The war in Ukraine has added an increasing level of uncertainty for NHL teams interested in drafting Russia-born prospects because of questions regarding their availability to play in North America.
While no team has openly stated it would avoid selecting Russians altogether in the two-day draft in Montreal that opens Thursday, there is the potential of Russia being shut out in the first round for the first time since 2005.
“I don’t know if anybody has the answer,” said Seattle general manager Ron Francis, whose team currently has 12 picks over seven rounds, including No. 4 overall. “It’s certainly unknown right now so it makes it, I think, a little more riskier than years past.”
While there has always been a risk of Russian prospects deciding to stay home to play, the concerns are greater now with travel restrictions in place during the war for anyone wishing to travel to or from Russia and Belarus. NHL executives are left to wonder if a pick will actually be allowed out.
It doesn’t help that NHL and its Russian-based counterpart, the Kontinental Hockey League, do not have a transfer agreement in place. That prevents NHL teams from buying out KHL contracts, a consistent hurdle for any GM hoping to raid the second-best league in the world.
Without disclosing the Canadiens’ strategy, Montreal GM Kent Hughes said it will be up to each team to weigh the risks of selecting a Russian player.
“It’s simple enough to say that the war in Russia creates a level of complexity or probably more uncertainty,” Hughes told The Associated Press. “Any team picking has to balance the uncertainty of it with the potential of the player.”
Last week, Philadelphia Flyers goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov was suddenly assigned to a remote military base in northern Russia, according to the player’s agent, J.P. Barry. Selected in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, Fedotov signed with the Flyers in May after completing his contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
“I think in years past, there’s probably a little bit of concern — just is the guy going to come over?” Francis said before specifically referencing Fedotov. “This is probably on a different magnitude.”
While the NHL has not issued any directives regarding drafting Russian players, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the uncertainty could lead to teams being more hesitant.
“Would it surprise me if some slip in where they’re projected to go based on the inability to access them? Potentially,” Daly said.
This year’s draft class includes several Russian prospects with first-round potential under normal circumstances.
Defenseman Pavel Mintyukov is ranked sixth among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting because he played in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Wingers Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko, who played in Russia, are among the top 10-ranked European skaters.
Miroshnichenko’s situation is more complicated because he was unable to complete his season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March. He has since completed his treatments and plans to attend the draft.
Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman said the Red Wings are evaluating top Russian prospects as usual.
“We’re preparing our lists or organizing our lists as we normally would,” Yzerman said. “Ultimately, we’re going to want to draft really good prospects, and make sure they’re good kids.”
Central Scouting chief Dan Marr is confident Russian players will be selected but won’t guess how long they might have to wait.
“I wouldn’t even want to try and guess as to what the NHL clubs are thinking,” Marr said. “If you’re sitting there and you’ve got a solid prospect for the NHL, are you going to go by him or do you want to step up and take him, and cross your fingers and hope that the world is in a different place a couple of years from now.”
Marr said he and his staff conducted a mock draft in which the first Russian player wasn’t selected until the second round.
Last year, 29 Russian players were drafted — the most since 2003 — with Fedor Svechkov, selected No. 19 by Nashville, the only one going in the first round.
A year after drafting four Russians, Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams isn’t ruling out the possibility of selecting more this year. In putting together the Sabres’ draft board, Adams told his staff to rank each player as usual before placing an asterisk next to the Russian prospects to allow for further discussion.
“If we get to a spot in the draft where we feel that there’s real value there, then we’re going to talk about that,” Adams said, referring to selecting a Russian player. “So, we’re open to that.”
With three first-round selections and four in the top 41, Adams acknowledged the Sabres have more draft capital than other teams to take a risk on a Russian player.
“I think it’s a unique spot for us,” Adams said.
AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno, Larry Lage and AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this story.