When the Vancouver Canucks drafted Vasili Podkolzin 10th overall in 2019, it was the first time in franchise history that they picked a Russian player in the first round. Prior to Podkolzin, Artem Chubarov was the team’s highest-drafted Russian at 31st overall in the second round.
The Canucks, like many other NHL teams, have frequently been afraid of the so-called “Russian Factor” — the ever-present risk that a Russian player might bolt for the KHL, which has no transfer agreement with the NHL. The Canucks have seen this a few times in their history, whether it was Kirill Koltsov leaving the Manitoba Moose mid-season to return to Russia or Nikita Tryamkin heading back to the KHL after a promising rookie season.
By picking Podkolzin, the Canucks put their trust in the young Russian’s desire to play in the NHL and it paid off, as he’s now signed his entry-level contract and will make his Canucks debut next season.
There are some teams, however, who have taken advantage of the Russian Factor. With Russians frequently falling further down the draft than they should based on their talent level, that creates a market inefficiency.
One of those teams is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who took Nikita Kucherov 58th overall in the second round of the 2011 draft, despite Kucherov destroying the World Under-18 Championship that year with 11 goals and 21 points in 7 games. The Russian factor scared teams off, the Lightning took advantage, and now Kucherov has led the playoffs in scoring in two-straight years.
Other teams, like the Washington Capitals, have turned themselves into a destination for Russians — they've made it more likely that Russian players will come to the NHL to play for them by creating a welcoming environment with other Russian players.
The Canucks could potentially do the same by adding another top-tier Russian player with the ninth overall pick in the 2021 draft, who could come over and join Podkolzin in the near future — Fyodor Svechkov.
Of course, the purpose behind drafting Svechkov wouldn’t be the Russian Factor, but because he is a fantastic young prospect that fits one of the team’s biggest needs: a dominant defensive centre with intriguing offensive upside.
Fyodor Svechkov by the numbers
Svechkov spent the bulk of his 2020-21 season in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier pro league, with Lada Togliatti and his numbers don’t exactly jump off the page. He had 15 points in 38 games, good for second among first-time draft eligible players in the VHL.
Being second in scoring among players your age in a men’s league seems like a good thing, but the truth is that not a lot of top prospects play a lot of games in the VHL. The top prospects, like Podkolzin, typically get called up to play in the KHL. Togliatti, however, does not have a KHL team, so that wasn’t an option for Svechkov.
It’s fitting, however, that Svechkov didn’t have eye-popping offensive numbers in the VHL, as offence isn’t his calling card. Instead, Svechkov is known primarily for his defensive game and might be the best defensive forward in the draft.
The primary reason he’s not higher on draft boards is because of this perceived limit to his offensive game. A consolidated ranking that combines multiple lists from draft experts has Svechkov near the end of the first round at 29th overall .
There are some, however, who think Svechkov should be a top-ten pick, notably TSN’s Craig Button, who has him at 10th, and independent scouting firm Smaht Scouting, who have him at 9th. A few others have him just outside the top ten, such as The Hockey News, Elite Prospects, and Sportsnet.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether there is some hidden reserve of offensive potential to Svechkov.
“I do think that there is a lot of offence that is bubbling under the surface that just hasn’t come out yet,” said prospect analyst Will Scouch in his breakdown of Svechkov’s game. Some of that offence came out at the World Under-18 Championship, where he centred Russia’s top line and won silver with 10 points in 7 games.
“He was a dominant player at the U-18s. Dominant,” said Button on the Tracking the Draft Podcast. “He wasn’t just a good player, he was a dominant player.”
Svechkov also had 15 points in 15 games in the MHL, Russia’s junior league, so he proved that he can put up points when playing with his peers.
Part of the issue is that Svechkov was playing limited minutes on a pretty terrible Togliatti team. Svechkov’s 15 points in 38 VHL games actually made him the sixth-highest scoring forward on the team, while averaging just 12:50 in ice time per game. There’s an argument to be made — supported by his performance at the U18 tournament — that Svechkov would have a lot more points if he was feeding more talented linemates the puck.
A wide array of passing plays
Svechkov’s lack of dominance in the VHL partly stems from him being far more of a playmaker than a goalscorer. He’s not the type of player to make the flashy, individual effort to score a goal. Instead, he’ll make the intelligent, high-percentage play, with a wide range of passing options in his toolbelt.
When you look at the array of passes Svechkov can make, it doesn’t seem possible that he had so few points in the VHL.
“Svechkov has almost every type of pass in his arsenal — hooks, banks, drop, and area feeds allow him to find teammates through and around the opposition,” says Elite Prospect’s David St-Louis in an in-depth article on Svechkov for EP Rinkside.
For instance, there’s this nifty one-touch pass on a bouncing puck for a secondary assist on a tic-tac-toe goal. Svechkov is #9 in this and subsequent clips.
I’m particularly fond of this play, where Svechkov makes like a defenceman, picks the puck up behind his own net, then hits a teammate with a perfect stretch pass in stride.
Then there’s this setup on the power play. Note how Svechkov initially gets open, jumping down lower in the zone to quickly open up a passing lane. His teammate nearly skates down too far to get the return pass, but Svechkov still finds him with the fake shot and pass for the wide open net.
That last clip also shows another component to Svechkov’s playmaking game: manipulation and deceit. He has a knack for drawing defenders towards him before making a pass, which creates more open space and better chances for his teammates.
For instance, watch on this play as he dives to the middle of the ice, drawing two defenders with him, while also drawing the puck back into a shooting position to freeze the goaltender before slipping the pass to his linemate.
That speaks to the most important element of Svechkov’s game: his intelligence.
“Fyodor Svechkov is, at his core, just really, really smart,” said Scouch. “He finds open ice constantly. He supports linemates when the puck is away from him constantly. He makes little chip plays to move pucks around the ice really effectively...he is a rare breed of hockey player who just seems to know what needs to be done in order to get the job done.”
That intelligence is most clearly on display in the defensive zone.
“A player built for tough matchups.”
While Svechkov’s offensive game is in question — and will likely determine whether or not he’s a top-ten pick — his defensive game is unimpeachable.
“If you want a player built for tough matchups, killing penalties, and taking critical faceoffs late in games, Svechkov is your guy,” said St-Louis.
Button, who has Svechkov ranked tenth overall, has even higher praise for him.
“I’ll be straightforward with you: I love him,” said Button. “I think he is such a superb player. I think he’s cut from the mould of Pavel Datsyuk. That’s what I see when I watch him. I’m not going to say the same type of magnificent puck skills, I’m talking that two-way force.
“I’m talking about a player that not only individually contributes to the game in every significant and critical area of the game, but also makes everybody around him better and, by extension, the team better. That’s what I see in Svechkov.”
Scouting report after scouting report raves about his defensive details, with perfect positioning, constantly scanning the ice for threats, and patiently supporting his defencemen. He plays with structure, which is a rare sight in both the MHL and VHL, and it’s clear that he’ll be a coach’s dream at the NHL level.
“Svechkov just plays so selflessly and I really look for that in players,” said Scouch. “This is a team sport.”
At the U18 tournament, Svechkov’s defensive habits made him stand out in comparison to his peers.
“He just always takes the right man, at the right moment, and suffocates opponents defensively,” said Elite Prospect’s J.D. Burke in one game report.
Beyond the intelligence and positioning, Svechkov is diligent and hardworking in his puck pursuit. Take the below example where he breaks up a pass at the blue line, then immediately gets back into position to nab a puck along the boards. When that clearance doesn’t work, he attacks the puck to force it out of the zone, breaks through two defenders, and creates a goal off the rush.
As you can see, Svechkov’s impeccable defence in turn fuels another key component of his game: transitioning the puck up ice.
Attacking in transition
This is where it seems clear that Svechkov has more offensive upside than he showed in the VHL. Svechkov is fantastic in transition, consistently moving the puck up ice with possession. He skates low and slow to support his defencemen, giving them a passing option in the defensive zone, then picks up speed to hit the neutral zone and either skate the puck up himself or draw players in before slipping a pass to a teammate.
Here’s an example of his work in transition: after winning the defensive zone faceoff, Svechkov comes across the zone as a passing option, then breaks up the wing when his teammate breaks the forecheck. He picks up speed with a couple of crossovers, then immediately cuts to the middle off the zone entry, forcing the defender to close the gap. As the defenceman goes to the ice, Svechkov smartly cuts around him, pulls the goaltender down, and sets up the tap-in goal.
Scouch noted in his report on Svechkov that his transition numbers in the data he manually tracked were superb. The only problem is that too often nothing happened in the offensive zone once Svechkov got the puck there.
“We’ve got a player who has excellent transition results but his team cannot do anything to generate any level of offence once the puck gets in the offensive zone,” said Scouch, adding later, “Over time, with some more development and some better linemates playing with men, I think Svechkov could find offensive production that people might be overlooking a little bit.”
The question marks remaining for Svechkov
There are a few remaining issues for Svechkov that might knock him out of the top ten and into the middle or late first round.
One issue is that his shot is not as multifaceted as his passing. He has a reasonably quick release in the right situation, but he needs to work on shooting in stride and getting his shot off when the puck isn’t in an ideal location. Making his shot more threatening will only increase the potential of his playmaking.
The other issue is that his offensive game is nowhere near as consistent as his defensive game.
“Manipulation comes and goes [for Svechkov] — it wasn’t here in this game,” said Elite Prospect’s Mitch Brown in one game report. “If it’s legit, he’s a top-six forward. If not, he’s still an awesome top-nine forward with defensive value.”
Can Svechkkov bring his intelligence to bear in the offensive zone with consistency? If so, he has the potential to be a cerebral playmaker that influences the game as much in the offensive zone as he does in the defensive zone. He could be the type of second-line centre that does the defensive heavy lifting, while still putting up points.
If he doesn’t develop that offence, he might top out as a shutdown third-line centre — a defensive specialist with limited offensive upside.
That’s the biggest question for the Canucks — is hoping for that offence too big a risk with the ninth overall pick?