Well, Citizens, we’re into August, which is a wonderful time to be alive as a human. But if you’re a hockey fan, every day is grueling fresh hell until AT LEAST mid-September, as those last wretched few days before training camp begins slowly wilt away, a fading memory aptly correspondent to a season that encourages fading memories.
As far as the blog game goes, it is THE PITS. Content is at a premium (you may have noticed all the pieces inviting you to re-live prior seasons in which your Calgary Flames toiled in over the past decade. Don’t worry, I didn’t read those either). But fear not, fellow work procrastinators, the mighty Flames Nation has you covered, as today we begin our fabled Top 20 Prospect Profile, where we go deep on the best young talent this organization has to offer.
Your boy Flooby is up first. I’ll be profiling young Rushan Rafikov in the number 20 spot. If there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Russian defender, well boy howdy, uh, you’re still going to have to wait, because the goods on Rafikov are so tightly under wrap that I felt like I was going back under the Iron Curtain to obtain it.
Stylin’ and Profilin’
Before we delve into our Rafikov sketch in any depth, perhaps it would be prudent to set the table for what to expect in this Prospect Series.
We’ll be profiling the Top 20 Flames prospects as ranked by all of us at Flames Nation (no easy task, as when we initially did individual rankings of our Top 20, we shared them amongst each other, and there was much, MUCH laughter. In the end we hid the results and we’re only revealing them within each piece of the series). We’re loosely defining a prospect as anyone within the organization who is eligible to win the Calder Trophy (ie. Sam Bennett, you’re in, Johnny Gaudreau, welcome to the NHL Player club)
Our overlord Thomas Drance is expecting us to include heavy analytical data and legitimate journalistic elements, and if you’re wondering a) if I hate this format, yes I do, and b) why they would let me contribute to this given the stated requirements, well, amigos, that much will become clear.
Because as much as I would love to sink my teeth into the meat of Rushan Rafiov’s statistical data, I would have very much preferred to have found it at all.
I hit up the typical reference sites first, and when trying to dig up any information on this past season, these are the sort of meager results I had to work with:
No worries, surely EliteProspects will hook me up with the goods. They have player pages for 12 year old Venezuelan Minor League forwards (probably), surely they will give me up to date info on an NHL and KHL drafted defenseman.
Strike 2. Strike 3 was when Hockey Reference also fired blanks. But we’re getting closer. We do know that he was drafted by Yaroslavl of the KHL in 2012 and by the Flames in the 7th round in 2013, and SURELY these guys know what their own players were up to this past season:
And lastly, Rafikov is the one player on the KHL’s Lokomotiv page who does not have a clickable profile link.
Zoinks! If it weren’t for the fact that he’s been an almost prominent member of Russia’s World Juniors defense core, I’d have wondered if Rafikov had played at all this past season. I was getting flashback to the days where we wondered if Tim Harrison was in fact a real person.
In the end, Rushan is indeed a real person because he has a Twitter account and because after doing some digging, I learned that Rafikov played most of last season with HC Ryazan of the Supreme Hockey League, which is more or less the KHL’s developmental league. Rafikov netted himself 18 points in 35 regular games, as well as but 3 points in 5 games in the playoffs, because Ryazan is really not very good.
Maybe. I don’t know.
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, we don’t have a lot of hard data to go on to predict Rafikov’s value. Given that there seems to be little info on him out there to begin with, coupled with the relatively unknown power of the Supreme League with which we would ideally like to draw comparisons and equivalencies, it’s difficult to objectively assess his chances at NHL success.
When The Numbers Fail, We Turn To Words
Look, the eye test of journalists and long retired players from bygone eras are not my preferred method of analysis either, but when the data isn’t there, you have to put some faith in what people have seen. I guess.
And what’s encouraging is that, according to The Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson, Craig Conroy, Tod Button (the good Button), and Igor Kravchuk all seem to think they may have something here:
As the Calgary Flames did their homework for the 2013 NHL Draft, director of amateur scouting Tod Button asked Craig Conroy to call up former teammate Igor Kravchuk — a veteran of 750 big-league contests and the head coach of Russia’s under-18 squad that spring — to ask about a handful of potential prospects.
“Out of the blue, (Kravchuk) said ‘Hey, it’s going to be a little while, but this Rafikov guy … ‘ He gave me a couple of other names, but it’s funny how he just brought Rafikov’s name up,” Conroy recalled. “Igor said, ‘I wouldn’t bet against this guy. This guy is going to find his way to the NHL.’ That was the conversation, and I called Tod right after.”
As it turns out, Button had been keeping tabs on Rushan Rafikov, and the Flames’ scouting report on the Russian blueliner — an aggressive, physical sort who needed to improve his skating technique — was in synch with what Kravchuk was saying.
“I’d spoken to Igor a little bit, but Craig being a teammate, I thought he could maybe get a little more information,” Button said. “I asked Craig just to call on (Valeri) Nichushkin. I didn’t even want him to say anything about Rafikov. I wanted to see if he brought him up at all. So Craig called about Nichushkin and Igor told him at the end of the conversation, ‘Hey, there’s a guy you’re missing.’ He mentioned Rafikov to Craig without even asking about him.”
Tod Button has a decent reputation for nosing out talent, and despite my earlier snark it’s a positive sign if some former pros who are still involved in the game are saying the things you’d want them to say about a player. More from Gilbertson:
“He’s an aggressive kid and he wants to make a difference and he wants to make an impact, and if you are that type of player and you get caught out of position and you are not a good skater, then it’s harder for you to recover,” Button said. “For sure, in the last two years, his feet are waaaaaay better. They’re underneath him a lot more. He doesn’t get caught out of position being aggressive as much because he has the ability to recover.
“His puck play is good. His mentality is good. His brain is good. I would say it’s just the physical part of skating and getting stronger and getting his feet underneath him a little bit more.”
Nice to know this team is not in the process of developing a junior Ladislav Smid.
The good people over at Hockey’s Future have similar takes on the blueliner:
Rafikov is a talented Russian defender with an edge to his game who possesses an offensive upside and can generate scoring opportunities from the blue line. He continues to develop his overall game and is working to gain more consistency in his positional play. Rafikov has good puck moving skills and can carry the puck into the offensive zone to set up plays. He has the ideal frame to be an NHL defender but as with many young players will need to add bulk and strength to compete at higher levels.
Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce, however, when evaluating draft picks for Canadian teams during last year’s World Juniors, was a bit more skeptical:
With Sam Bennett injured, the Flames WJC was basically hard-rock Russian defenceman Rushan Rafikov, who look like he has fifth- or sixth-D upside.
So is he a Flame?
Generally speaking, you don’t build up 7th round picks to be everyday contributors in the NHL, and it certainly doesn’t appear at this early glance that Rafikov is going to be any different. In fact, it’s entirely possible he never makes it out to North America at all. Remember, he’s also been drafted into the KHL with Yaroslavl, and by the looks of things, he’s signed on to play there this upcoming season. Both Gilbertson’s piece and the Hockey’s Future blurb indicate he intends to come over to make a go of it with the Flames soon, but he also had the desire to play in the KHL for a while, and he didn’t attend summer camp with the rest of the Flames prospects due to visa issues “and other things” (oooh, lurid!)
It’s definitely not a bad thing for him to try and figure out his game in Russia, as there’s a higher level of competition for him there than there is in the AHL. Much like Auston Matthews taking his talents to Switzerland instead of the OHL, tougher competiton for the 20 year old defenseman might indeed elevate his chances of becoming an NHLer someday, and seeing as the Flames are willing to be patient with Rafikov while he develops, there’s really zero downside to him being over there. Normally I’d have to caution that because of this we should temper our expectations, but I suspect the ones we currently have for him are probably relatively low to begin with. So do what you want, I’m not your dad.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that if the book on Rafikov is so thin to the point where you wonder if he’s even a real person, isn’t it bad, like really, really bad that he’s still placing among the Top 20 prospects on your beloved Calgary Flames?
Frankly, yes. And in the past, we’d all have a beef, but this year is different, as there is a lot of high end talent up at the top of this list for you as a fan to start salivating over, and those profiles will be coming to you in the coming days. In the meantime, here are some YouTube clips of Rushan Rafikov doing things.
Just kidding, those don’t exist either. Two months to training camp, friends.