Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko are the most exciting Russian duo to hit the NHL since Ovechkin and Malkin. The parallels between these two junior Russians are downright amazing. The duo both played internationally for Team Russia, each winning a silver medal in the IIHF U18 World Juniors in 2009 and a gold medal for the World Juniors in 2011. What bodes well for these two is that both championships have come on American soil where they plan to play out their careers in hockey.
Their lives would forever change last summer at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. After Finnish center Mikael Granlund, Tarasenko and Kuznetsov were considered the number two and three (respectively) non-North American skaters in the world. Surprisingly, neither was the first drafted international player. That honor belonged to fellow Russian Alexander Burmistrov, taken eighth overall by the Winnipeg Jets. Number one overall ranked European skater Mikael Granlund was taken one pick later.
The St. Louis Blues possessed the 14th overall pick in the draft, but did not select Tarasenko. Amazed that Tarasenko had not been drafted at 16 due to the dreaded “Russian Factor,” the Blues traded up with the Ottawa Senators to possess the 16th overall pick to finally take Tarasenko who for all intents and purposes was selected at least a dozen slots from where he was originally projected to be taken. Also falling victim to the Russian Factor was third ranked European skater, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Never afraid of drafting Russians with high picks due to the fact that Alexander Ovechkin, probably the most famous Russian in the world, captains their team, the Washington Capitals finally took Kuznetsov with the 26th overall pick.
Both players were coming from the KHL where they were boys playing against men. Both were officially drafted as centers, but are projected to play right wing in the NHL. Kuznetsov, who plays with Traktor Chelyabinsk, put up 32 points in 42 games in his last season, extremely good numbers for a teenager in a league where it is notoriously difficult to rack up points compared to the NHL. Tarasenko did not post as impressive numbers with HC Sibir, however, he did provide the leadership at the World Juniors where he captained the Russian team to the gold medal while providing 11 points in seven games.
Like Malkin and Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tarasenko will most likely not make their NHL debuts together. Tarasenko, the older of the two, figures to play his first NHL game as soon as this upcoming season with the Blues begins. Tarasenko could make an immediate impact in St. Louis’ top six, playing wing with a variety of talented centers that include Andy McDonald, TJ Oshie, David Backes and Jason Arnott, all capable of playing center based on team needs. Kuznetsov has one year left on his contract for Traktor and will be playing at least another year in the KHL. The Capitals are not willing to rush the youngster as Kuznetsov is figured to be most effective in a top six role and there is simply not the roster space available next year to put Kuznetsov where he is most effective.