Often in draft, for Russians there's no love

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2012 - 6:19 AM

Past problems with players from Russia means the country's current elite crop faces some skeptical teams.

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Russia's Alexander Khoklachev, right, celebrated his goal with teammate Nail Yakupov, left, against Canada in the world juniors hockey championships in January.

Photo: Nathan Denette, Associated Press

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PITTSBURGH - Maybe it's because Alex Radulov bailed out in the middle of his NHL contract and returned to Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2008.

Maybe it's because Washington can't persuade Russian star Evgeny Kuznetsov to leave the KHL for the NHL two years after being drafted, or that Alex Ovechkin can't manage to lead the Capitals to a Stanley Cup, or that the Capitals' Alexander Semin has a reputation of being a poor teammate.

A number of Russians are near the top of the NHL draft board at a time when their countrymen are being painted with the same brush.

Most managers and scouts won't talk publicly about the subject. But it's evident many NHL teams worry about what's been dubbed the "Russian Factor."

Teams worry top Russian players either won't "buy into the system" or could be poached by the KHL. Because there is no transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL, technically a legal NHL contract isn't binding.

So during recent interviews at the draft combine, three likely Russian-born first-round picks -- top-rated Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Andrei Vasilev- ski -- were closely questioned by teams.

"I think just about the NHL," Yakupov said he promised teams. "It's my dream to play in the NHL. My focus is just NHL."

Yakupov played junior hockey for the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting, while Grigorenko was with the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec League.

"Mikhail says, 'Do these people really think I actually had my mother leave Russia and live with me in North America for a whole year just to go back to Russia?'" said Grigorenko's agent, Jay Grossman.

Even Alex Galchenyuk faced the question, and he is an American of Russian descent born in, get this, Milwaukee.

Checking closely

But because the KHL is so aggressive trying to lure players, teams want to make sure Russian players are truly committed.

"But why don't we focus in on the fact that Slava Voynov, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings, played in [minor league] Manchester before," asked Craig Button, a TV analyst and former NHL general manager. "And you know darn well [KHL teams] were trying to get him to come back and play.

"It's not like the Russian players say, 'Play me in the NHL or else I'm going over to the KHL.' We have so many good examples of these guys who are willing to go through the developmental process to get to the NHL.

"Yakupov comes over from Russia to play in the OHL ... to ride buses! I mean, he could have made a million bucks in the KHL. Yet, he and Grigorenko come here to make $55 a week! Think these guys are now not coming to the NHL?"

Radulov's reputation is a big reason for the "Russian Factor," hockey folks say privately. It's not only that he left for the KHL. It's because he and Predators teammate Andrei Kostitsyn showed a lack of commitment and discipline by being out to the wee hours of the morning before a second-round playoff game. The team suspended the players two games.

Still, there are plenty of examples of Russians "you can win with" and are willing to play defense.

Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit has won three Selke Trophies as the NHL's best defensive forward and four Lady Byng Trophies as the NHL's most gentlemanly player. Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh is another strong leader. Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr says New Jersey's Anton Volchenkov, whom he was with in Ottawa, is known as one of the league's great teammates, and the Wild's Dany Heatley often vouches for always maligned New Jersey star Ilya Kovalchuk, his former Atlanta teammate.

History lesson

"If you're willing as a club to put the time and effort in to help these guys, the upside with some of these players provide you with is much greater than the perceived risk," said Grossman, who is Kovalchuk's agent. "The onus isn't just on the player. The teams afraid to take these players are really the teams that are incapable of doing the job properly to make sure these players succeed. That's their fear."

Grossman, who also represents Radulov and Kuznetsov, has been an agent for many Russians. He has seen firsthand the way the "Russian Factor" has affected some of his clients. Kuznetsov, the MVP of the 2012 world junior championships, fell to 26th in 2010. The late Alex Cherepanov fell to the Rangers at No. 17 in 2007.

"He was exceptional," Grossman said of Cherepanov, who died during a KHL game in 2008. "I have no doubt in my mind that he would be the best player in that draft, yet people were scared to take him because of his nationality."

But as Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said, "You can get players of any nationality that don't fit or are selfish. It's up to teams to do their due diligence and sort out the character issues the best they can.

"The fact that [Yakupov and Grigorenko] came to Canada to play junior shows their desire to play in the NHL, and therefore I wouldn't be hesitant to take one of the Russian players at all."

Said Button: "I don't think there's a pool of talent in the world that's deep enough or wide enough where you can start to just eliminate players based on where they're from or what perceived factors there are."

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