The Nikita Gusev trade and sign executed by the New Jersey Devils echoed through the league media as a delightful godsend during the normally slow period of the offseason. Making the rounds about a week earlier was an interview that Russian skater Nikita Scherback gave to Sport24 regarding his treatment in the NHL. The article is a good read (link at the bottom) when run through a translator, but it tells a story of a young Russian player who struggled to get traction in the NHL.
This is not a new thing. If you were to sit down and list the number of high profile Russian players whose careers flamed out before they even really got going in the NHL, you could probably name a few top 10 picks along the way. It’s like there is some kind of weird bias against young Russian players and how they adapt to the game, even though some of the game’s top players are Russian. It’s those supremely skilled, top Russian players that continue to tantalize teams to heavily scout the KHL feeder leagues and Russian juniors to find the next Ovechkin or Kucherov. Some teams have found the formula because, clearly some franchises have had better luck cultivating Russian talent than others.
Ray Shero’s New Jersey Devils are no strangers to scouting for KHL talent. In each of his years with New Jersey, Ray Shero has tried to bring an established KHL player to the NHL. In his first and second seasons, it was former Omsk Captain: Sergey Kalinin. The next year it was Defender, Yaroslav Dyblenko, who didn’t quite work out for NJ, but played a solid year in the AHL before going back to Russia. Least season it was Egor Yakovlev, a young defender who saw some ice time and showed promise, but opted to return to the KHL for this year. This off-season though, Shero got his big fish, in Nikita Gusev. Why? Why has Shero gone to such lengths to attempt to establish a Russian skater as a core member of the team? Simple. It’s an unspoken understanding that Russian players seem to prefer playing with other Russian skaters. Teams who have established Russian skaters feel more confident in drafting and acquiring other young Russians because of this. In his 4 draft years leading up to the 2019 Draft, Ray Shero had used 5 out of his 31 total draft picks on Russian skaters (Yegor Sharangovich is from Belarus but played in Russian Juniors). By the 2019 Draft, the rights to one of those players (Yegor Rykov) had already been traded. He used 3 of his 11 draft picks in the 2019 Draft on Russian skaters. Ray Shero has used 8 of his last 42 picks on Russian skaters and of the 39 drafted players, the Devils still hold the rights to, 7 are of Russian origin.
So, what does this all mean, what’s the point? The “Russian Factor” as it is unaffectionately called, is the knowledge that it’s always a crap shoot if you can get a KHL player (that you own the rights to), over to play in North America, and if they will be able to adjust to the North American ice. It would seem that the best way to push these odds into your favor, is to have a good core of Russian prospects and at least one high profile Russian skater on your team. The reason this increases the odds of success with Russian prospects is because it creates a culture of acceptance for them within the franchise. The Scherback article is not the only piece of writing that has come out over the years detailing Russian players experiencing isolation and a singled out feeling within a franchise. Montreal should have been a great place for a young Russian player to succeed. The roster counted Alexei Emelin, Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov in its ranks. Scherback even had fellow Russian prospect Mikhail Sergachev to grow with. So what went wrong? It’s worth noting that NONE of these players are with Montreal anymore. In fact, after the 2016-2017 season the only one of these Russian players left in the system for Montreal would be Scherback. Scherback’s only saw 3 games of NHL action in that 2016-2017 season. That offseason saw Emelin traded to Nashville, Markov not extended a new contract offer and Radulov gone to Dallas in free agency. Sergachev was shipped to Tampa Bay to obtain (francophone forward) Jonathan Drouin. Nikita Scherback would start his official rookie season in 2017 on a team where he was not allowed to speak Russian, and also had nobody on the team to speak it to. In the span of 1 season, Montreal disassembled what would have been a perfect environment for a young Russian skater to come up in, and left in it’s wake, a lonely, isolated wasteland. It’s no wonder that his career track went the direction that it did.
If you are able to push the odds into your favor, it can change how you draft and how you approach free agency. The New York Rangers are an example of a team that has been able to draft Russians fearlessly over the years. The Rangers know the lure of playing in New York, coupled with the fact that they always seem to have a least one stable Russian member of their lineup makes them a good destination for young Russians. We saw that in the offseason with Artemi Panarin opting to go to New York, while prospects Vitali Kravtsov and Yegor Rykov decided to make the trip across the ocean. These players join fellow Russians Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Georgiyev in training camp for the Rangers.
Since the 2015 Draft, 101 Russian players have been picked. 54 of those players were picked by 9 teams.
I would suggest that the data here is too new to really draw too many conclusions from. A few years down the road it would be interesting to revisit this data and see what kinds of success rates teams had with these prospects, and how those successes translated to team success. The one conclusion that we can draw; is that some teams have clearly valued Russian prospects more than others.
So how does this all tie back to Gusev and the “deeper meaning” behind his signing? The Devils are clearly one of the teams that raids the KHL/Russian cookie jar. They have swung and missed several times, but there are signs that point to Nikita Gusev being a home run. If Russian prospects see, hear and read about Nikita Gusev, being happy and successful as a Devil, it could be further incentive for them to try to do the same. This is a potential formula for success that other teams are trying. Only time will tell whether or not these teams obtain that which they seek.