Author: dawkinsprospects

The Gusev Gambit Means More Than Some People Realize…

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.
russian drafting highlighted graph
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.

Sport24 Scherback Interview

Buffalo Sabres Draft Recap

The Buffalo Sabres will always have a piece of my heart. Watching Alex Mogilny’s #89 fly around the ice is part of how I fell in love with hockey. With that said, here’s my recap on how they drafted in, what I believe is, a very key draft for them.

1st Round

7th Overall: Dylan Cozens (C/RW, Lethbridge Hurricanes: WHL)
I’ve had some not-so-nice things to say about Dylan Cozens this year. Originally I really thought he might be one of those kids who dominates his competition simply because of his size and once he gets to the NHL level that size will not be as dominant and therefore he could be a bust. But I was wrong about him. Because Dylan Cozens is not the kind of kid who would allow himself to coast along, being good simply because he is big. The big kid from the Yukon has had to work for everything he has ever gotten in this game. He made his way out of the Yukon during his 2014-2015 season of Bantam and hasn’t looked back since. His playmaking, shooting, puck handling, stick handling and skating are all top notch. He’s a right handed shot who can either play center or wing. I think Buffalo sees him more as a big, power-wing of the future and a guy who can really get the puck to the net to create dangerous chances. Dylan is a solid player in his own zone too. But where I think Buffalo really nails this pick is the character of the player they got. His work ethic permeated throughout that entire Lethbridge team this season. The kid helps you win games even when he’s not scoring and when he doesn’t have the puck. It’s 110% effort all the time and it’s infectious to those around him. Through his work on the ice, he inspires those around him to work harder and be better. I imagine Dylan Cozens will be playing a top 6 right-wing role for the Sabres within the next 3 seasons.

31st Overall: Ryan Johnson (D, Sioux Falls Stampede: USHL)
I loved this pick. I had the Devils taking Johnson at #34 on my draft board so this is not a reach at all by Buffalo. Ryan Johnson is the best attack neutralizer in this draft. In that, what I mean is: in transition when the puck is coming back through the neutral zone, Ryan Johnson is elite at disrupting the zone entry. He’s a defensive defender, through and through but do not let that fool you. His skating is excellent and his tenacity in board battles is superb. He hasn’t quite found his offensive game yet and it’s likely that most of his points through his future career are going to come from secondary assists due to him initiating the breakout with a pass. His breakout passing needs a little work, but it’s nothing that can’t get better over time. Buffalo has tried numerous times to bring in defenders and they haven’t really worked out the way they had hoped. I think Johnson is going to be a breath of fresh air for many Sabres fans as a guy who settles the game down and gives you a calming sense that everything is going to be ok when he is on the ice. I don’t know if he’ll every quite be that top pairing guy, but he’s definitely at least a solid middle pairing defenseman who settles the game down and gives his team a chance to win the game when he’s involved.

3rd Round

67th Overall: Erik Portillo (G, Frolunda HC J20, SuperElit)
Last season Linus Ullmark made me a little nervous. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has looked pretty good but he had offseason hip surgery in April. Hip surgery is funny for goalies because you HOPE they’ll just recover and that is that. But because of the nature of butterfly style, recover from hip surgery is never a given. Therefore I think the Sabres made a smart play here, grabbing the 6’6 Swedish netminder. Every report on this kid talks about how cool he is, and the game film I’ve watched speaks to it too. He just doesn’t get flustered or rattled at all and he really seems to thrive in situations where the game is on his glove. He was far and away the best goalie in Sweden’s under 20 league and he’s actually pretty fun to watch. You can kind of imagine him saying “nope” in Swedish every time he makes a save. When one does get by him, he has that unique, special goalie trait of shrugging it off and forgetting about it. I never really saw anybody seem to get inside his head. Goalies are so tough to project and I’m admittedly awful at it, but I genuinely believe the Sabres grabbed a good one with this kid. He’s playing in North America next year in the USHL for Dubuque and then he’s on to the University of Michigan for 2020-2021. The kid has a good development path ahead of him and Sabres fans will be able to keep a close eye on him.

4th Round
102nd Overall: Aaron Huglen (F, Fargo Force: USHL)
Kid played High School hockey for Roseau High in Minnesota. NHL Central Scouting had him 90th among North American skaters and TheDraftAnalyst had him in the top 250 overall. So this kid drew the right kind of attention to himself. Huglen had some nice highlight reel plays while at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup playing with a lot of the other kids who got drafted. He’s got some jump in his step and some real slick hands. When I’ve watched him, he’s played with confidence with and without the puck. What likely happened with this pick, is they picked up on the kid after his two real brilliant goals at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament and then followed him throughout the season, liking what they saw. Buffalo wasn’t the only team in on this kid, so they decided the 4th was the place to grab him. I don’t really know what his ceiling is, but he’s a real interesting prospect for them. He’s eventually going to the University of Minnesota, so the Sabres will have the time to sit back and see what the kid grows into. He’s a name that 4 or 5 years from now we could look back and say, “Ohhhh THAT KID.”

5th Round
143rd Overall: Filip Cederqvist (LW/RW, Vaxjo Lakers HC: SHL)
A lot was made of 2nd overall pick Kaapo Kakko playing against men as an 18 year old. The same can be said about Filip Cederqvist. He was so dominant in the Under-20 league that Vaxjo moved him up to play 33 SHL games this year. Now, in those 8 games Cederqvist only had 8 points, but Vaxjo, like many Swedish teams tends to ease in the younger kids and doesn’t give them huge minutes. In my opinion, Cederqvist is better suited for the North American game than the SHL game. His best work comes within the 10-15 foot range right in front of the goal crease. He owns that section of the ice, pounces on loose pucks and gets them going towards the goal. At 18 years old, he’s 6’1 and 187 pounds. I would expect him to finish off in the 210 range after a few more years, because the kid is really broad shouldered and looks like he has a lot of room to fill out. There’s definitely room in any NHL lineup for a slick-handed crease crasher. Probably on the longer term of development also, would expect him to be trying to crack the NHL in 3-5 years. Likely a role player and depth scorer.

6th Round
160th Overall: Lukas Rousek (LW, HC Sparta Praha: Czech)
Rousek is a double overager in this draft, but he really caught some eyes down the stretch this year. He was good enough to catch a 39th overall ranking from NHL Central Scouting among available European forwards. That’s some pretty good value in the 6th round for Buffalo here. His speed is ridiculous. His first couple strides to get going when he decides he’s going to go are like a running stride, but he gains so much momentum that he flies past people. He’s a complete puck hound. If you have it, he wants it, and he’s going to catch you and take it from you. Lukas isn’t shy about board battles, or forechecking, or backchecking. He does not care, if the puck is there and he does not have it, he wants it. This makes him an absolutely FOREBODING penalty killer to play against because as the chase man, he’s able to hassle and breakup power play zone entries before they can even get going. He’s probably a role player at best, but because he’s 20 it wouldn’t shock me to see the Sabres try to get him into the AHL this season even though he’s supposed to play in the Czech leagues. He’s very good and active in the cycle though and he has phenomenal tools at his disposal, so his ceiling COULD be higher. Development camp is really going to be the determining factor. If this guy comes in and has the development camp and preseason that I think he could have, Sabres fans could be seeing him a lot sooner than you would typically expect to see a 6th round pickup.

I absolutely love the first 3 picks for Buffalo and the 6th round pick. The guys taken in between have potential also. There’s nobody here that you look at and say, “Why the hell would they take that kid?!” All around it was a really solid draft for Buffalo and I think the fans can relax a little because it looks like they came into this draft with a plan, and executed it. That kind of forethought bodes well for the future of a team that is far too talented to struggle the way they have these last few years.   Feel free to check out some of the videos I have linked below:

Scouching Report #7 – Ryan Johnson
Huglen Lacrosse Style for Nasty Goal against Canada | 2018 U18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup | USA vs Canada
Aaron Huglen breakaway goal vs Czech Republic | Aug 6 2018 | 2018 Hlinka Gretzky

New York Islanders Draft Recap

I did the other two teams in the Hudson River area, so I’ll do the Islanders.

1st Round

23rd Overall: Simon Holmstrom (RW, HV71 J20: SuperElit)
For starters I like Holmstrom as a player. I had the Devils taking him at 55 in my draft. He’s a good player… for pick number 55. This was one of the bigger reaches in the first round I felt like, and it came from a team that I don’t think is really in the position to afford these kinds of reaches yet. There weren’t a lot of guys with Holmstrom’s blend of speed and and opportunism for goal scoring on the board at 23 and maybe that’s what the Islanders made this pick based on. Holmstrom does have an excellent nose for the net and for putting himself into positions where he can make usage of great speed and an excellent shot. There are a lot of questions about his motivation and his drive though. Questions that would dissuade me from picking him as early as the Islanders did. I can’t stress enough, I like the player, I just don’t like him picked here. He projects to maybe be a top 6 scoring winger at best, but it’s going to take the right development to get him anywhere close to that, and aside from Barzal, the Islanders have not shown great efficiency at developing forwards. The best path to development might be to let him play in Sweden for at least 2 more years.

2nd Round

57th Overall: Samuel Bolduc (D, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada: QMJHL)
Bolduc might have been the best actual skater of the big defenders available in the first 3 rounds of this draft. He’s 6’4, 212 pounds, but he skates more like what we would expect to see from a 5’10 defender. He played top pairing on a team where he didn’t get a lot of help and was successful. He’s a big powerful kid with the wheels to keep up as the modern NHL continues to get faster. There are some hiccups and questions about how he is in his own end. He’s good on zone entry and good at working on the peripheries, but his work down low and in front of his own net leaves a little to be desired for a kid with his physical gifts. Islanders are hoping he’s a top pairing guy someday, but I think he projects middle pairing at the NHL level, and probably for a few years. I would expect him to play 2 more years in the Q and then at least a year of AHL before he’s really ready to step in.

5th Round

147th Overall: Reece Newkirk (C, Portland Winterhawks, WHL)
5’11, 172 pound kid from Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. Newkirk is so hard to get a real read on. He played on a great line for Portland but averaged under a point per game, playing the bulk of his season with Cody Glass and Joachim Blichfeld. Newkirk was really the complimentary 3rd forward on this line so it’s really hard to project what kind of real skills he has on his own. This is a real boom/bust pick for the Islanders. If Newkirk can stand on his own and be a great player without being carried by superior linemates, it’ll be a good pick. If he flames out next season, the Islanders will know that he always needs to ride shotgun with somebody better. That doesn’t project well for an NHL forward. His potential ceiling is good, but his potential floor is likely outside of the NHL.

6th Round

178th Overall: Felix Bibeau (C, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies QMJHL)
I do not get this pick at all. Bibeau is a 3rd year eligible player who probably could have been had the day after the draft without expending a pick. With one round left to go, I don’t think Bibeau was high enough on anyone else’s board to warrant the pick. He’s got average size and build for a player who will turn 21 mid way through his overage junior season, playing for Quebec. Rouyn-Noranda traded him after the season. His regular season both this season and last season were good, they weren’t mind blowing, or standout amazing. He really came alive in the playoffs and made a good showing at the Memorial Cup. I guess if that was all the film you saw on the kid and you’re of the “what have you done for me lately” persuasion then I could view this as a good value pick. But there was so much other 2001 birthday and even other overaged talent on the board still that this almost feels like a waste of a pick. 6th and 7th rounders are typically long shots anyway, but that’s no reason to just toss them away on kids you could sign for free the day after the draft. If he ever makes it to the NHL, he’s probably going to be a depth scorer at best.

7th Round

209th Overall: Cole Coskey (RW, Saginaw Spirit: OHL)
Another overage kid taken by Lou and company. This one makes a bit more sense because he’s a June birthday, so his draft year he may have been a bit under developed. Even in his draft year though, he was one of the better players on an exceptionally underwhelming Saginaw Spirit squad. Last year he was one of their top performers and scored 2 of their 8 total playoff goals as they were swept in the first round. This season he was even better and was 2nd on the team in goals, while having missed about a quarter of the season. He’s average sized at 6’0 190 pounds, but he shows consistent growth and scoring through his time in the OHL. I cannot say he projects more than a depth player and it seems likely that it’ll take a couple years in the AHL to get him there. But what Coskey does have is a great attitude and phenomenal work ethic that could help push him further in the right circumstances.

This draft awkwardly resembles some of the drafts that Lou and David Conte put together during their latter years with the New Jersey Devils. Simon Holmstrom’s game strongly reminds me of the scouting reports on Mattias Tedenby and Niclas Bergfors as they came up in their draft years. Bolduc is probably the best pick of the batch in terms of value and when they got him. Coskey is a good grab but he may only be a role player for them in the future. I didn’t really like this draft and if I were an Islanders fan, I would be leery about this one.

New York Rangers Draft Recap

A LOT of my friends are Rangers fans. Folks, this one is for you.

1st Round

2nd Overall: Kaapo Kakko (RW, TPS: Liiga)
Rangers get the best wing in the draft. Kakko is the cream that rose to the top. There’s not much to say about him that hasn’t already been said. Dynamic wing, can crash the net, can score from anywhere. Without question, one of the top 2 players available in the draft. Rangers get a franchise forward who is going to dazzle their fans for years to come.  He’ll be in the lineup this season for sure and I’d be amazed if he’s not on the top line.  He projects to be the kind of player that is good for 60+ points per year and he’s likely the October front runner for the Calder Trophy.

2nd Round

49th Overall: Matthew Robertson (D, Edmonton Oil Kings: WHL)
Matt Robertson is a big mack truck of a defender, with the smooth hands and puck skills of a veteran puck moving defender. No nonsense or frills to his game. Just smart decision making, cool under pressure with a long reach and great passing instincts. Plays top pairing minutes now in a leadership role for the Oil Kings and I would expect that to continue on through next season. It would not shock me to see him suiting up for the Rangers to start the 2020 season. Probably starts as a third pairing defender, but quickly works his way up the ranks.

58th Overall: Karl Henriksson (C, Frolunda HC J20: SuperElit)
In spite of his small stature (5’9) there were some who felt Henriksson was really under rated. His passing is truly elite. There was talk that he was the benefactor of playing with Lucas Raymond (2020 draft) but that simply does not account for Henriksson’s ability to find teammates with timely, accurate passes. He’s got excellent wheels and fantastic endurance. Watching him, it almost seems like as the game goes on, he gets faster, but I think that’s more the players he’s playing against wearing down. He’s always a threat to spring a teammate and if he doesn’t have a passing lane, he has the speed to get to open ice and create opportunities for new lanes to form. He’s a capable shooter, but his bread and butter is really that of a set-up man. I project him as a potential middle of the roster center who can be useful on the power play.

3rd Round

68th Overall: Zachary Jones (D, Tri-City Storm: USHL)
Jones was a benefactor of having several gifted players around him. Don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s not capable on his own. He masterfully overcomes his size limitations (5’9 or 5’10 depending where you look) by being a truly gifted passer of the puck. His puck movement in all 3 zones is excellent. He makes up for his lack of size by being so good with the puck on his stick. Will Butcher might not be an unfair comparison for him. We’ll have to see where his career at UMass Amherst takes him to really know how far his puck skills can carry him.

4th Round

112th Overall Hunter Skinner (D, Lincoln Stars: USHL)
The Rangers really gave the USHL a good look this draft. Hunter Skinner is quite the opposite of the aforementioned Zac Jones. Skinner is a 6’3, 174 pound, lanky, kid that hasn’t quite filled out his frame. Once he does, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. He has excellent athleticism and is a strong skater. His defensive game is still a bit raw, but that’ll get honed in the NCAA quite a bit. Grabbing defensive prospects in the later rounds, who are NCAA committed allows a team to really see what they’re going to get out of a kid. The NCAA game also helps condition them. If Skinner is going to have success he’s going to have to fill out a bit and hit the gym, but he’s also going to have to develop his reads and hockey IQ further. He has a good base and could one day be a middle pairing defender for the Rangers.

5th Round

130th Overall: Leevi Aaltonen (RW/LW, Kalpa U20: Jr. A SM-Liiga)
I was really big on Leevi Aaltonen and (full disclosure) I’m pretty unhappy the Rangers got him. I’ve described him as a similar player to Phil Kessel, except he’s also good in his own zone. Aaltonen just has that kind of straight line, blistering speed that allows him to burn past opposing players. Then he fires that same, on the move snapshot that Kessel has in his toolkit and does so with force and accuracy. Aaltonen takes example of simple physics and does so in a big way. I honestly had him going in the second round, but he’s one of those guys that was projected all over the place. Regardless of that, NOBODY had him going this late in the draft. He’s an absolute steal for the Rangers at 130. Projects to be at worst a speedy role playing forward, but more than likely, I think he eventually develops into a speedy option in the Rangers top 6. I’m not looking forward to it.

6th Round

161st Overall: Adam Edstrom (C/W, Mora IK: SHL)
Adam Edstrom is big. He’s 6’6 and 207 pounds and the best I can say is that he looks like a Swedish Brian Boyle. He played 15 games for Mora in the SHL as an 18 year old and only managed 1 assist, but the Swedes are known for limiting the ice time of younger players in favor of veterans. He does need to grow into his body a little bit and I imagine his final playing weight will be closer to 230 or 240. But even now, as a kid, he’s got plenty of strength on the puck and he’s a surprisingly good skater for someone his size. Long term project for the Rangers, but he could get there one day.

7th Round

205th Overall: Eric Ciccolini (RW, Toronto Jr. Canadiens: OJHL)
You don’t see a lot of kids from the OJHL get drafted. Those that do end up in the NHL usually go the undrafted route through college and then get picked up after their senior season. Ciccolini is a slight in build at 5’11, 160 pounds but he has puck skills for days. He’s also very well regarded for his 2 way game and how responsible he is. He’s committed to the University of Michigan. The Rangers liked what they saw enough to grab him now and watch his development shake out over the next few years. Tough to project.

Rangers did quite well for themselves here. Their picks through the first 3 rounds are all excellent value picks and every one of them will be a contributor to the Rangers in some way, some day.  The 4th round pick is kind of a wild card. The 5th round pick is the best value of the bunch in my opinion and they round out the draft getting some size and then some skill in the 6th and 7th. They really took a balanced approach to the draft and got players with upsides in the later rounds with longer development paths. Gorton once again shows that he’s the man to bring the Rangers back to prominence.