Russian forward Matvei Michkov has become the talk of the hockey world in the weeks leading up to the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) phenom will play under contract with SKA St. Petersburg through the 2025-26 season. The allure of one of the top prospects in a stacked draft class could convince the Philadelphia Flyers to select him with the seventh-overall pick.
Rookie general manager (GM) Danny Briere spoke candidly on the Flyers Daily podcast on May 26 about how the three-year commitment would not prevent Philadelphia from picking Michkov. However, global politics surrounding the Russian invasion of the Ukraine have already affected the status of Russian players in the NHL. Would an organization with a checkered history of involvement with Russian players pull the trigger on a stunning move that would send shockwaves throughout the NHL?
Matvei Michkov: The Mystery of the Draft
Michkov is a dynamic offensive player who will most likely slot in as a right winger. Logan Horn of The Hockey Writers pointed to his puck skills, creativity, and intelligence on the ice as primary traits that define his high ceiling as a star player in the NHL. Scouts have even referred to him as the best Russian prospect to enter the draft since Alexander Ovechkin in 2006. The time span includes top picks like Vladimir Tarasenko and Andrei Svechnikov and hidden gems like Artemi Panarin, Nikita Kucherov, and Kirill Kaprizov.
“He has the potential to be in the conversation as of one of the elite players of this decade, same as Connor Bedard. If you factor in a healthy and stronger player, Michkov will be able (to) influence games and have a similar impact on the scoreboard as Bedard. They both have their own unique styles of attack when they have the puck, they are offensive threats and they’re both exciting players to watch,” NHL Central Scouting vice president Dan Marr said about Michkov.
His performance at the 2021 U18 World Junior Championship, where he finished with 16 points in seven games, helped him rise through the draft boards. He also finished with the highest points per game average of any draft-eligible player in KHL history.
Michkov has the type of upside that the Flyers lack in their prospect pipeline. While Tyson Foerster and Cutter Gauthier have the skill sets to play on NHL first lines, they don’t have the same type of superstar ceiling as the sleek Russian. He would immediately become the top-ranked prospect in an organization desperate for offensive firepower after finishing 31st in the NHL in goals over the past two seasons combined ahead of only the lowly Chicago Blackhawks.
“A Million Factors Besides Talent“
However, factors outside his control have affected his draft status. The uncertainty surrounding the situation in Russia has caused some NHL executives to reconsider their willingness to invest in Russian prospects. Michkov also suffered a serious knee injury in September 2022. Meanwhile, Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson have proven themselves as excellent prospects worth the cost of top picks in 2023.
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Additionally, the lack of access to KHL players has impacted the way NHL teams have been able to get a grasp on a very mysterious situation. If you need an indicator of the lack of available information, look at the disparity between two of the most reputable sources in prospect coverage. Elite Prospects lists Michkov at 148 pounds, while NHL.com lists him at 172 pounds. While he will he will attend the draft in Nashville, there are other concerns.
“A number of teams are indicating they can’t get an assurance he’ll talk to them before the draft.,” Elliotte Friedman said. “There’s a lot of mystery about him, and teams want to get to know who they’re dealing with here…The only way you could really get to talk to him was if you physically got to him right after a game and talked to him for a couple of minutes.”
A report from a Russian source threw another variable into the mix, stating that Michkov’s supposed preference to play for the Washington Capitals, who own the eighth-overall pick, will steer other teams away.
Related: 2023 NHL Draft Guide
“It is hard to imagine that Montreal (with the fifth-overall pick) will take the Russian. Clubs like Arizona (with the sixth-overall pick) or Philadelphia understand that Michkov may not come to them until he is 26 years old. In eight seasons, the entire leadership in the NHL clubs will change. What’s the point of drafting a kid if your followers will reap the success?” the translated report stated.
Are the Flyers the type of organization Michkov would want to play for? It’s certainly hard for Briere and the front office to decide without meeting him. They also have history to consider. After all, Bobby Clarke, who still works in the organization as a senior advisor, is the man who infamously slashed Russian star Valeri Kharlamov in possibly the most impactful play of the USSR-Canada showdown in the 1972 Summit Series. Four years later, the Broad Street Bullies sent the vaunted Soviet Red Army team straight off the ice at the Spectrum in Philadelphia with a brutal North American style that intimidated the unsuspecting Russians.
The Flyers also have the recent history of Ivan Fedotov to think about. The goaltending prospect signed an entry-level deal last offseason with plans to play in North America. However, the Russian government detained him for allegedly evading military service.
As the recent Russian source stated, “There are a million factors besides talent.”
Flyers Must Be Bold
“I don’t think he’s going to be there at seven. We’re going to do our research on him too. We’re going to get to learn more about him in case, but I don’t expect him to be there at number seven,” Briere said about the possibility of drafting Michkov.
However, Michkov is the ultimate wild card of one of the best prospect classes in recent NHL history. The league saw the unpredictability of the draft when projected first-overall pick Shane Wright suddenly slipped to the fourth-overall spot in 2022. The amount of variables in the situation involving Michkov could easily push him down the draft board. If the Flyers face the opportunity to draft him in the seventh spot, they need to take a bold risk to land a player with more talent and potential than multiple other players selected ahead of him.
“Number one for us is getting talent…We want some 100-point players,” Keith Jones told 97.5 The Fanatic. “In specialized situations, you need talented players that want to grab it by the horns and make something happen and have the skill set to be able to do that. We have some guys that can, but we need more, and that’s something that is really going to be at the forefront of what we’re trying to do here.”
The organization lacks that type of game-changing talent that Michkov could bring, and the new front office will never achieve their goals without taking on major risks. If they don’t plan on finishing in the bottom spot in the NHL during the rebuild, they need to pounce on their opportunity to land a player with the talent level of a number-one overall pick in many drafts.
The Flyers have elected to begin a rebuild that won’t include a “fire sale” of veteran players or a deliberate tank to improve lottery odds. They’ve instead prioritized building a new standard under head coach John Tortorella and preserving a competitive mentality. While the veteran bench boss built the basis of that standard in 2022-23, it only helped the team climb from the 29th spot in the league in 2021-22 to the 26th.
The idea of a safer pick has an inherent flaw. A player with a greater chance of becoming a contributor at the NHL level without the superstar ceiling isn’t safe at all because he’s less likely to provide the organization with enough upside to help them win a Stanley Cup. If Briere, Jones, and the Flyers hope to accomplish their stated goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia, they need to take the risk on the best available player in the draft.