Russia’s elite impressing early

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It’s early in the marathon known as the race to the 2013 NHL Draft, but already the season has shown a new tendency of how prospects in Russia are developing.

There is a central theme among the heavy hitters – they’re big and playing up a league. That suits Valeri Nichushkin and Bogdan Yakimov just fine.

A couple years ago, Nichushkin was the main attraction of the 1995-born Russian crop. After last season where he wasn’t good enough both in MHL and IIHF U-18 World Junior Championship, it seemed that he could be overrated player.

But a new season has breathed new life into the six-foot-three forward after eight points in nine games in the MHL and adding five goals in nine games in the second-tiered VHL for Chelmet. Already highly regarded, Nichushkin’s combination of size, good feet and game-breaking abilities has him surging in draft circles.

Yakimov, a late 1994 who played twice at IIHF U18 World Junior Championship, has taken his faceoff prowess to the VHL, winning 57.6 per cent of his faceoffs. He’s also added five points in 10 games, providing an offensive pop for Dizel Penza at just 17-years-old.

His offense has come primarily as a result of his bull-in-a-china-shop style once he gets possession of the puck in the offensive zone. If he’s able to polish up his acceleration and agility, Yakimov will start to garner the same attention as Nichushkin.

Yakimov and Nichushkin aren’t the only young Russians plying their trade against men. But unlike his countrymen, Pavel Buchnevich is having trouble finding success.

Buchnevich surprised Russian hockey last year with 51 points in the MHL last season. That’s earned him an audition with Severstal of the KHL this year.

He’s played seven games with average ice time of about six minutes and earned only one assist point. He hasn’t been able to replicate his previous MHL success either with just three points in seven games. His early-season struggles, a result of his lack of willingness to get involved physically and show consistent intensity levels, have put in question his status as a premier Russian in the 2013 NHL Draft.

The 2013 draft could serve as a second chance for a pair of Metallurg Novokuznetsk prospects, who are already getting a chance due to the team’s financial problems.

Damir Zhafyarov made his KHL debut this season and has six points in 16 games. His partner, Anton Slepyshev is playing in his second season in Russia’s top league, but has seen his year sidetracked after suffering an injury that could keep him out of the World Juniors in Ufa.

The injury won’t hurt Slephyshev’s draft stock, though. After going undrafted last season, the Penza product is ranked in Future Considerations’ top-100 and could target an NHL job sooner rather than later.

Not all of Russia’s 2013 talent is playing pro, either.

The five-foot-eight Avto Yekaterinburg forward Anatoly Golyshev has been turning heads with his play in the MHL. Earning more than a point-per-game with 10 goals and 12 assists in 19 games. Despite being small in stature, Golyshev is a highly skilled player who could garner a late round look in New Jersey.

Much like Slephyshev, Alexander Barabanov is garnering attention despite going undrafted last year in Pittsburgh.

After 18 goal and 39 points last year with SKA-1946 St. Petersburg, Barabonov was ranked among 2012’s top-200 for his efforts. He’s picked up his play this season as one of the league’s leading scorers with 11 goals and 25 points.

Will Barabanov and Slepyshev get another shot in New Jersey? Can the likes of Nichushkin and Yakimov continue their momentum towards the 2013 NHL Draft?

The season is a marathon, not a sprint, but the momentum made by several Russian prospects will have their draft stock slingshotting upwards.

Article by Roman Solovoev.

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