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Monday, July 03, 2006

Russia's Top Three

A look at the first three Russian players picked in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft

I got kicked out of ballet class because I pulled a groin muscle. It wasn't mine
Written by Evgeny Belashchenko,

Good news for Russian players: The NHL's hesitance on drafting Russians appeared to have bottomed out in 2005, and the Russians are on a rebound.

Reminding people of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, of course without future superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin, the Russian crop in 2006 enjoyed a strong run during the first three rounds of the draft this past weekend.

Here's a look at some of the notable Russians taken in Saturday's draft in Vancouver.

If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?
Semen Varlamov (Lokomotiv-2, Vyschaya Liga)

Semen Varlamov, goalie, 23rd overall, Washington Capitals
While it was a bit of a surprise that Varlamov was the top Russian to be selected in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, his name being called so early was not by any means a surprise. He is definitely the brightest goaltender to come out of Russia since Ilya Bryzgalov and was a great pickup for the Capitals, who lack depth in net after the departures of Maxime Ouellet, Sebastien Charpentier, and Rastislav Stana.

Varlamov has already been the starter for Russia's under-18 squad for two seasons and will inherit the starting role on the under-20 squad for the next two years. He has yet to earn any professional experience in the Super League, but Varlamov has proven his worth on the international arena.

One area for improvement for the young netminder is his positioning. He moves very quickly in the crease and possesses a quick butterfly. Additionally, he possesses a very strong work ethic.

The biggest concern regarding Varlamov's development into a blue chip netminder is the lack of an established hockey school in Yaroslavl and on the Russian national team. While his Yaroslavl counterpart Ivan Kasutin went to Finland to be schooled, Varlamov is completely "home grown" thus far.

At this point it is unclear whether the Capitals will look to bring Varlamov over to the juniors for the 2006-07 season, but if he remains in Russia, he must secure a Super League backup or a High League (Russia 2/Vyschaya Liga) starting position to continue his development, as he has already proven all he could at the junior first-league level.

If you ever turn around in my driveway again I'm gonna cut your fucking head off
Ivan Vishnevsky (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL)

Ivan Vishnevsky, defense, 27th overall, Dallas Stars
With the 27th selection in the first round, Dallas selected Ivan Vishnevsky, an heir apparent to Sergei Zubov, minus some of Zubov's defensive upside.

Before leaving Russia for the juniors, Vishnevsky was touted to be neck-and-neck with Yuri Alexandrov for the title of the top eligible Russian defender in the 2006 draft. However, it is difficult to compare the two players, as Vishnevsky all but opted to avoid the Russian national team, skating in just one tournament, and even there he displayed little interest.

The young defender dominated the QMJHL with his offensive talent, at times reminding scouts of Oleg Tverdovsky with his puck-handling skill and speed. To look back to the younger generation, he is similar in style to Kiril Koltsov, though the latter handles the puck better. With that said, his achievements were impressive at the junior level, and it would have been great to see more of Vishnevsky competing against the best of his peers in the international arena.

Unlike many other Russians, however, Vishnevsky has secured himself the first-round selection by coming over to North America and performing well in the QMJHL. Still, while the under-18 World Junior Championship is an important avenue for many Russians to showcase their skills to NHL scouts and experts, Vishnevsky already achieved this goal by skating in North America and the tournament would have only marginally impacted his draft stock.

While we ranked Vishnevsky lower amongst Russian players, his high selection is not a surprise and the young player does have a lot of upside and has already made a successful North American debut, which boosted his draft stock when compared to those players still skating in Russia.

I'm still working on it, it's not completely operational
Igor Makarov (Krylia Sovetov, Vyschaya Liga)

Igor Makarov, forward, 33rd overall, Chicago Blackhawks
Even after a regime change, Chicago remains true to the Russians, selecting winger Igor Makarov early in the second round. To see Makarov's name so high on the draft board was quite a surprise. While the young forward has enjoyed a solid season and dazzled many during the 2005 under-18 WJC, as well as the Canada-Russia Challenge tournament, his upside does not appear that of an early second-round pick.

Makarov did not have an even season, but he finished strong in the High League (Russia 2) playoffs with the Soviet Wings. The young prospect entered the season with hefty expectations after leading Russia in scoring at the WJC, but he failed to build on his success by struggling with the Soviet Wings and missing the cut for the under-20 WJC squad this past December. The strong end-season run has raised Makarov's stock once again.

A speedy forward who is not afraid of traffic, Makarov would make a capable second-liner. However, the young prospect does need to come to play on every shift at any level — something that got him into trouble with the Soviet Wings coaching staff early in the season when he did not perform at the High League level and did not take his demotion very well.

Chicago's motivations are unclear with this pick, but the scouting staff must have fallen in love with this pick to select him so early.