The Russian Factor

All this talk about “the Russian Factor”.

I understand the concerns, but the idea that Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, or, my favourite Alex Galchenyuk are going to bolt the NHL for KHL fame and fortune is utter madness. There are a few more Russians, Anton Slepyshev, Danill Zharkov and Nikolai Prokhorkin, not to mention the Latvian Zemgus Girgensons, who may go in the first round or early second.

There is a lot of Eastern European talent stacked to the front of this draft. Moreso than, say, good Canadian forwards. Only two or three forwards born in Canada may go in the first round later tonight.

But is Yakupov at risk to go? Not really. Andrey Osadchenko, who posted this nice bit about legitimate Grigorenko concerns, told me in a text message that the KHL club that holds his rights, Neftekhimik, the one that is supposed to pay him all these millions, “showed little interest in him and barely is keeping itself away from bankruptcy.”

“Yakupov was their 3rd-liner in the juniors with no chance of being ever called up despite the fact that his dad runs their junior school.”

Nizhekamsk, the city that houses Neftekhimik, is a relatively small town in the Tartarstan region of Russia. The hockey team hasn’t had the funds to retain its key players, including Yakupov, who has stated several times that he wants to play with the Edmonton Oilers, or in Canada.

You’d think it’s a bit of a straw man argument, but Bob McKenzie said the following yesterday:

“It would be easy for us to sit here and say ‘tut tut, we should never talk about birth certificates’ and that it shouldn’t be done on nationality and it should be done on personality and what a player does on the ice. But the fact of the matter is if you talk to some National Hockey League general managers and more importantly chief scouts for National Hockey League teams they will tell you that…”

“Listen, there’s no fear that Nail Yakupov wants to be an Edmonton Oiler, and badly wants to be an Edmonton Oiler and the first overall pick right now, but what some people wonder about is what happens four or five years from now.”

That argument holds up if players drafted from four or five years before the creation of the KHL actually went over or not. I looked at players drafted between 2004 and 2006 in the first couple of rounds to see what happened with Canadian or Russian players four or five years down the line, prior to the roots of the KHL.

As it happens, the average Russian taken in the first two rounds in those years has actually played more games than the average Canadian: 217 to 200. For every first round Russian-born player that “defected” to the KHL in that span, there have been two Russians who have won a Hart Trophy.

Two Russians, Roman Tesliuk and Ivan Vishnevskiy, were both Canadian Major Junior players who left, unable to crack an NHL lineup. The talent in these players isn’t especially prominent: Enver Lisin, while the ones who were good, Nikolay Kulemin, Semyon Varlamov, all decided to stay.

Basically, you’re way more likely to be screwed over by taking a player who isn’t very good as opposed to one who is Russian. Or a defenceman. Say, Andy Rogers or Alex Bourret, whatever happened to either of them?

The average defenceman taken in these years has played 100 games on average. Russians have seen twice as much NHL action than highly-ranked defencemen. So when asking whether the safe pick in this draft is Nail Yakupov or Ryan Murray, keep this all in mind.

There have been a lot more young Canadian players drafted who have bolted to the American Hockey League than Russians have gone to the KHL. Figuring out who stays and who goes on a case-by-case basis is probably a lot safer than writing off an entire nation of people just based on their birth certificates. Especially the ones who left their home country, friends and family to live the years of their youth in a foreign nation on the other side of the world.