Theres a myth in hockey. A myth that if Russian players leave home to play in North American juniors that this is their best path to success in the NHL. It could not be any more false though.

I can understand why people would buy into this myth. Its reasonable to think that if a Russian or any foreign kid comes over at 17 and gets used to North American style of hockey, smaller rinks, speaking more English, etc that this would help their development toward playing in the NHL. But to think this you have to ignore all the data. The data that flat out shows that the majority of Russian players that take this path end up regressing if not being total busts.

Why are Russian kids that play North American juniors failing to pan out? The best explanation I have seen is that if they come over at this age they have not fully mastered the Russian hockey style. They are then thrust into learning the North American style which they likely won’t master and end up not mastering either style.

In this developmental path a player plays a year in North American juniors. Then they get drafted. Then they play another year in North American juniors (unless they make the NHL roster right away which is unlikely). Playing against weak competition in North American juniors just creates a mirage. People will look at these players scoring a lot of goals in these junior leagues and think, wow this guy is really going to be something. Then over the next couple years as they try to make an NHL roster and stick on an NHL roster the flaws in their game are exposed.

Why do some Russian kids take this path? The NHL is the top hockey league in the world. Players want to try and play in the top hockey league because its the most exposure and money. So they do what they think is their best ticket to being drafted as high as possible in the NHL. They are trying to show NHL general managers that they are committed to playing in the NHL.

I basically blame this on three groups of people. The first is predatory agents that make their money by getting Russian kids to come to North America. Secondly I blame Canadian junior teams which are very eager to get top Russian players to play for their teams which gives them a competitive advantage. Third I blame the NHL brass which constantly talks about “Russian factor” and basically pressures the Russian kids to come over because they want control of their development.

Now you may be asking, why does the NHL keep drafting Russian kids that play in North American juniors high if they are going to end up a bust? Surely in today’s analytic obsessed sports world they are aware of this? I guess this is the result of arrogance and they do not want to give up control.

They are too impatient to accept that the best path for these kids is to fully develop in Russia, play a couple years in the KHL against grown men, and then come over to North America.

Recently one of the best Russian prospects Andrei Svechnikov decided to come play North American juniors. The various talking heads in the Western hockey world hailed this as a great move when the reality is he has made a decision that will most likely prevent him from reaching his potential. This was kind of the last straw in motivating me to write this article.

His brother Evgeni took the same path and was his inspiration as he was drafted #19 in the 2015 draft. At the World Juniors tournament though this past Winter it became obvious just how much Evgeni has regressed. He did not have one point despite being the marquee player on the team. Much lesser prospects in his birth year that stayed in Russia completely outclassed him.

Will Evgeni Svechnikov turn out to be a good NHL player or is the more likely outcome he will be another Alexander Khokhlachev that had success in North American juniors but basically is an NHL bust.

Lets analyse some Russian players taken in the drafts of the last decade organized by who and who did not play North American juniors.

2006

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#27 Ivan Vishnevsky (no NHL success)
#67 Kirill Tulupov (no NHL success)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#23 Semyon Varlaomov
#44 Nikolai Kulemin
#54 Artem Anisimov

2007

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#60 Ruslan Bahkirov (no NHL success)
#64 Sergei Korostin (No NHL success)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#17 Alexei Cherepanov (promising player that died young)
#71 Evgeni Dadonov (star in KHL and NHL teams trying to sign)

2008

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#75 Evgeni Grachyov (no NHL success)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#28 Viktor Tikhonov
#32 Vyacheslav Voynov

2009

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#14 Dmitri Kulikov (played one season in Canadian juniors and has been a solid NHL player)
#76 Igor Bobkov (No NHL success)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#55 Dmitri Orlov
Undrafted Sergey Kalinin

2010

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#8 Alexander Burmistrov (very highly rated prospect at the time has been a marginal NHL player)
#65 Kirill Kabanov (No NHL success)
#86 Stanislav Galiev (on Washington Capitals roster but usual scratch. Has one career NHL goal)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#16 Vladimir Tarasenko
#26 Evgeni Kuznetsov
Undrafted Artemi Panarin
Undrafted Nikita Ziatsev

2011

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#27 Vladislav Namestnikov (good player but lived much of his life in the United States)
#40 Alexander Khokhlachev (No NHL success)
#58 Nikita Kucherov (Came to North America around age 19 and only played 33 games in NA juniors)
#63 Andrey Pedan (Has played 13 NHL games in career so far and has yet to score a point)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#148 Nikita Nesterov
#205 Alexei Marchenko

2012

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#1 Nail Yakupov (generally considered very disappointing or a bust)
#12 Mikhail Grigorenko (generally considered very disappointing or a bust)
#91 Daniil Zharkov (no NHL success)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#19 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#121 Nikolai Prokhorkin (success in KHL, possible future move to NHL)
#202 Nikita Gusev (success in KHL, possible future move to NHL)
Undrafted Nikita Soshnikov

2013

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#16 Nikita Zadorov (generally considered very disappointing if not a bust)
#37 Valentin Zykov (has not been able to make the NHL roster)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#10 Valeri Nichushkin
#75 Pavel Buchnevich (higly regarded player that is moving from KHL to NHL)

2014

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#26 Nikita Scherbak (has not been able to make the NHL roster)
#27 Nikolai Goldobin (has not been able stick on the NHL roster)
#33 Ivan Barbashev (has not been able to make the NHL roster)
#52 Maxim Letunov (has not been able to make the NHL roster)
#68 Rinat Valiev (considered promising player)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#33 Vladislav Kamenev (generally considered a promising player with NHL future)
#66 Nikita Tryamkin (moved from KHL to NHL and considered promising)
#78 Ilya Sorokin (highly touted goalie in the KHL that will eventually come to NHL)
#118 Igor Shestyorkin (highly touted goalie in the KHL that will eventually come to NHL)

2015

High drafted Russian players who played NA juniors:

#7 Ivan Provorov (moved to North America when around 14 years old)
#19 Evgeni Svechnikov (did not score a point in the World Juniors tournament)

Players of note who did NOT play NA juniors:

#12 Denis Guryanov (coming to North America after playing a season in the KHL)
#22 Ilya Samsonov (highly touted goalie in the KHL that will eventually come to NHL)
#135 Kirill Kaprizov (highly touted, will eventually come to the NHL)
#209 Ziyat Paigin (one of the best young defenders in the KHL and likely will eventually come to NHL)

It is pretty obvious that the group of Russian players who did not play North American juniors are vastly better than the group that did. Quite frankly the group that played North American juniors is pretty terrible.

Even the players that did have success that played North American juniors usually have a special circumstance. Such as Kucherov coming over at a bit later age and only playing a small amount of NA juniors games. Nemestnikov lived much of his life in America. Provorov moved to Canada when only like 14.

A Russian player coming over when they are like 17 is pretty much a kiss of death on their career. Its painfully obvious the best path for a Russian player to the NHL is to come over at 20 at the earliest after playing a couple KHL seasons.

Its a troubling situation for Russian hockey if some of their highest rated prospects come to North American juniors each year and end up regressing. Imagine if the tables were turned and the best Canadian kids were going to Russia at 17 and turned into busts. Would they stand for this, of course not.

The victims of this are Russian kids and Russian hockey. The Western hockey establishment doesn’t care about what is in the best interests of Russian kids. Only Russia cares about the interests of Russian kids.

So what can Russia do in response? Its a tricky balance of doing what is best for Russian hockey without being too restricted. I have a four point plan.

1. Education. From a young age the Russian Hockey Federation and coaches should be telling the kids and their parents why playing North American juniors is not the best path of success and its better to follow a Tarasenko type path.

2. Cracking down on predatory agents. I am not sure exactly how to do this but whatever can be done should be done.

3. Keep improving all levels of Russian hockey and make the developmental system as good as possible. People who respond to this article will say something snarky like Russian kids want to come over because their developmental isn’t good. Thats really not true and its not the reason. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in the developmental system and it should be improved in all ways.

4. If a Russian kid plays in North America they should be excluded from the national team until they are 21 years old. Some might consider this a drastic step but it makes sense. If Russian kids knew they would miss top tournaments like World Juniors and u-18 it might dissuade at least some players from making the jump.

Its time for Russia to take more action against their prospects being damaged. Its time for NHL brass and Canadian juniors to accept the harm they are doing to Russian kids. Its time for fans to stop accepting the myth that North American juniors is the best path for Russian kids.

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