Last week in Up And Coming we examined Central Scouting's ranking of European skater prospects for this year's draft, specifically the fact that the top eight ranked played are all Swedish. Examining their credentials, it seems these players are indeed among the best talent available across the Atlantic. You might quibble that perhaps a Finn or a Russian should break in somewhere, but as a whole they appear to be an excellent group of hockey talent.
One would think, though, that if Sweden had cornered the European market on 17-year-old hockey players, they would have been the best European team at the IIHF under-18 World Championships this year, when in fact they finished behind Russia and Finland in fifth place (the US took the gold, and Canada was fourth). One can argue that this was an artifact of tournament structure, in the sense that a single loss at the wrong time can completely eliminate a team from the running. That happened to the Swedes when they lost a quarterfinal match against Russia. For the tournament, they won four of six games, and outscored opponents 30-14, or by 2.67 goals per game. Finland outscored their opponents by 2.5 goals per game, and the Russians by 1.71 goals per game. One can argue that Sweden was the best European team at the tournament.
Sweden also had the disadvantage of lacking three of their top players: Victor Hedman, David Rundblad, and Marcus Johansson, all member of the Swelite Eight. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson led the team with 12 points, followed by defenseman Tim Erixon, Anton Lander and Calle Jarnkrok with 9 points each. This is another reason to question Central Scouting's mission of Jarnkrok from their rankings. Other Swelite Eighters were Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who scored eight points from the blueline, and Jacob Josefson who put up seven points. The only real disappointment in the group was Carl Klingberg, who managed only four points in the six games.
However, from a propect perspective, I would suggest the real story at the under-18 championships was Russia. They took the silver medal, and had the best goal differential among European teams if you exclude the gold-medal game, which might be fair to do because it gave them an extra game against the best team in the tourney. Finland's Toni Rajala led the tournament with 19 points, but in second place was Russia's Vladimir Tarasov with 15 points. You won't find him in Central Scouting's ranking, though, because he isn't eligible for the Entry Draft until 2010. In fact, most of Russia's best players at the tournament are not yet eligible for the draft:
Pos GP G A Pts
Vladimir Tarasov F 7 8 7 15
Evgeni Kuznetsov F 7 6 7 13
Alexander Burmistrov F 7 4 7 11
Kirill Kabanov F 7 4 7 11
Maxim Kitsyn F 7 4 4 8
Nikita Zaytsev D 7 1 4 5
These players put up good numbers for players a year older. Only two ranked 17-year-olds made any contribution to the team: Dmitri Orlov, the #9-ranked defenseman (four points) and #25 Sergei Chvanov who scored eight points. It seems that Russia is poised to dominate the 2010 draft list (though Finland has a couple of players who might break them up in Teemu Pulkkinen and Mikael Granlund). The last 16-year-old to score as well as Tarasov was Alexander Ovechkin, who led the 2002 tournament with 14 goals and 18 points in eight games.
Kabanov is generally considered the top 2010 Russian prospect by scouts, but I would put Tarasov at the top of the list, and not just because of his tournament performance. The fact is that Tarasov was the only 16-year-old Russian playing in his country's top league this year. He played 38 games with Novosibirsk, recording seven goals and 10 points. 16-year-olds playing at this level in Russia are exceedingly rare. A quick search revealed three others: Alexander Ovechkin (15 points in 40 games in 2003), Sergei Fedorov (12 points in 29 games in 1987), and Alexander Svitov (six points in 19 games in 2000). Svitov is certainly a miss, but if a player has a 67% chance to become Fedorov or Ovechkin, you need to pay attention to that player.
This would be the first time that Russia dominated the Europeans in the NHL Entry Draft. In both 2000 and 2001, Russia dominated the early-round European draftees, though certainly not to the same degree that Sweden appears set to do this year. In 2000, seven of the first 10 Europeans drafted were Russian, and 14 of the 25 Europeans in the first 60 picks were Russian. The middle of the first round was dominated by Russia:
Pos Name Pos NHL Team Russia Team
10 Mikhail Yakubov F Chicago Tolyatti-2
11 Pavel Vorobiev F Chicago Yaroslavl Torpedo
12 Alexei Smirnov F Anaheim Moscow Dynamo
15 Artem Kryukov F Buffalo Yaroslavl Torpedo
17 Alexei Mikhnov F Edmonton Yaroslavl Torpedo
20 Alexander Frolov F Los Angeles Yaroslavl Torpedo
21 Anton Volchenkov D Ottawa CSKA Jr.
Of these players, of course, only Frolov and Volchenkov ever amounted to anything in the NHL. In 2001, the top three Europeans drafted were Russsian, and eight of the top 14. The top Russians drafted that year:
Pos Name Pos NHL Team Russia Team
1 Ilya Kovalchuk F Atlanta Moscow Spartak
3 Alexandr Svitov F Tampa Bay Omsk Avangard
5 Stanislav Chistov F Anaheim Omsk Avangard
15 Igor Knyazev D Carolina Moscow Spartak
25 Alexander Perezhogin F Montreal Omsk Avangard
33 Timofei Shishkanov F Nashville Moscow Spartak
40 Fedor Tyutin D Rangers St. Petersburg SKA
41 Andrei Taratukhin F Calgary Omsk Avangard
Of these players, only Kovalchuk became a star, and of the others only Tyutin has had a significant NHL career. Both of these Russian draft classes have to be considered disappointments overall.
However, you might notice something about both of these groups. In 2000, four of the top six Russians drafted were from a single team, Yaroslav Torpedo. There were two others drafted from this team in the first 60 picks of the Entry Draft as well (Alexander Tatrinov was #53, and Alexander Suglobov #56). In 2001, of the eight players listed above, three were from Moscow Spartak and four from Omsk Avangard. To me, this implied that some of these players were drafted based on familiarity rather than talent. Someone scouting Pavel Vorobiev in 2000, for instance, would also have seen a lot of Kryukov, Mikhnov and Frolov, since they play in the same organization.
Based on their numbers, Frolov was clearly the best prospect. These players spent most of their time with the second division club in Yaroslavl:
Pos GP G A Pts
Alexander Frolov F 36 27 13 40
Alexei Mikhnov F 40 22 13 35
Alexander Suglobov F 38 24 10 34
Pavel Vorobiev F 37 18 14 32
Mikhail Tatarinov F 32 11 10 21
Artem Kryukov F 15 4 5 9
Kryokov had thoroughly uninspiring numbers, inluding three pointless games in the elite league. However, he is 6'4”, so I suppose that must count for something. The numbers suggest that Frolov was the best bet, and that certainly turned out to the case in this instance at least. On the other hand, even Frolov's numbers aren't terribly impressive for that level, so we need to give the scouts credit for him, which helps offset the demerits for all the other Yaroslavl players they overrated.
The same does not seem to be the case for the 2010 Russian prospects. They do not congregate in only one or two organizations. We'll have a better idea of their abilities next year as they move up and start to play at higher levels (stats for lower Russian leagues can be hard to come by). The high esteem in which I place them at the moment is based on performance, at the under-18 championships, not on scouting.
Now, we can tie this back to Swelite Eight. Is there any reason to think this familiarity effect is the cause of so many Swedes being ranked so highly? It seems unlikely. There are seven clubs represented among the eight players. Only Skelleftea, for whom Tim Erixon and David Rundblad play, appears twice. This wide dispersal of the apparent talent suggests that proximity is not a significant effect. While Central Scouting's ranking of top European skaters is certainly not perfect, it is fair to say that Sweden has produced the best crop this year, by far.