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With Teams Avoiding Russia and KHL, Flyers Have Found Fountain of Youth

(RvS.Media/Monika Majer/Getty Images)

With the IIHF’s ban on Russia and Belarus taking into effect in 2022 after the invasion of the Ukraine, Russian prospects have been scarcely scouted and drafted, leaving the few teams that have dipped into the pool – like the Philadelphia Flyers – with question marks and asterisks, at least from the hockey world at large.

In February of 2022, the IIHF decided to take the following actions against Russia and Belarus:

1) Suspension of all Russian and Belarusian National Teams and Clubs from participation in every age category and in all IIHF competitions or events until further notice

2) Withdrawal of the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship hosting rights from Russia

IIHF President, Luc Tardif, followed that up with a statement explaining their decision:

“The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine. We nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must therefore do all we can to ensure that we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program.”

“We were incredibly shocked to see the images that have come out of Ukraine. I have been in close contact with members of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine and we hope for all Ukrainians that this conflict can be resolved in a peaceful way and without the need for further violence.”

The immediate impact that the ban had on the NHL was that scouts, general managers, and NHL teams as a whole were not able to see what the best and brightest of Russia and Belarus’ youngsters had to offer on the international stage, primarily at the World Junior Championships, which has always acted as a massive platform and a tell-tale sign for draft eligible prospects.

Russia last participated in the World Juniors in 2021, where they finished 4th, and it doesn’t seem like they will be re-entering any time soon. The IIHF made the decision not to reinstate either nation ahead of the 2023-24 season back in March of this year. 

Heading into the 2022-23 season, NHL teams either backed off on their scouting in Russia – leaving very few scouts, if at all – or they completely backed out of the nation and diverted their attention to the other European leagues, NCAA, and the CHL. Steven Ellis of the Daily Faceoff wrote an article about what was happening with scouts in Russia and how that would affect the upcoming draft:

“A lot of NHL teams either lessened their Russian scouting core, stopped sending crossover scouts or just pulled everyone out of Russia altogether following the start of the conflict between the country and Ukraine. So a lot of the looks teams had on Michkov were through video, which doesn’t give you the same frame of reference.

“Usually, Russia would be a major threat in any major international competition. For the past two years, scouts were robbed of seeing Michkov compete against the world’s top talents. We already know how he stacks up locally – some believe Michkov is the best Russian prospect since Malkin or Alex Ovechkin, and it’s hard to argue against that.”

The lessening of scouts, the complete halt of scouting for some, and the dark cloud that surfaced over Russia and the KHL continued to increase as we drew closer and closer to the NHL draft. The biggest storyline heading into that night was no longer about the Chicago Blackhawks drafting Connor Bedard with the first overall selection, it was about Matvei Michkov and who between 4-8 would draft the super-prospect.

With Bedard firmly planted as the top prospect, Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson were near-locks to follow suit, leaving the San Jose Sharks as the first team with the opportunity to draft Michkov. It was widely speculated that neither the Sharks at #4 nor the Arizona Coyotes at #6 were interested in drafting the Russian phenom with several question marks remaining unanswered and the fact that not many teams had the opportunity to see him play. Add in the fact that he wouldn’t be making the leap over the pond until 2026, that kept the basement-dwellers away, citing that they wanted a prospect for “right now”.

That left the Montreal Canadiens at #5 as the road block to Michkov for Daniel Brière and company – who suddenly became the favourites to nab him at #7. Rumours and reports were circulating out of Montreal left, right, and centre and no one could really put a pin on what they were planning on doing. In the end, they followed the same route as the Sharks and Coyotes as they diverted their attention elsewhere and drafted the top defenseman in David Reinbacher.

It was reported to be an arms race between the Flyers and the Washington Capitals who were picking #8 and Arizona could’ve benefitted from trading down to either team that was desperately trying to snag Michkov. Instead they decided to stay put and ended up drafting Russian defenseman, Dmitry Simashev, which certainly surprised the hockey world. The rugged defenseman was certainly going to be available when the Coyotes were due up next at #12, and in fact he could’ve been around later in the first round, but all they ended up doing was helping the Flyers secure the rights to the ultra-talented Michkov. 

The Flyers were not afraid of the taboo surrounding Russian prospects even when one of their own was detained and serving a year in the military. Ivan Fedotov’s case was the first of it’s kind – at least in recent memory – where the KHL and the NHL were finally officially at odds with one another. After trying to evade military conscription, he was forced to serve a year in the Arctic but was always meant to return to the Flyers ahead of the 2023-24 season. However with a glimmer of hope perhaps, after deliberating for a few weeks, the IIHF ruled in favour of the Flyers.

Fedotov’s case also hasn’t stopped the Flyers from dipping their toes into the Russian pool in later rounds either as they drafted the scarcely known goaltender, Yegor Zavragin. Tony Ferrari of The Hockey News wrote an article the other day about the Flyers prospect pool and wrote a very interesting blurb about the Russian netminder that was drafted in the 3rd round:

“The Flyers went back-to-back on netminders by taking Yegor Zavragin right after Bjarnason. The Russian netminder is one of the youngest players in the draft class and was impressive at the Russian junior level, putting up a .920 save percentage. He has been one of the best goalies in Russia in recent years and had the world been a different place, he could have gone 50 picks higher. His technique improved this past season and although he’s not a massive netminder, he stands 6-foot-2 with crisp movements in his crease.”

The 17-year-old stands in at 6’2 and 185 lbs , spent the 2022-23 season with Mamonty Yugry of the MHL, where he went 11-6-1 in 21 games with a .920 SV% and a 2.49 GAA. He also appeared in 4 post-season games going 2-2-0 with a .927 SV% and a 2.68 GAA. In 2021-22 for Mamonty Yugry he sported a 20-4-2 record with a 2.13 GAA and a .930 SV% – a fairly successful track record that should’ve netted him a higher draft position.

However, as Ferrari mentions, even though he had been “one of the best goalies in Russia in recent years”, the Russian factor kicked in and dropped him down several pegs – perhaps even 2 full rounds. Nevertheless, that helped the Flyers once again, as they were able to scoop him up in the 3rd round as their second successive goaltender after Carson Bjarnason.

Their goaltending depth chart has improved vastly after just one draft as Samuel Ersson finally has some much needed competition behind him. Which brings us to yet another KHL prospect, although drafted a few years ago, Alexei Kolosov has gone under the radar while performing admirably in the KHL. 

Kolosov was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft under Chuck Fletcher’s watch but recently this summer signed his 3-year ELC – almost immediately after the Russians signed Ivan Fedotov. A Belarusian native, Kolosov has played for his native Dinamo Minsk in the KHL in parts of the last 3 seasons.

In his draft year he split his time within the KHL and the Belarusian league where he played 9 games for the former and 15 games for the latter and owned a combined save percentage of .913 SV%. In 2021-22, he played 22 games in the KHL for Dinamo Minsk where he went 11-9-1 with a .906 SV% and a 2.90 GAA before playing in 42 games this past season. He might’v had a paltry 13-21-5 record but he did turn in great peripherals with a .912 SV% and a 2.55 GAA for a bad Minsk team. Kolosov has immediately jumped ahead in the depth chart and is sitting firmly behind Ersson.

While the Flyers have struck gold in the past few drafts from Russia and the Belarus, their checkered history with Russian prospects is staggering at best. Dan Silver made a chart of all the players the Flyers have drafted out of Russia over the years:

Ron Hextall tried his hand with the Russians during his tenure but came away with nothing from Mikhail Vorobyev, German Rubtsov, and Kirill Ustimenko. You can probably add Ivan Fedotov but at this rate no one knows how his situation will unfold in the coming days, months, or even years. Vorobyev played in 35 games, Rubtsov in 4, and Ustimenko did fairly well in the ECHL but only played in 13 games at the AHL-level.

Some are in fear, many have doubted, and others just don’t know if Michkov and the rest of the cast and crew in Russia or in the KHL will make it over the pond to the Flyers. I think for the most part, the Fedotov situation has put a severe wrinkle on Michkov’s future but it still seems to be the outlier of cases. Kirill Kaprizov, Igor Shesterkin, and Ilya Sorokin are all recent cases where they played out their contracts and then made their way to their respective NHL clubs – and have been absolutely sublime after years of development in Russia.

Even though we missed out on Kolosov playing for Belarus at the World Juniors and we are most likely not going to be able to watch Michkov and Zavragin play for Russia, the Flyers are extremely confident in their scouts and are not afraid of taking the “risk” of drafting a player out of Russia. In fact, that scare or disbelief has actually helped them because they were able to select Michkov 7th – when at one point he was neck-and-neck with Bedard – and draft Zavragin a round or 2 later.

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