‘Concern’ over Russian prospects ahead of NHL draft
The issue of Russia's military operation in Ukraine could directly impact whether Russian hockey stars are drafted to the NHL or not this week, it has been suggested.
The two-day draft gets underway in the Canadian city of Montreal on Thursday, and reports claim there is a real possibility that Russians will not be drafted in the first round by North American franchises for the first time in 17 years.
The added burden of travel restrictions between Russia and North America, plus the NHL's decision to refuse the likes of Valeri Nichushkin to show off the Stanley Cup he recently won with the Colorado Avalanche to those back home, could see further spanners thrown in the works.
On the Russian side, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Ivan Fedotov, who signed with them in May, was recently assigned to a military base in northern Russia after claims that he was suspected of trying to avoid military service.
"I think in years past, there’s probably a little bit of concern – just is the guy going to come over [from Russia]?" said Seattle general manager Ron Francis, whose team have 12 draft picks including the fourth overall.
"This is probably on a different magnitude," he added when discussing Fedotov.
While the NHL hasn't yet issued any directives regarding the drafting of Russian players, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has said that such uncertainty could result in teams being hesitant.
"Would it surprise me if some slip in where they’re projected to go based on the inability to access them? Potentially," Daly said recently.
"I don’t know if anybody has the answer," confessed Francis. "It’s certainly unknown right now so it makes it, I think, a little more riskier than years past."
The NHL does not have a direct transfer agreement with its Russian counterpart the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which means that NHL teams are prevented from buying out KHL player contracts.
This year's draft sees numerous Russian prospects with the potential to be drafted in the first round such as defenseman Pavel Mintyukov plus wingers Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko.
At the Detroit Red Wings, franchise legend and general manager Steve Yzerman revealed that they are looking at several top Russian talents as with any other year.
"We’re preparing our lists or organizing our lists as we normally would," Yzerman told USA Today. "Ultimately, we’re going to want to draft really good prospects, and make sure they’re good kids."
NHL Central Scouting chief Dan Marr is confident that Russian players will be selected but can't put a number on how long they might have to wait to take to the ice in the US and Canada.
"I wouldn’t even want to try and guess as to what the NHL clubs are thinking," said Marr.
"If you’re sitting there and you’ve got a solid prospect for the NHL, are you going to go by him or do you want to step up and take him, and cross your fingers and hope that the world is in a different place a couple of years from now," he said.
Marr explained how he and his staff carried out a mock draft where the first Russian player wasn’t picked until the second round.
In 2022, 29 Russian players were drafted in total – which was the most since 2003 – but only Fedor Svechkov, selected 19th overall by the Nashville Predators, went in the first round.
Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams chose four Russians last year, and isn't ruling out selecting more this time round.
"If we get to a spot in the draft where we feel that there’s real value there, then we’re going to talk about that," Adams insisted. "So, we’re open to that."
In Montreal, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said that it will effectively be up to each team to weigh up what risks there are in selecting a Russian player.
"It’s simple enough to say that the war in Russia creates a level of complexity or probably more uncertainty," Hughes told the AP.
"Any team picking has to balance the uncertainty of it with the potential of the player."
Yet fears over Russian players aren't limited to those on the brink of crossing the Pacific for the first time and also stretch to established stars.
According to The Athletic, some NHL teams and even the league itself are concerned that the Russian government could prevent players currently holidaying at home from returning to North America to report for preseason in a few months.
"Some Russians should stay in North America this summer," an unnamed agent is reported to have said. "Just a thought."
As if all this weren't enough, there are also additional worries that work visas might be denied to Russians.
Like other European players, they were allowed to play without them in America last season due to an exception that the NHL managed to negotiate with the US government due to complications stemming from the pandemic.
But a lot has changed since then, and the sport's elite league may have a different look going into its next campaign beginning on October 11.