My most polarizing opinion of the upcoming NHL draft. Scouts are SKY HIGH on Barrie Colts winger Andrei Svechnikov, while most scouts are down on Drummondville Voltigers centre and the first ever exceptional status pick in the QMJHL Joe Veleno. And I’m the opposite. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m sky high on Veleno, while I’m just simply not AS high on Svechnikov. But pretty much everyone has Svechnikov as the number two prospect in the draft, while most have Veleno in the 10-15 range, with some having him as low as 27 no names mentioned Craig Button (ironically, I too see Veleno the same way I saw Robert Thomas, how’s that final ranking of 46th on Thomas working out so far Craig?) ANYWAY….today I’m laying it out in great detail as to why I love Veleno, and I’m not as high as others on Svechnikov.
Andrei Svechnikov Barrie OHL
Pos: RW Ht: 6’2 Wt: 192 Shot: L
Comparison: Thomas Vanek
Soups on Hockey Ranking: 6th (3rd tier)
Joe Veleno Drummondville QMJHL
Pos: C Ht: 6’1 Wt: 194 Shot: L
Comparison: Brad Richards
Soups on Hockey Ranking: 2nd (2nd tier)
I’ll start off with the draw to Svechnikov. I completely understand it and am not looking to tell anyone else why they should be down on him. And I admit, if he were a Canadian named Andrew Stone then I’d likely have him where everyone else does. It’s 100% a bias, prejudice, whatever you want to call it. What an asshole I am for that hey? But….it’s warranted.
It has been 14 years since a Russian forward (or in that case, Russian forwards) being taken in the top 15 in the draft panned out. There were three that year, though it wasn’t until the last two seasons that the third guy established himself (Alexander Radulov). Ovechkin and Malkin were of course the other two. I’ve gone through these before, but I’ll do it again. Since 2004, the Russian forwards who have been selected in the top 15 of the draft are 0 for 6. Filatov, bust. Burmistrov, bust. Yakupov, bust. Grigorenko, bust. Nichushkin, bust (to this point). Gurianov, bust. (to this point). Of these players, all except Burmistrov played at least a somewhat similar style to Svechnikov.
Before anyone else says it, no I obviously don’t consider Alex Galchenyuk a Russian. Born in the States, represents the States internationally. However I will say even if you want to include Galchenyuk, he’s a kid who has been a bit of a disappointment as well. All the talent to be an elite player, yet just doesn’t have much of an overall game.
If you wanted to take it further, only one Russian forward taken in the top 25 since 2004 panned out (Tarasenko), and only three by my count (Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, and Namestikov) who were taken in the first round. And one of those who at least has yet to pan out was Andrei’s brother Evgeny, in 2015. I wasn’t a fan of his game, which was very similar to Andrei’s (although don’t confuse similar game with similar skill level). Three years later, and it’s very possible that the Red Wings are regretting that pick. Just 7 goals and 23 points in 57 games in the AHL this season. He wasn’t near as highly touted as Andrei, but I remember hearing “big, fast, sniper, and a great interview”. Of course it is still far too early to write him off, its not a great sign.
Of the Russian forwards who have been working out over that same span, the large majority of them seem to be playmakers. Kuznetsov, Kucherov, Panarin, Dadonov, and the one guy who is a sniper is Tarasenko who didn’t have overwhelming size and/or speed when he was coming up. Basically what I’m saying is that these guys all either chose to or had to think the game. When would Svechnikov have to think the game…ever? There are also times when (to me anyway) he’s looked lethargic out there. Not a lot, but enough to where it has made me wonder how he is going to react when the game gets tougher? Maybe he’s just so talented that he’s bored though, could easily be the case. I fully admit, it feels a little ridiculous talking about how dominant he is while being worried he’s going to disappoint. But for me, I’m just seeing little signs here and there that he isn’t going to be what he’s being made out to be. And I’m nitpicking, but the nitpicking is something that needs to be done given the track record of the top ranked Russian forwards in the last 14 years. There is something wrong with how they’re being evaluated.
Of course many reading this with knowledge of the player will quickly point to the five on five production being so incredible. Better than McDavid, better than Crosby. It was ridiculous. But again I’m going to go back to the fact that he’s a man playing among boys. How was he at the WJC? The numbers look fine (five points in five games), but here’s my issue: no goals. Maybe it was the hand injury still bothering him? But I very vividly recall Nail Yakupov at the 2012 WJC (a year older at that time than Svechnikov was this season) not scoring and basically living off Evgeny Kuznetsov. And everyone saying how it was showing that Yakupov was as good of a playmaker as he was a sniper. Well, no, he was just the last one touching the puck before Kuznetsov took over. I just went back to see three of the five assists Svechnikov had at the tourney. Two were him doing next to nothing, the other one was a nice pass on a two on one. Fluky goal, but full credit for the feed on it.
Again, my issue here isn’t that people love Svechnikov. But it feels as though people are just getting overwhelmed by the numbers instead of asking how this is all going to translate. And they’re ignoring the history on this type of a player. It’s funny to me, I just read a tweet where a guy said “this team has this percentage of getting this pick right”, and it’s based off the history of the pick. Well…why is it that analytics guys will take that as the gospel, yet when it comes to Russian forwards (not the defencemen keep in mind, just the forwards) I could say “since 2008, 0% of all Russian forwards taken in the top 15 of the draft have produced 20 goals or 40 points in one season”, and I’d get shit on for saying that? Both are just simply averages and history.
Now onto Veleno.
Sometimes with prospects, scouts get fatigue. They start following some kids at younger ages, expectations get placed sky high, and it’s human nature to begin picking players apart. I try not to be critical of people who do it because A) as I said, it is human nature, B) it’s not as if they’re always wrong. In fact, I’d guess that more often than not they’re correct! But sometimes they’ll look foolish in doing this. I really believe this is going to be one of those times, simply because Veleno has all the tools to thrive in the NHL, plays a style that we’ve seen hurt a lot of draft prospects in recent years due to the belief that they aren’t dominating the play as much as scouts believe they should. Which leads me to my next point of how scouts seem to be missing a lot on playmakers.
Veleno plays a little like Mathew Barzal. He plays a little like Sam Steel. He plays a lot like Robert Thomas. What’s the common theme here? They’re all pure playmakers who a lot of scouts underrated. It’s as if scouts confuse “don’t shoot” with “can’t shoot”. These kids can all shoot the puck and will learn to shoot more (not a ton, but enough). When are we going to figure out that most of these pure playmaker types are getting severely undervalued in the draft?! In junior hockey, guys like Svechnikov can look amazing because they can simply overwhelm opposing players with their size, speed and skill, and beat teams one on five. Guys like Veleno, Thomas, Steel, and Barzal are continuously looking for teammates who don’t or can’t think the game on their level. In the NHL, guys like Svechnikov rarely can overwhelm opposing players, while guys like Veleno can because all of a sudden they have teammates who can think the game on their level. Wingers are all of a sudden knowing how to get open and the Veleno’s of the world can find them.
I bring this up in my top 50 prospects piece, but Veleno outproduced everyone’s third ranked prospect Filip Zadina from January 1st until the end of the season. 1.53 PPG to 1.43 PPG. Again, someone is going to bring up that he didn’t five on five, and that’s fine, but I was told last year that Casey Mittelstadt was basically evil because of his five on four production. Barzal had 42% of his assists on the pp in 2015. The next season, he was even higher at 47.5%. Sam Steel in this draft year was at 47.8% of his assists on the pp. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was well over half at 64%. Veleno had 54% of his apples on the pp, but to me its becoming clear that this is just the case with most playmakers. You’re playing with the best offensive players on the team while on the pp, and at five on five you often either don’t have guys who can get open or finish your feeds. Much easier to do this on the pp.
Which brings me to another “flaw” with Veleno I’m hearing. “I question whether or not he can take over a game”. Ummmm, what? He needs to shoot more, everyone gets that. When do you ever see Nik Backstrom “take over a game”? Joe Thornton? David Krejci? Henrik Zetterberg? William Nylander? Are these players you wouldn’t want on your team? I much prefer having a kid who needs to learn to shoot more than develop vision. You can learn to shoot more, you can’t learn amazing vision.
Would you like to see him do some things different in Drummondville next season? Absolutely. The ability is there with Veleno to dominate. But he’s like a great NBA point guard. The best ones are always looking to make their teammates better. And that’s the big difference maker between these two for me is the selfish vs unselfish style. If Svechnikov is going to star in the NHL, he’s going to have to play a lot more unselfish. I’m not being critical of him for playing this way at the junior level, but I believe that this is what hurts a lot of the Russian forwards more than anything. I have no clue if this will be the case with Svechnikov, but given the track record of Russian forwards, I can’t help but wonder.
I’m not trying to make the claim that Svechnikov will bust, and I’m hoping I’m wrong on him because a big exciting player like him is just awesome to watch. I fear that there is bust potential, but more so I just don’t believe the chances of him reaching his ceiling are nearly as high as others do. For the record, its not JUST a Russian forwards “thing”. Its a “winger v centre” thing, and its a “too much talent to ever have to think the game” thing. Rick Nash I’ve always felt was overrated and at times has had me questioning his hockey sense. Nash is great, but with that talent he should have been dominant all these years. Can Svechnikov be an elite player and Veleno be just average? Absolutely. But my prediction on them is that Svechnikov is going to be good, but he’s going to be an enigma as so many ultra talented Russian forwards have been in the past. And Veleno, I believe the floor is a Tomas Plekanec type, and the ceiling is an equal or maybe even better version of Brad Richards.
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