NHL Draft: Russian players intrigue, have risks

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LOS ANGELES -- When the NHL's general managers scour their clubs' carefully crafted list of prospects for this year's amateur draft, some names might as well have a red flag next to them.

Russian players come with a huge caveat when teams are deciding when or how high to draft them because there is a perceived risk.

"Big time," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, whose team has the 20th pick in the first round, which will be tonight at Staples Center, plus six more when the draft continues Saturday.

There's no xenophobia at work. After all, other European countries, especially Sweden, continue to dot the draft boards and NHL rosters.

And there's little question that Russia produces some top talent. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Washington winger Alex Ovechkin are among the elite in the NHL.

The problem is steeped in politics.

Russia in 2007 rejected the four-year transfer agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, so contracts and players' rights can be disputed. In addition, the top Russian pro league, the Kontinental Hockey League, is competitive with the NHL in salary.

Shero gets a bit worked up when Alexander Radulov's name gets mentioned. The talented right winger was drafted in the first round in 2004, 15th overall, by Nashville when Shero was an assistant general manager with the Predators. Radulov played two seasons there, racking up 26 goals and 58 points in 2007-08, before deciding to return to play in Russia.

"Nashville just basically lost that first-round pick with nothing to show for it," Shero said.

It's possible there will be a good Russian prospect available when the Penguins' turn arrives tonight.

The NHL's Central Scouting Rankings list two Russians among the top three European eligible skaters -- right winger Vladimir Tarasenko, who plays for HC Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL, and Evgeny Kuznetsov of Chelyabinsk, who has excelled for Russian junior and under-18 national teams.

Another Russian-born prospect projected by many to go in the first round is center Alexander Burmistrov, who has been playing junior hockey for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League. He seems to have adjusted well to life in North America and has said he has no intention of going back to play in Russia.

Then there's winger Kirill Kabonov, a big name a year ago whose stock has fallen some, not only because of wrist surgery last season but also because of a dispute last fall between the junior Canadian Hockey League and the KHL that forced him to miss the first 10 games with Moncton. Kabonov apparently became disgruntled in March and was released by Moncton, then was rejected by Russia for the under-18 world championships.

"I want to stay [in North America]," Kabonov said. "There's a lot of money in Russia. Some like the money. Some like the NHL. I like the NHL."

Shero was quick to rattle off these statistics: In 2003, there were 32 Russians taken in the NHL draft. In '04, it was 24, led by Ovechkin and Malkin. By last year, the number dropped to six. Dmitry Kulikov was the only Russian selected in the first round in '09, taken 14th by Florida.

Penguins fans likely remember the Malkin saga. He was under contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of what was then called the Russian Super League and had to delay joining the Penguins until 2006-07. He then signed a new contract with his hometown club under conditions he described as intense pressure. He eventually sneaked away from Metallurg in Finland, went into hiding for a time, surfaced in the United States and survived a legal challenge from the Russian club.

"There's a real difficulty," said Barry Smith, a Penguins assistant during their Stanley Cup years in the 1990s who spent the past three seasons coaching SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.

"If you draft a player, when will you get the kid? [The KHL] is the second-best league in the world, and it's the only other league that can pay NHL salaries."

Smith said the KHL sometimes puts a lot of pressure on players to stay in or return to Russia. Particularly vulnerable are those who have been drafted by the NHL but need to develop in the minor leagues because, Smith said, they view that as a big demotion.

Smith had an assistant to help him navigate a new culture and language in Russia and said it's imperative that NHL teams who draft a Russian player "immerse the kid in the American or Canadian culture. You can't just drop off a young Russian kid without a mentor."

Malkin has had veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar as his mentor with the Penguins.

Ovechkin said without a transfer agreement, NHL teams are left to gauge Russian prospects' interest in coming to North America.

"You have to ask the Russian players who are [eligible] to be drafted if they want to go to the NHL or not," he said. "I think a couple of the good players [such as Burmistrov] have said, 'I don't care. I just want to play. The NHL is my dream.' "

NOTE -- Shero plans to talk today and/or Saturday with the agents for some of the team's potential free agents, including defenseman Sergei Gonchar and winger Bill Guerin.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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