- 5 USNTDP Players to Watch
- 5 QMJHL Players to Watch
- 5 WHL Players to Watch
- 3 NCAA Players to Watch
- 9 European Players to Watch
- 5 OHL Players to Watch
While the 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t happened yet, this would normally be the time where we start to turn our attention to the following edition of the event. For the sake of normalcy, I’m going to begin the 2021 NHL Draft coverage with a seven-part series introducing some of the names you’ll want to keep an eye one when the 2020-21 hockey seasons start – whenever that may be.
This is the third edition in the series, taking a look at one of the best suppliers of NHL talent in the world – Russia. In 2020, Russia was headlined by a potential superstar goaltender in Yaroslav Askarov and forward Rodion Amirov. In the 2021 edition, he likely won’t be a first-rounder, but we have another promising goaltender to keep an eye on, and a couple of very intriguing forwards. Oh, and a couple d-men. This could be a very exciting class.
As we begin to look towards the upcoming hockey season, here are five players in the league that you need to keep an eye on (alphabetically listed).
Artyom Grushnikov, D, Krasnaya Armiya
We kick off this list with a defenseman and one of two that I think could be the top Russian defender in this draft class (we’ll get to the other). Artyom Grushnikov has made himself known through various international tournaments where he represented Team Russia, and every time you watch him, you can tell he’s a player that’s depended upon.
He just turned 17 this year, but last season (2018-19) as a 15/16 year old (Mar. 20 birthdate), the left-shot defender impressed enough to not only play in the Russia U17 league but say three regular-season games in the U18 league and two playoff games. This season, Grushnikov made the jump to the MHL for Krasnaya Armiya collecting one goal, four assists, and five points in 29 games.
The 6-foot-2 defenseman won’t be racking up the points any time soon, but what he lacks in offense he makes up for in his own end. For a player his age, it’s a bit surprising to see how reliable he is in the defensive end, but that will make him attractive to NHL teams for sure. He seems to always be in great position and excels at steering attackers to the walls, blocking the centre of the ice.
While he won’t be filling up the scoresheet, he does still lead the rush well with either a big breakout pass or carrying it up himself. His passing ability is excellent and if he can utilize that in the offensive zone, he could become a very dangerous two-way threat.
NOTE: There is a possibility Grushnikov plays in the OHL this season after being drafted by the Hamilton Bulldogs but that isn’t confirmed, so he’s included here.
Daniil Lazutin, C, SKA-1946 St. Petersburg
One of the more-hyped 2021 Russians in this class, Daniil Lazutin deserves your attention. The forward just might be one of the best centremen to come out of the country in years. He was traded this offseason from Dynamo Moskva to SKA-1946, where it’s likely he’s going to absolutely shine.
In his rookie MHL season, the forward collected four goals, seven assists and 11 points through 32 games. He also saw time with the U17 national team and two games with the U18s. At the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, he dominated, finishing second in the tournament in points (four goals, five assists, nine points in six games), helping the team to a gold medal and he was named to the All-Star Team.
As you can see in the video above, Lazutin oozes skill. He has quick hands that he loves to get creative with. He’s crafty and elusive, allowing him to slip by defenders and go one-on-one with the netminder. Then he does the same to the goalie and gets a highlight-reel goal. While he can put the puck in though, he can also set others up which might be even more impressive of the young forward. He reads the play in the offensive zone so well, making him a very dynamic threat in the attacking zone.
At 6-foot-2, you might think that Lazutin would be a physical player. He’s not really, as he won’t be laying others out or throwing many hits. But, he does know how to use his big body very effectively. He uses it to protect the puck well, positioning his body between defenders and the puck. He’s also effective in board battles, knowing how to push others off the puck. If he takes another step forward this season, expect Lazutin to be in top-10 consideration.
Kirill Kirsanov, D, SKA-1946 St. Petersburg
I told you we’d get to that other defender. Kirill Kirsanov had a very impressive MHL rookie season for SKA-1946, putting up four goals, nine assists and 13 points in his first 40 games. One note about the defender though, he is just four days away from being eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft (Sept. 19).
However, that doesn’t change the fact that he had a very promising draft-1 year. On top of his MHL numbers, the left-handed d-man dressed for Russia in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the World Junior A Hockey Challenge. He collected two assists and a gold medal at the Hlinka and five points (one goal, four assists) in six games at the Junior A Challenge.
Like Grushnikov, Kirsanov is surprisingly reliable in his own end for a young defender. He plays big minutes, is utilized in all situations, and knows where he needs to be on the ice. What adds to Kirsanov’s game though, is his offensive side.
He’s an excellent passer, whether on the breakout or in the offensive end. He has the ability to be the man on the point, running a play. Both internationally and in the MHL, he was often impressing with his playmaking. However, he’s also not afraid to jump in the play and fire off a strong shot. He’s looking like a very promising prospect at this point.
Maxim Motorygin, G, MHK Dynamo Moskva
There hasn’t been a lot of talk about Russian netminder Maxim Motorygin, but there will be leading up to the 2021 NHL Draft. In his rookie season in the MHL, the goaltender played in 20 games, going 11-8-0 with two shutouts and impressing with a 2.20 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.
While 2020 NHL Draft-eligible Yaroslav Askarov stole the show at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Motorygin did get in one game versus Slovakia and made sure to make it count, winning the game 2-1 in overtime thanks to 31 saves, a .969 save percentage and a 0.95 goals against average. He won a gold medal in the tournament.
The goalie also played in the World Junior A Hockey Challenge for Russia. Motorygin struggled a bit in his two games played, letting in 10 goals on 67 shots for a .851 save percentage. However, Russia did still win the tournament and it’s important to note that the netminder was 16 in this under-19 tournament. That last point is key.
The goaltender has some work to do to improve his game – but that’s normal at his age. If anything, I’d argue that for a 17-year-old, Motorygin’s resume and play are very impressive. His positioning is very good, he’s technically sound, and he has quick reflexes. This is looking like a very good draft for goaltenders and the Russian could be near the top of that.
Prokhor Poltapov, RW, Krasnaya Armiya
Last but certainly not least, if there was a player to challenge Lazutin for top-Russian available, it would be Prokhor Poltapov. There’s probably even an argument for him to be there already, but he’s second on my list – for now.
Much like Lazutin, Poltapov is a dynamic offensive threat. This season, the right-wing forward dressed at the U17, U18, and MHL level. This came after his 2018-19 season where the 15/16-year-old (Feb. 1 birthdate) played at the U16, U17, and U18 levels – including captaining the U18 team.
This season, the forward spent most of his time in the MHL with Krasnaya Armiya, playing 23 games, scoring eight times and adding four assists for 12 points. It was obvious he was too good for the U18 level after putting up seven points in three games. He also won gold at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, putting up seven points (three goals, four assists) in six games.
The young winger is a rare talent that can drive offense despite not playing as the pivot on a line. He can set up his teammates or drive to the net himself, using his excellent offensive awareness to find the gaps and the weaknesses in the defense. Likely a first-round pick, it wouldn’t be long before Polpatov is knocking at the top-15/top-10 door.
Others to Watch
- Nikita Buruyanov, RW, MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg
- Nikita Chibrikov, F, SKA-1946 St. Petersburg
- Ilya Ivantsov, F, SKA-Varyagi im. Morozova
- Vladislav Lukashevich, D, Loko Yaroslavl
- Fyodor Svechkov, F, Ladia Togliatti
Strong Russian Presence Near Top of 2021 NHL Draft
The 2021 NHL Draft could very well see at least three of these names in the first round, with Motorygin one of the top-five goaltenders taken off the board. As with all of the articles in this series, there’s a ton of talent and there’s lots to be excited about looking at the year ahead in terms of draft-eligibles.
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Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.