Lowetide: Why did the Oilers select Nikita Yevseyev at the 2022 NHL Draft?

Edmonton Oilers director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright has presided over one dozen drafts for three NHL teams. He spent three seasons (2011-13) with the Columbus Blue Jackets, six years (2014-2019) with the Detroit Red Wings and the last three drafts in Edmonton.

In the three Columbus drafts, Wright’s staff drafted zero Russians who played in Russia during their draft seasons. In his six years with Detroit, the Red Wings chose just two players who spent their draft seasons in Russia.

Since Wright arrived in Edmonton in time to run the Oilers’ 2020 draft, the team has chosen a Russian playing in Russia three times, once per draft. That’s above average, as the NHL has chosen 57 names who played in the KHL or lower leagues in their draft seasons since 2020.

Historically, Russia has been most unkind to the Oilers organization, with a long trail of draft misery that climaxed with the selection of Nail Yakupov with the No. 1 selection in 2012.

Kudos to the scouting staff for not giving up, but what is the reason for it? What is the Russian approach to drafting prospects by Edmonton?

Maxim Berezkin was chosen No. 138 in the 2020 draft, but the astute prospect evaluator Corey Pronman ranked Berezkin No. 76 at The Athletic. Pronman: “a 6-foot-2 winger with legitimate high-end skill. His one-on-one play is very good. He has some power to his game, too. While his shot is good enough to score from a distance, he has scored a lot of goals by getting to the crease area with his size and strength. Berezkin’s main drawback is his skating, which isn’t poor, but he lacks quickness and a true separation gear. This makes some scouts skeptical his game will translate to the NHL.”

Size with skill, and power-forward potential, the compromise is skating. That’s less than ideal, but a reasonable selection in the fifth round.

Matvey Petrov was chosen No. 180 in the 2021 draft, a victim of the pandemic and getting lost in a bizarre winter for scouting. His scouting report via Pronman at The Athletic suggests more pronounced scoring with speed being the major flaw: “Petrov is a highly skilled winger who can make plays and has a great shot, but he’s not the best skater and plays too much on the perimeter too.”

Petrov was chosen No. 1 in the CHL Import Draft in 2020 by the North Bay Battalion but stayed in Russia for his draft season. Chances are he would have been a higher pick with a “normal” OHL campaign leading up to the draft, but he remained in Russia and was eventually chosen in the sixth round.

Nikita Yevseyev went to Edmonton in the sixth round at No. 190 in the most recent draft. Like Berezkin and Petrov, he is a bigger player (listed at 6-foot-1, 187 pounds, the organization says he’s bigger) and the only defenseman in the group. Pronman’s scouting report suggests more of a shutdown type than a puck mover: “Yevseyev skates and competes well enough and can outlet pucks fine, but the offensive upside in his game is a question.”

In this case, speed isn’t an issue, but Yevseyev is a limited offensive player. His style compares closely to Edmonton’s 2021 third-round pick Luca Munzenberger.

Where did they play?

In their draft seasons, each man played in Russia’s top junior league, the MHL. It’s a league that is similar to the Canadian junior leagues, as no player can be older than 20. Here are the three Oilers draft picks in their draft seasons, sorted by time on ice:

Player League TOI-Game Numbers

Matvey Petrov

MHL

16:45

58 games, 22 goals, 42 points

Nikita Yevseyev

MHL

16:24

14 games, 1 goal, 7 points

Maxim Berezkin

MHL

15:54

51 games, 25 goals, 54 points

It’s a good league. Nikita Kucherov is often mentioned as a famous alumnus, and many future NHL players passed through the junior league. Elite Prospects has a fantastic career listing points that allows quick comparisons based on numbers posted in the league.

For the Edmonton players, Berezkin’s comparable with an NHL career is Ilya Mikheyev, both men posting .94 points per game total. Mikheyev has played in 146 NHL games.

Petrov’s closest comparable is Yakov Trenin, who recently re-signed with the Nashville Predators. Trenin has been in the NHL for the same number of games (146) as Mikheyev.

Yevseyev’s comp is Alexander Romanov, now of the New York Islanders. He has played in 133 NHL games.

This isn’t to suggest the Oilers have chosen three future NHL players in the depths of the draft. There are dozens of players with similar numbers in the same league and at the same age who never saw the light of day in the KHL, let alone the NHL.

It does tell us that some prospects have passed this way in their teenage years, posted numbers similar to Berezkin, Petrov and Yevseyev, and then progressed to the NHL level.

What are the Oilers doing in Russia?

The story of Edmonton’s draft history with Russian players has been painful for all involved.

The team invested in nine picks (five were drafted directly from Russia) during the 2010s and received less than full value. Yakupov (350 NHL games) and Anton Slepyshev (102) were the only Russian players to dress in a significant number of games at the highest level. Dmitri Samorukov may emerge, but there are no guarantees.

Why then, would the Oilers choose to go back three times in three drafts?

Talent that has been under-scouted.

The NHL traditionally grabs the cream of the worldwide crop in the first 10 picks, then settles in to pluck the best of the Canadian junior leagues, USHL and top European leagues. In some years, the NCAA or a Tier II junior league in North America slides a few players into the first three rounds, but these leagues are picked clean by selection No. 100 in most seasons.

The great frontier used to be the USHL, with the US National Team holding so much talent players would be chosen in the first 60 despite little playing time.

In recent years, the USHL’s influence, and the success of feeder leagues, has served to make the talent pipeline from this area over-scouted like the Canadian leagues.

Where can a team find bargains with late selections? There’s some gold in Russia, and the Oilers are investing picks at a higher than league average rate.

When Wright was asked about Yevseyev after the draft, he said “this is the one guy (Russian scout) Alex (Naurov) really wanted to draft. He was pretty adamant about stepping up and taking him. It’s bigger than listed. He’s another big competitive guy on the back end.”

The Oilers need only one of the three to make the NHL as a contributing regular to make this a successful draft bet. Despite the difficult road for the organization over the years, these are talented men playing in more obscure leagues and through difficult times for scouts to see them.

The dice have no memory. There’s no guarantee the Oilers’ luck will turn with these three Russian players. It is true that all three are prospects of quality and offered good value at the number chosen. The organization will find out the rest of the Yevseyev story over the next five years.

(Photo of Matvey Petrov: Chris Tanouye / Getty Images)

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