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Possible outcomes for Yegor Chinakhov, based on NHL draft history

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What have other first round Russians and #21 picks accomplished in the NHL?

2008 NHL Entry Draft, Round One
Filly don’t do favorable comparisons
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 NHL Draft by selecting overaged Russian winger Yegor Chinakhov, a player who went undrafted in 2019 and was off the radar for most analysts. Apparently a handful of other teams had him high on their boards, though it’s not clear whether any would have pulled the trigger in the 20s had the Jackets traded down.

Setting aside discussion of the value of the pick, I wanted to look back at recent draft history to see what range of outcomes we should expect from a #21 overall pick, or from a first round Russian. What is the ceiling for these players? How long does it take them to make an impact in the NHL?

Busting on 21

Ottawa Senators v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

An important thing to keep in mind when discussing draft picks is that not all first round picks are the same. The top ten over the years is full of future stars. Outside of the lottery picks, however, the bust rate gets much higher. Back in the spring, writer loserpoints at Raw Charge wrote an excellent article about draft pick value. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the first chart is especially enlightening. You can see a steep downward drop in player production with each pick, and then it begins to plateau in the bottom third of the first round — right around where the Jackets picked this year. The ceiling of players in that range are higher than players in the third round and beyond, but the median is a replacement level player (that is, the equivalent of a journeyman player called up from the AHL). As the conclusion says,

So bad teams, yes, hoard those early picks. Sit upon them like a dragon and let no one near them. But good teams? Be creative. Flip those mid to late firsts for players who help you now and try to compensate with multiple picks in later rounds. You’re probably not getting a difference maker at pick 22 anyway. So stop looking at that wrapped present like it has your franchise savior in it and instead, be willing to move it if you have a chance to get better now.

Well, that’s ominous for this section.

Below, I have compiled data for the players selected at #21 in the previous ten drafts. “Full Time” indicates the first season when they played a clear majority of their time at the NHL level. There are columns indicating the number of games played at the NHL level in each of their first four seasons.

#21 Picks, 2010-19

Player Team Draft YR Full Time Current Pos GPY1 GPY2 GPY3 GPY4 GPTotal G A P
Player Team Draft YR Full Time Current Pos GPY1 GPY2 GPY3 GPY4 GPTotal G A P
Riley Sheahan DET 2010 2014 UFA C/LW 0 1 1 42 513 66 98 164
Stefan Noesen OTT 2011 2017 SJS RW 0 0 0 1 199 31 23 54
Mark Jankowski CAL 2012 2017 PIT C 0 0 0 0 208 36 28 64
Frederik Gauthier TOR 2013 2018 UFA C 0 0 7 21 168 13 18 31
Robert Fabbri STL 2014 2015 DET C/LW 0 72 51 0 216 46 58 104
Colin White OTT 2015 2018 OTT C/RW 0 2 21 71 155 23 47 70
Julien Gauthier CAR 2016 N/A NYR RW 0 0 0 17 17 0 3 3
Filip Chytil NYR 2017 2018 NYR C 9 75 60 144 26 23 49
Ryan Merkley SJS 2018 N/A SJS D 0 0 0 0 0 0
Samuel Poulin PIT 2019 N/A PIT W 0 0 0 0 0

My first takeaway? How many of these players changed teams, whether via trade or after being left unsigned by their original club (as Frederik Gauthier was this off-season). The second thing is that most of these players have taken at least four years to become fixtures of an NHL lineup. Only one — Chytil — played in the NHL in his Draft+1 season. He was the only one of these players that was playing in a European league when drafted, rather than the CHL or NCAA. Most of his first season was spent in the AHL, and he returned there briefly in his third season.

The only other player with regular time in his second year was Robby Fabbri. He scored 37 points in his rookie year, but then tore his ACL in his second season and missed the entire 2017-18 season, and hasn’t matched that rookie effort since. He had 32 points this season, getting a chance to be a second line center in Detroit after a bottom six role in St. Louis.

Even those who didn’t become full time until year four or later at least got some cups of coffee with their NHL team prior to that, whether spending the bulk of the season in the AHL, or by getting some games at the end of the regular season after their college or junior season ended. A valid concern with Chinakhov is that he can’t get that sort of trial run while he is under contract with his KHL team. The good news is that he could join the Jackets as soon as spring 2021, if he chooses to sign his ELC at the conclusion of this current KHL season.

The record of North Americans drafted at #21 isn’t great, with mostly bottom six talent. But what about Chinakhov’s fellow countrymen who were drafted in the first round?

Not Russian to play here right away

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

A few ground rules before we begin this section: I only considered skaters (since goaltenders have such different development paths) and I only looked at skaters who were playing for a Russian team when drafted. So, a player like Nail Yakupov was not included since he played in the OHL in his Draft -1 season. Playing in Canadian juniors affects development differently than playing back in Russia (size of the ice, playing against teens instead of adults, language and culture differences, etc.) and also provides more exposure to NHL scouts than you get in Europe. I did still include players who played in the CHL after their draft, however. I also included Marko Dano, who is not Russian but played in the KHL in the years immediately before and after being drafted. The comparison is about where the player is developed pre- and post-draft, not their nationality.

Russian First Rounders

Player Team Draft YR Pick Full Time Current Pos GPY1 GPY2 GPY3 GPY4 GPTotal G A P
Player Team Draft YR Pick Full Time Current Pos GPY1 GPY2 GPY3 GPY4 GPTotal G A P
Alex Ovechkin WSH 2004 1 2005 WSH LW LO 81 82 82 1152 706 572 1278
Evgeni Malkin PIT 2004 2 2006 PIT C LO 0 78 82 907 416 660 1076
Alexander Radulov NSH 2004 15 2006 DAL RW LO 0 64 81 442 136 198 334
Alexei Cherepanov NYR 2007 17 N/A Ret RW 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nikita Filatov CBJ 2008 6 N/A Ret W 8 13 23 9 53 6 8 14
Viktor Tikhonov PHX 2008 28 2008 KHL LW/C 61 0 0 0 111 11 11 22
Vladimir Tarasenko STL 2010 16 2012 STL RW 0 0 38 64 507 214 214 428
Evgeny Kuznetsov WSH 2010 26 2014 WSH C 0 0 0 17 479 120 269 389
Valeri Nichushkin DAL 2013 10 2013 COL W 79 8 79 0 288 36 65 101
Marko Dano CBJ 2013 27 2016 Slovakia LW 0 35 34 38 141 19 26 45
Denis Gurianov DAL 2015 12 2019 DAL W 0 1 0 21 86 21 12 33
German Rubtsov PHI 2016 22 N/A PHI C 0 0 0 4 4 0 0 0
Klim Kostin STL 2017 31 N/A STL W 0 0 4 4 1 0 1
Vitali Kravstov NYR 2018 8 N/A NYR RW 0 0 0 0 0 0
Grigori Denisenko FLA 2018 15 N/A FLA W 0 0 0 0 0 0
Vasily Podkolzin VAN 2019 10 N/A KHL RW 0 0 0 0 0

I wasn’t sure how far back I wanted to go to produce a large enough sample, and then the 2004 class jumped out at me. A number of years have no Russians in the first round at all (2005, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014), but this one had three, and that includes the top two. Only six of these 16 players were selected in the top ten. Ovechkin and Malkin have been well worth it, with each still active and already locks for the Hall of Fame. Even Radulov has been a major contributor in his 30s, after returning to Russia in the middle of his career.

Radulov is one of three who left the NHL and returned, along with Tikhonov and Nichushkin. Those two, plus rebound-avoider Nikita Filatov, serve as warnings for Russians who were thrown into the NHL in their Draft +1 season. Tikhonov (not the Soviet coach) was a regular as a rookie, then spent the next two years buried in the AHL. He went back to the KHL for four years, and a comeback in 2015-16 only lasted one season. Filly yo-yo’d between the Blue Jackets and AHL for three seasons, and the same with Ottawa for one before leaving the NHL for good. He retired in 2019. Nichushkin’s comeback finds him in a bottom six role.

A recent trend finds the picks coming over within a year and finishing their development in the AHL. Gurianov, Rubtsov, Kostin, and Kravstov have taken this route. Despite being available for call-up, Gurianov and Kostin spent entire seasons in the AHL without an NHL appearance. In the case of Gurianov, at least, the patience was rewarded with 20 goals in his first NHL season in 2019-20, and another 9 goals and 17 points in the Stars’ run to the Cup final.

Among the elite players from this cohort, however, their development was spent at home in the KHL. They took two to four years to come over, but once here they were fully formed players who made immediate impacts as rookies. (It’s quite possible that Ovechkin would have played in 2004-05 as a true rookie were it not for the NHL lockout.) Tarasenko and Kuznetsov seem to be the best case scenarios for Chinakhov, as the most successful of this group not selected in the top 10. Tarasenko spent two years in the KHL after the draft, while Kuznetsov spent four.

The final thing to note is that a fear of a player not coming to the NHL at all is unfounded. Only Cherepanov did not make it to the NHL, due to his tragic death of heart failure during a game in 2008. (Vancouver’s pick, Podkolzin, has also not come over yet but he was just selected last year). The NHL remains the best league in the sport, and players that are seen as elite want to prove they can play with the best.

Conclusions

First, the odds were not in favor of the Blue Jackets picking a star player a #21. Chances are good that we’ll look back in a few years and find an elite player selected after that we missed. It could be an obvious on-the-board player like Hendrix Lapierre or Connor Zary, but more likely someone selected in a later round, like the equivalent of Sebastian Aho or Brayden Point from previous drafts. Nonetheless, if we can get a middle six contributor out of Chinakhov, that’s a win.

Second, time spent in the KHL can be beneficial to a player’s development — if he does choose to come over. Patience will be required, whether Chinakhov spends multiple years in the KHL, or comes over in 2021 and needs some time in Cleveland.