The last time the Calgary Flames drafted a Russian prospect in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft was June 2001, 19 years ago. To adequately express the sheer breadth of time elapsed from thence to the present, allow us to phrase that another way:
The last time the Flames drafted a Russian prospect in the first two rounds of the NHL Draft was June 2001, nine Fast & Furious movies ago—regrettable spin-offs included.
Less than a week after Vin Diesel donned his notorious tank-top and crooned grit and gravel about “family” and “good old American Muscle” for the first time, the Flames selected beefy centreman Andrei Taratukhin in the second round, 41st overall. He never played a game for Calgary.
The Flames likely hope to milk greater use and longevity out of their most recent second-round Russian gamble Yan Kuznetsov, our 12th-ranked Flames prospect—and ideally, the 6’4” 201-pound lumberjack of a defenceman will be an established force heaving hits and poking pucks long before the Fast & Furious crew start scorching rubber in space or something.
How did we get here?
Kuznetsov was born in Murmansk, Russia, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle in the world—so Alberta winters shouldn’t faze him, am I right?
He logged minutes at multiple levels of the CSKA Moscow system before hitching it to North America to play for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL as a 17-year-old. In Sioux Falls, Kuznetsov cemented his image as a hulking shutdown defenceman by failing to score and posting only 4 assists in 34 games.
But his towering defensive talents nonetheless attracted suitors from NCAA squads, inking him a spot on the University of Connecticut Huskies Division I blueline last season that he will house and hone again, when college hockey resumes later this month.
Stats, numbers, and everything therein
Funnily enough, the rearguard who notched zilch in his single USHL season actually finished second among all defencemen on his college hockey team in points—even though he was apparently the youngest player in the entire NCAA last year. Kuznetsov scored two goals and 11 points in 34 games for the Huskies in his freshman year. The shutdown defenceman moniker still applies, but he at least dabbled in displaying some offensive promise—his second goal of the season was a laughable fluke, but his first one was a freaking laser:
— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) October 12, 2019
But, to paraphrase a legendary pitch from Mad Men, while offensive prowess is a glittering lure, there is the rare occasion where the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash. The Flames did not draft Yan Kuznetsov to flare red lights at the Saddledome every second night, but rather they see protection potential in his swooping stick and protruding shoulders.
For #Flames fans, here's a look at 2nd Rd Pick Yan Kuznetsov.
6'4 LHD. Simple shutdown game and very effective.
Terrific skater. Capable of rushing the puck but doesn't do it often from what I can tell.
Here's a pretty typical way that he is effective. pic.twitter.com/ucSkBPznjG
— 🌶Joel Henderson 🌶 (@dathockeydoe) October 9, 2020
Kuznetsov is an aggressive defender, but he does not seem reckless—he restrained his stride when he prodded the puck in the above example, refrained from overskating in his lunge and retained a healthy gap that he eventually slashed and tore with one broom sweep.
Also, he loves contact. Kuznetsov both withstands and bestows blows whenever necessary…
#WJAC: Yan Kuznetsov in a nutshell. I can justify being too low on him in July but no way in December. He's been this smooth and calm for UConn against stud NHL draftees. Credit to those who looked past the "raw" tag and saw a highly-intelligent, poised kid who can mash you. pic.twitter.com/zPLLffWWw9
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) December 12, 2019
…which is often.
Draft eligible left handed defenseman Yan Kuznetsov with a solid check in front of his net. Good job eliminating the traffic in front of his net. #2020NHLDraft | @FCHockey | @DobberProspects pic.twitter.com/8ukbLYXmG2
— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) November 9, 2019
And despite all his lankiness, Kuznetsov is fairly evasive and mobile with the puck. Overall, though they may not translate to seismic numbers, Yan Kuznetsov hauls a whole slew of effective tools with him to the rink every night.
Those in the know
Over at The Hockey Writers, Josh Bell provided his assessment of Kuznetsov prior to the draft:
Another underrated player in this draft class, I think Kuznetsov might be one of the best defensive players in this year’s group. As the youngest player in the NCAA, he more than held his own and looked very good. He played big minutes this year, and should only continue to get better.
On the horizon
Slated to lace up his skates for UConn again, Kuznetsov and his absolute flagpole of a stick should enjoy grander deployment in his sophomore season. As the largest defenceman on the team, as well as the highest-scoring defenceman returning to the squad, the neon arrows flash towards him shouldering the heaviest workloads of his young career.
If the amplified minutes and magnified role bear as rich fruits for the Russian rearguard as he himself and the Flames must dually hope, the jump to contending for an AHL berth at the very least could be feasible as soon as next off-season.
FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects 2020
|The no-votes||Missed the cut|
|#20: Tyler Parsons||#19: Alexander Yelesin|
|#18: Ryan Francis||#17: Martin Pospisil|
|#16: Luke Philp||#15: Eetu Tuulola|
|#14: Johannes Kinnvall||#13: Ilya Nikolayev|