The war in Ukraine added an increased level of uncertainty for the NHL Teams interested in drafting prospects born in Russia due to questions regarding the possibility of playing in North America.
While no team has explicitly stated that it will avoid selecting the Russians entirely in the two-day draft in Montreal that begins Thursday, there is a possibility that Russia will be eliminated in the first round for the first time since 2005.
“I don’t know if anyone has the answer,” said Seattle General Manager Ron Francis, whose team currently has 12 picks over seven rounds, including fourth overall. “It’s definitely unknown at the moment, so it’s, I think, more dangerous than in years past.”
While there was always a risk that Russians would decide to stay home to play, concerns are greater now with travel restrictions imposed during the war for anyone wishing to travel to and from Russia and Belarus. NHL executives are left to question whether they will actually be allowed out.
It doesn’t help that the NHL and its Russian counterpart, the Kontinental Hockey League, do not have a transfer agreement. This prevents NHL teams from buying KHL contracts, and it’s a constant hurdle for any GM hoping to raid the world’s second-best league.
Without revealing the Canadiens’ strategy, Montreal manager Kent Hughes said it was up to each team to weigh the risks of choosing a Russian player.
“It’s easy to say that the war in Russia creates a level of complexity or perhaps more uncertainty,” Hughes told The Associated Press. “Any team selection has to balance its uncertainty with the player’s potential.”
Last week, Philadelphia Flyers guard Ivan Fedotov was suddenly assigned to a remote military base in northern Russia, according to the player’s agent, JB Barry.. Selected in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, Fedotov signed with the Flyers in May after completing his contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
“I think in years past, there might have been a bit of a concern — would the guy just come in?” Francis said before referring specifically to Fedotov. “Maybe this is a different size.”
While the NHL has not issued any guidance on drafting Russian players, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the uncertainty could increase teams’ hesitation.
“Would I be surprised if some slipped where they were expected to go based on not being able to get to them?” Daly said.
This year’s draft category includes several Russian players who have potential for the first round under normal circumstances.
Defenseman Pavel Mintyukov is ranked sixth among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting because he played in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Wingers Danila Yorov and Ivan Miroshchenko, who played in Russia, are among the top 10 European figure skaters.
Miroshchenko’s situation is even more complicated as he was unable to complete his season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March. He has since completed his treatment and plans to attend the draft.
Chief Scout Central Dan Marr is confident that the Russian players will be selected, but he will not guess how long they may wait.
“I don’t even want to try and guess what the NHL clubs are thinking,” Marr said. “If you’re sitting there and have a solid NHL championship prospect, are you going to his side or do you want to step up and take him and hopefully the world will be in a different situation a few years from now.”
Mar said he and his crew conducted a mock draft in which the first Russian player was not selected until the second round.
Last year, 29 Russian players were drafted – the most since 2003 – with Fedor Svichkov, ranked No. 19 by Nashville, the only player to go into the first round.
A year after four Russians were drafted, Buffalo Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams hasn’t ruled out the possibility of picking more this year. When compiling the Sabers draft board, Adams told his crew to rank each player as usual before placing an asterisk next to the Russian predictions to allow for further discussion.
“If we get to a place in the draft where we feel there is real value, we’ll talk about it,” Adams said, referring to the choice of a Russian player. “So, we’re open to that.”
With three first-round picks and four in the Top 41, Adams acknowledged that the Cypresses had more trial capital than other teams to risk on a Russian player.
“I think it’s a unique place for us,” Adams said.
AP hockey writer Stephen Winno and AP sports writer Tim Booth contributed to this story.
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