. Only the elite ones will be hear their names announced on the podium. Everyone else will have to take a more winding road to the NHL -- or stay in Russia.