Meet Matvei Michkov: The Best Russian Prospect Since Ovechkin

Matvei Michkov has been one of the most talked about prospects in hockey circles for several years now. An elite offensive talent with the potential to be the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin. As a 16-year-old, Michkov scored 16 points in seven games at the 2021 U18 World Junior Championship (WJC), leading the tournament in scoring ahead of top NHL prospects like Shane Wright, Mason McTavish, and even Connor Bedard.

Matvei Michkov
Matvei Michkov (photo credit: photo.khl.ru)

Once thought to be a true contender for the first overall selection, Michkov has consistently been seen as the second-best player in the 2023 NHL Draft class, behind only Bedard, for the last year or so. However, early in the 2022-23 season, Michkov has begun to slide even further, with some prospect evaluators expecting him to go third or fourth overall.

Why has Michkov continued to slide on draft boards, and what are the reasons behind it? Today we’re going to look at the ascension of a few other prospects, the lack of visibility of Russian hockey in North America, the consequences of Michkov’s contract situation, and what he must do to earn back the second overall selection or possibly even first overall.

Michkov’s One-of-a-Kind Results

Firstly, I want to make sure you’re familiar with Michkov’s game and statistical profile so you know why I’m so high on him despite his recent slide in the public scouting sphere. In his final season of local junior hockey, he scored 70 goals and 109 points in just 26 games, an average of 4.2 points per game and about 2.7 goals per game.

He spent his next season in the MHL (the top junior league in Russia), where a 15-year-old Michkov scored 56 points in 56 games, good enough for eighth in league scoring behind players anywhere from three to five years older than him; his 38 goals led the entire league. He had clearly established himself as a special talent in Russia, but the aforementioned 2021 U18 WJC was where Michkov truly showed the hockey world what he was capable of.

Since then, he scored 51 points in 28 MHL games during the 2021-22 season, 30 of which were goals. This season, Michkov has spent quite a bit of time with his Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, only suiting up for one game where he barely received any ice time. The rest of his season has been spent in the VHL (second-tier Russian professional league, somewhat similar to the American Hockey League in North America), where he has already scored eight goals and 12 points in eight games against grown men. The record for the most VHL goals in a player’s draft season is 10 goals, a record held by 2022 Washington Capitals draft pick Ivan Miroshnichenko. At this rate, Michkov only needs to suit up for about another week’s worth of games in the VHL to set the record anew.

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After showing that he was too good for the MHL last season, Michkov already looks to be better than the competition in the VHL. I expect he’ll earn a spot and regular ice time in the KHL by the end of this season, though his team (SKA St. Petersburg) seems prepared to slow-play his development. And he’s competing for ice time with several other young players, such as Dmitri Buchelnikov (Detroit Red Wings prospect) and Ivan Demidov (2024 draft prospect). At any rate, Michkov has done nothing but score goals, break records, and win games in Russia, and there’s no reason to think that will stop anytime soon.

Michkov’s Contract Consequences

The biggest reason that Michkov might have to wait a little bit longer to hear his name called come draft day actually has nothing to do with his on-ice play at all. Last year, he signed a contract extension with SKA St. Petersburg that will keep him in Russia through the 2025-26 season, meaning that whichever team drafts him this year will need to wait at least three full seasons before adding him to their lineup.

This contract allows him to mature and develop near his support system in Russia and should lead to him being a fully formed top-six winger as soon as he enters the NHL, much like Kirill Kaprizov was. Some may argue that he will still experience the difficulties that come with moving across the world in his first year in the NHL. However, I believe it is best that those issues won’t bother him as an 18-year-old but rather as a 21-year-old with multiple years of professional hockey experience.

Most teams in the NHL will see Michkov’s contract as a negative, likely enough for him to fall to third or fourth overall at least. Most teams that lose enough games to land a top-four pick in the draft are desperate for immediate help, and some of the other options available to clubs at that spot in the draft will be ready and able to play in the NHL much sooner than Michkov. The biggest issue, though, is not having a say in the development of your top prospect for three very important years. However, I also believe there are a select few teams who might see his contract as a bonus.

Imagine you’re the general manager of the Arizona Coyotes (I know it’s scary, just bear with me here) and you have the second overall selection in the 2023 draft. Bedard gets selected first, and you’re left with the choice between Adam Fantilli and Michkov. Either you draft Fantilli, who is likely to make the NHL straight out of training camp, and hope that you don’t stunt his development by giving him heavy minutes on a horrendous team, or you take Michkov, who will join the team in a few years (when they’re much more ready to succeed), allowing you to continue the tank and compete for another top draft pick in 2024 without risking the development of your top prospect.

Obviously, there are a lot of “ifs” in there, but I could easily see a situation where a team such as the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, or Coyotes strategically select Michkov to help them build the best possible team down the road.

Stiff Competition in the Top Four

Speaking of Fantilli, let’s take a look at Michkov’s biggest challenger for second overall. The 6-foot-2 Fantilli is another prospect who has long been expected to go in the top five of the 2023 draft. As a freshman in the NCAA, Fantilli currently leads the entire league with nine goals and 20 points in just 10 games. He has dominated the competition in terms of skill, size, and skating on a University of Michigan team filled to the brim with talent.

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli, Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

His highlights and statistics can easily be found on social media each weekend when he adds to his already impressive totals. Fantilli’s stellar start to his freshman season in the NCAA has already begun drawing comparisons to the most impressive freshman season in recent memory, Jack Eichel’s incredible 2014-15 season. In that year, Eichel scored 71 points in only 40 NCAA games for Boston University, 10 points more than the next highest scorer. Fantilli is currently on pace for 68 points in 34 regular season games, which would be the most points by a draft-eligible player since Eichel.

Another prospect looking to leapfrog Michkov on draft day is Leo Carlsson, a big Swedish center who has been very impressive in a full-time role in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Carlson has already scored 12 points in 17 games, a nearly unprecedented pace for a draft-eligible player, which has put him at a similar points-per-game rate to the likes of Peter Forsberg and the Sedin twins in their respective draft-eligible seasons. Carlsson has risen many draft boards and is considered by many to be the fourth member of the top tier of prospects in this draft, though there is still plenty of room for him to rise further.

Related: Connor Bedard Off to an Exceptional Start

Should Fantilli and Carlsson pass him by, I would be shocked to see Michkov get passed up with the fourth pick because the talent level seems to drop off from the first tier (top four picks) and into a second tier. Let me be clear: this means the talent level drops from “guy who will likely be your best player and be a superstar in the NHL for the next 15 years” to “guy who will likely be one of your best players and a consistent All-Star in the NHL for the next 15 years.” Michkov hasn’t dipped through any fault of his own but rather due to the incredible success some of his competitors have found early on this season.

Michkov’s Lack of Visibility

Another reason Michkov is being overshadowed by Bedard and Fantilli is the lack of visibility surrounding the VHL. Bedard plays in the CHL, Canada’s top junior league, so he gets tons of publicity from North American outlets. Fantilli plays in the NCAA, which has a similarly high level of attention. It’s always easier to follow prospects playing in leagues that you know or that play near you, and the VHL is neither close nor known to many NHL fans.

Michkov would surely have earned much more hype and publicity if he crossed the globe and played junior hockey in North America because “The Russian Factor” seems to have a new and unique hold on the minds of NHL executives. “The Russian Factor” was typically understood as a reluctance to draft Russian prospects because it was impossible to ensure that they would come over to play in the NHL. The success of the KHL as a league and the political climate in Russia have often been important pieces of it as well. 

We saw in the 2022 NHL Draft that there’s an extra layer to it now, with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine giving NHL general managers pause when it comes to drafting Russian players. The first player drafted who played their draft year in Russia was Miroshnichenko, who went 20th overall to the Washington Capitals despite many believing he possessed the skill of a top-10 pick.

Danila Yurov (drafted 24th by Minnesota Wild) was another Russian player who went much later than his talent deserved because NHL teams exercised an abundance of caution. Both Miroshnichenko and Yurov slid from the 10-15 range all the way to the 20-25 range, essentially sliding all the way to the end of the tier of talent that they were in. If a similar thing happens with Michkov, then he will likely be the third or fourth pick this year, as his talent level is too far above any other prospect to justify passing on him, even at fifth overall.

Earning Back Second Overall

So, what is it going to take for Michkov to win back his title as the second-best prospect in the 2023 draft? Firstly, he’ll need Fantilli to look human again for the remainder of his NCAA season, finishing the season at about a point-per-game pace. Next, he will need to earn a full-time promotion to the KHL in a top-nine role with meaningful minutes on one of his team’s power play units. That is the only way that he will earn enough points in the KHL to capture the attention of North American viewers. I firmly believe that he could hold down a top-six spot this season to reasonably positive results, so I expect that his playing in the VHL so far has something to do with his team deciding to slow-play his return from a minor injury he sustained in a pre-season tournament. 

Since Russia has been banned from all tournaments run by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for the foreseeable future, we won’t get the chance to see what Michkov could do against the best players in his age group at the 2023 World Junior Championship this December. The World Juniors are a really great opportunity for young prospects to gain popularity and become household names, and Michkov experienced a little bit of this in the canceled 2022 WJC, where he scored three goals in two games, making some ask if he would challenge Bedard for first overall. With this tournament and more out of the question for Michkov this year, he will need to make the most of his Russian league play, as it is likely to be the only ice time he gets before the 2023-24 season begins.

Draft Day Always Surprises

At the end of the day, there’s no way to reliably predict where each player gets drafted, and we’ll just have to wait to find out on draft day. My prediction is that he will get drafted third overall after Fantilli puts up a ridiculous NCAA season and Carlsson’s production slows down a bit. Michkov will be a true difference-maker in the NHL in just a few short years, and I expect him to hit the ground running as a 21-year-old rookie in the 2026-27 season.

Where would you draft Matvei Michkov in the 2023 Draft? Do you mind waiting 3 years for a top prospect to arrive in the NHL? Which team do you predict will end up drafting Michkov in June? Sound off in the comment section below!


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