Friday, July 19, 2024

Teams taking risks with top Russian prospects in NHL draft

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On a night where Canadian songstress superstar Celine Dion made a surprise appearance, Macklin Celebrini was the no-doubter, the undisputed No. 1 choice in the NHL draft, which began Friday in Las Vegas.

In any professional sports draft, there’s a lot of analyzing and dissecting the measurables, there’s some projecting, but there’s also a bit of guessing. Guess right often enough and you win a lot of games. Guess wrong too often, your team flounders and you lose your job.

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The guessing that goes into the NHL draft becomes more problematic when you’re trying to figure out the potential of teenage Russian hockey players.

On Friday, the Montreal Canadiens got Russian forward Ivan Demidov with the fifth overall pick, the New Jersey Devils got Russian defenceman Anton Silayev with the 10th pick. Nice. For the teams. And, for the kids.

Here’s the thing, though. Both were thought of as Top 5 picks. Many hockey thinkers identified Demidov as the second-most talented forward. Silayev also drew rave reviews. TSN’s Craig Button had Demidov going third and Silayev fourth. It’s not like they slipped a lot. But it’s also possible they fell a bit because of their country of birth.

It’s hard for NHL scouts to evaluate Russian hockey players, much more difficult than it used to be.

It has become a great divide.

There’s an international backlash because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian teams are banned from playing in international tournaments, plus there are travel restrictions. Many of the kids are already signed to pro contracts in Russia.

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Agent Daniel Milstein tried to get exposure for his Russian hockey clients when he had a showcase combine in Florida earlier this month. So, there’s that. But it’s not easy getting boots on the ground, so the evaluation process is different. Maybe there’s more guessing. And that’s difficult for NHL teams who want to lessen their chances of swinging and missing.

ICE CHIPS

Sure enough, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave his opening remarks, there were boos from the audience. Love it … No surprise with the No. 1 pick: The San Jose Sharks selected Celebrini, a centre out of Boston University. The selection was made by Joe Thornton’s beard … Asked about Celebrini, Sharks GM Mike Grier said: “All the great players are driven … and he has it.” … Family friend Steve Nash (yep, the Canadian former NBA star) was there to support the Celebrinis … The first trade of the night happened with Philadelphia, at 12th overall moving the pick to Minnesota for the 13th and a third-round pick in 2025. The Wild took University of Denver defenceman Zeev Buium, who some scouts had ranked a lot higher … Legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer made Philadelphia’s first pick, Guelph Storm centre Jett Luchanko. And, he did it in that voice, opening the selection with, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble.” … Winger Michael Brandseg-Nygard became the first Norwegian first-rounder ever, taken 15th by the Detroit Red Wings.

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PICK ‘EM

Connor Bedard, the No. 1 overall pick from a year ago, made the second overall pick for the Chicago Blackhawks; it was Artyom Levshunov (from Belarus), a right-shot defenceman who played at Michigan State last year. Levshunov’s dad died two years ago at the age of 46 due to heart complications from COVID-19. Levshunov lists Usain Bolt as his favourite athlete … Scott Niedermayer made the Anaheim Ducks’ first pick (third overall), Oshawa Generals winger Beckett Sennecke … Picking fourth for Columbus was Rick Nash; the Blue Jackets took Medicine Hat centre Cayden Lindstrom (he lists his favourite non-hockey athletes as Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali). Lindstrom said he writes “FTF” on his stick and his equipment and he had it inside the suit jacket he wore to the draft – it is short for “For the Fam.” … Celine Dion, the team’s “No. 1 fan,” made the Montreal Canadiens’ first pick – Demidov. He has a year remaining in his KHL commitment … Owners Ryan and Ashley Smith made the first-ever pick by the Utah Hockey Club (the former Arizona Coyotes), taking Kelowna Rockets winger Tij Iginla, the son of former NHL star Jarome. Interesting stat: Dad was picked 11th overall, five spots behind the kid … The Senators didn’t get a former player to make their pick; GM Steve Staios called out the name of 6-foot-3 right-shot defenceman Carter Yakemchuk, who led WHL defencemen with 30 goals this past year. His favourite non-hockey athlete is Connor McGregor … The second overall pick in 2021, Matty Beniers, made Seattle’s first pick, eighth overall, Spokane Chiefs centre Berkly Catton … With the ninth pick, the Calgary Flames went with Saginaw Spirit defenceman Zayne Parekh, as exciting an offensive player as there is in the draft. Some compare him to the dynamics of Erik Karlsson. The big question: Can he play a bit of defence, too. “I believe in the way I play,” said Parekh. “It’s a translatable game.” … Martin Brodeur made New Jersey’s first pick – Silayev, a 6-foot-7 left-handed defenceman, with the 10th pick.

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THE FINAL WORD

Loved the venue for the draft, the Sphere, which has gained notoriety for hosting U2 (a 40-show residency). The Eagles will have an eight-show residency on weekends beginning in September. The graphics and LED lights were spectacular … Good job by the Sportsnet crew doing the TV broadcast, but it always seems to me the TSN panel would be better … It won’t be the same after this draft. Beginning next year, the league will change to a format similar to what the NFL uses, a decentralized model where general managers and scouts remain in their home markets to make their selections … Winger Cole Eiserman, possibly the best goal scorer in the draft, fell to the New York Islanders at the 20th pick … The Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to choose 23rd overall. Supposed to. But, more than 2 1/2 hours into the draft, after hearing a lot of boos, the Leafs dealt their top pick to Anaheim for picks 31 and 58. Defenceman Stian Soldberg, the second Norwegian to go in the first round, went to Anaheim.

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