Evgeny Kuznetsov, C/LW Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Born: May 19, 1992 in Chelyabinsk, Russia
Scouting report: Swift and skilled centerman is a high-upside prospect who has shined against the top global competition among his peer group, but his signability is a question mark at this stage after signing a two-year extension with his KHL team.
Strengths: Marvelous skater who is very quick off the mark, can pull away from defenders and has that almost universal speed and shifty/elusive dynamic that Russian players possess. The rare player who can both speed the game up or slow it down, depending on what is required in a given situation-- a real game-breaker if he gets any time and space to work with. Outstanding hands; has a lightning-fast release and picks the corners with ease. Impressive array of shots in his arsenal that he is able to use in space or when in tight. Plays with that instinctive desire to be the guy who finishes off the play every time; goes to the net looking to score and wins a lot of the close battles for loose pucks because he wants it more. Underrated passer who gets a lot of attention for his natural goal scoring ability, but who can also thread the needle and has impressive vision and sense for the flow of the play around him. Played in the KHL against men at age 17; didn't see a lot of ice time but could be ready for a big breakout in 10-11. Going off of pure hockey talent alone, there aren't many players in this draft class who are better.
Weaknesses: Not a lot of height and doesn't possess a lot of room to fill out; looks like he'll be an average-sized player when he reaches his physical maturity. Not very strong; can get knocked off the puck when the hitting picks up or he goes one-on-one against big, mobile defenders who can stay with him and maintain position. Doesn't play defense very effectively and his intensity/compete levels tends to waver at times; not a natural hustler who goes all out in every situation. Tends to take undisciplined penalties; needs to demonstrate less selfishness and more self-control. Signed a two-year extension with Chelyabinsk in the spring and his intention to play in North America/the NHL is still relatively unknown at this point.
Style compares to: Alexander Semin, Maxim Afinogenov
Draft prediction: 20th overall to Pittsburgh. The Penguins are in a position to swing for th fences on a high-risk/high-reward prospect like Kuznetsov, and the thought of using Evgeni Malkin to mentor him has some natural appeal. Because of the Pens' recent success, they can afford to gamble a bit and that's precisely what picking this player in the top-20 is-- a gamble. But, if he puts everything together, and can do enough to win a job on that Pittsburgh roster down the road, he has all of the skill in the world to become a lethal component up front for them. Other potential picks here: Riley Sheahan and Brock Nelson are two centers with upside and a few years from being ready for the NHL. On defense, there are several of the U.S. NTDP guys who could find a spot here: Justin Faulk, Jarred Tinordi (to replace the aging Brooks Orpik) and even Jonathan Merrill, who has a lot of skill and upside, but apparently did not impress some teams at the combine with his answers about the ugly off-ice issues he had this year. Don't forget Stephen Johns, the big and talented blueliner who is from Pa. and could be an option here, but one would think that if the Pens were going to draft this kind of player, they'd opt for Tinordi at 20 over Johns. Want another high-upside/risk/reward prospect at 20? Then John McFarland fits the bill as the best option in that category after Kuznetsov and without the signability concerns.
Projection: On pure ability alone, Kuznetsov is easily a top-six forward with some All-Star potential and a 35-40 goal ceiling. However, he has more concerns than other players in the top-20 and with his status as a Russian and one who is signed for another couple of years, that could drop him out of the first round altogether. Still, there are some teams who won't see these things as red flags as much as others, and if those teams fell in love with him at the Six Nations and Under-18 tournaments (which by most accounts would be easy to do as he was electric there), he's not a surprising option in the opening 30 picks. He's one of those enigmas who you watch on the ice and can become quickly captivated by, but when you see him loafing or taking undisciplined me-first penalties, makes you wonder. I see it quite a bit being based in Washington and getting a good look at Alexander Semin...the ability is never in question, but you never know when you're going to see the good, bad and ugly with him. Kuznetsov appears to be cut from a similar cloth.
Background: Was successul in Belarus in 2010: captained Team Russia's Under-18 squad, also led Russia to a first-place finish the Six Nations Tourney (in February) leading all players in scoring with six goals, nine points in five games. Also played in the World Jr. (under-20) tourney in Regina, scoring a pair of goals and looking impressive as a 17-year-old. Score 2 goals and 9 points in 35 KHL games with Traktor Chelyabinsk playing limited minutes. Does not speak English. Favorite NHL player: Ilya Kovalchuk
“He is fast, skillful and talented. He is also a leader on the ice, he was captain of the Russian Under-18 team and he had an excellent tournament. He is very skilled.”- Goran Stubb, Central Scouting's Director of European Scouting to NHL.com
“Leaving Chelyabinsk makes no sense to me. I’m under contract with Traktor for further two seasons and I’ll leave the team only if the management would release me. I don’t want to have bad relationships with my home club. I will go to America later this month, to have the Draft Combine. Then I will further practice. I’ll take part to the Draft in Los Angeles. Then I want to skate in the training camp of the team that will pick me up. I really want to see the practices and the preparation for the new season. Then I will get back to Traktor.”- Evgeny Kuznetsov to Traktor's official website, translated by RussianProspects.com; May, 2010