A common perception in among NHL fans is the idea of Russian failures in Columbus. Some print publications have also jumped on the idea and described the Blue Jacket problems and suggested that the abundance of top-tier Russian talent in this year’s NHL draft could be cause for concern. However, this kind of jingoistic fear-mongering isn’t justified. Yes, Nikita Filatov and Nikolay Zherdev were less than brilliant with the team. But they also had unique personalities, much like all individual humans. Unfortunately, their talent and their position within the team didn’t mesh and they left (perhaps too soon) without accomplishing much.
But here’s the thing: those two don’t even represent the majority of the Russian Blue Jackets in recent seasons. In fact, two of the most effective players this season are the Russian defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitn. The anti-Russian sentiment is completely unjustified, and a few high profile free agents and draft picks make this a very good summer to be interested in an infusion of Russian talent. Yes, it’s entirely unlikely that the Blue Jackets will get any of these guys, but let’s take a quick look at why, at the very least, it will be interesting to see what teams will be upgrading this off-season.
Nail Yakupov // Draft Eligible. Yakupov has been nearly universally touted as the best player in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and recent speculation suggests that Columbus is interested in trading up to grab the first overall pick. With the team looking to move Rick Nash, the Jackets will be sorely in need of offensive talent (notwithstanding whatever return comes from the Nash trade), the impressive OHL star would likely slot into a top-six role immediately. His dynamic play and impressive scoring numbers, Yakupov would be welcomed on any team but would be a huge benefit to the low-scoring Blue Jackets.
Alex Semin // Pending UFA. Semin has become a poster boy for “enigmatic Russians” but it’s a label that isn’t fully deserved. Just because a player “looks” bad doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily seeing the whole story. Let’s take a quick look at Semin’s counting stats. Even considering his worst non-rookie season, Semin has been good for 60-80 games and 0.70 points per game. At his best, Semin is well over a point per game player. And let’s say that Semin goes cold for a bit in those top seasons (hint: he doesn’t); even then, the forward is still putting up enough points to be the whole offense in his good games.
To put those numbers in perspective, let’s look at the top players by goals per game or points per game since the lockout. Semin is impressive in both areas relative to his peers (and honestly isn’t far off from the production of either Rick Nash or Jeff Carter, so he’d be a worthy replacement). Semin’s puck possession game is also outstanding. This season Semin had a Corsi Rel of 11.0, last season 11.4, the season before 4.9. So not only did Semin manage to produce with scoring, he also helped to drive his team with net positive play. Even more beneficial (especially for those still cautious about Russians), Semin’s agent reiterated that Alex wants to stay in the NHL.
Semin’s last two contracts were one-year $6 million and $6.7 million deals. If a team decides to sign the forward a similar amount in free agency, they’re in for a pretty good deal: a top NHL forward without reaching into the Nash/Crosby/Lecavalier range of pay. While there’s nothing to indicate that the Blue Jackets have any interest in Semin, I certainly hope the team takes a shot at him. For a team so desperately in need of offense, his presence on the team would be a great upgrade.
Alex Radulov // Pending RFA. This is likely to be a more contentious “disinterested Russian” pick, especially after all the press surrounding a late night out during the Predators’ playoff run. But based on the production of Radulov and the Preds as a whole, David Poile and Barry Trotz are fools for having benched perhaps the most productive player on their team. For the playoffs, Radulov had a Corsi Rel of 14.1, which followed a regular season 5.1. Yes, the quality of competition was a bit low, but he was dominant in the offensive role assigned by his team. And this kind of production is nothing new for the KHL’s all-time leading scorer and three-time MVP. Quite simply, Radulov is a player that any team in the NHL should want. Yes, the flight risk exists with him simply due to his past, but now that his entry level contract is finished it’s less of a concern. Put Radulov alongside Yakupov or Semin and you’d have a superpower forward line. the pending RFA status makes Radulov harder to acquire, but I look forward to seeing where the talented winger ends up next year.
Nikita Nikitin // Pending RFA. This one is a more obvious hit home for Blue Jacket fans. Nikitin was a real breakout player for Columbus, and his performance hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Coach over at The Union Blue has two excellent pieces on Even Strength and Special Teams scoring chance rates. Niktin excelled in all situations and was arguably the best defenseman on the Jackets team, all while facing a fairly high level of competition. Another analysis at the NHL Numbers blog identified Nikitin and Tyutin as one of the top defensive pairs in the whole NHL this season.
The only caveat to Nikitin’s performance is his past. Last year, Nikitin faced fairly weak competition and was quite poor in Corsi differential… and that’s it. Nikitin has played two years in the NHL and was awful for one year and on a top defensive paring the next. Admittedly, Fedor Tyutin’s performance probably helped (Tyutin has been a very good d-man for the past few years), but it remains that Nikitin was a very important component of that pairing. If Columbus can manage to resign Nikitin for a low cap hit, the gamble will be worthwhile. If Nikitin is good, the team will benefit; if not, the penalty won’t be so great.
There’s no guarantee that one or any of these players will make their way to Columbus (in fact, it’s pretty unlikely for any except Nikitin), but they’re all noteworthy enough to deserve watching. Keep an eye on where they end up, and be sure to look out for them in future NHL games. All four players are immensely talented and promise to put on a good show every time they set foot on ice.