"...Russians just don’t," But Craig MacTavish Does

Derek Leung

Craig MacTavish takes advantage of market inefficiencies

Sorry DW, but your assessment on Filly is way off. He absolutely was ready to fill the role the Sens had for him. He was ready in Columbus too. He has all the talent and ability to make it, but he has no drive. And playing in the KHL, where there’s more Russians, no tax on his salary and more fans, I just don’t see him having the drive to go back to the NHL and perform well. Russians and Swedes are opposite in that facet. Swedes will give you 150% no matter what. Russians just don’t.

--Senators' fan Alex Swift on the laziness and greed of Russian players.

Russian greed and laziness has become a meme with bloggers, but it's a theme and a storyline in many major media outlets, leading to fan sentiment like good ole Alex Swift's comments above.

As the anti-Russian sentiment has been cranked up in traditional media outlets, the number of players drafted out of the Russian leagues has collapsed, thought not due to Mike Milbury or fan sentiment, it's mainly due to the threat of the KHL.

Russian leagues accounted for 11% of the 2003 draft, 8.4% of the 2004 draft, 7% of the 2006 draft. That's equivalent to 23, 17 and 15 players drafted in 2013, yet the Russians had just 8 players drafted this year. Including the CHL imports, the total is still just 10.

Russia has become an exploitable talent pool, ripe for a general manager interested in taking risks in the later rounds

The big numbers in the 2003 and 2004 drafts make some sense - Russia did win back-to-back IIHF U20 Championships in 2002 and 2003. But as drafting out of Russia collapsed thanks to the money of the KHL, Russia was still successful in the U20 tournament. Russia won silver each year from 2005-2007, and bronze the following two years. They were shut out in 2010 (and bottomed out in the draft at 1.9%) but took gold in 2011 (and still accounted for just 2.9% of the draft). Russia won silver in 2012 (2.8% of the 2012 NHL Draft) and bronze in 2013 (3.8% of the 2013 draft). If performance in the U20 tournament can be used as a proxy for the general talent availability in Russia, the pool has remained steady, but the NHL has no interest in players with a KHL albatross around their necks. Russia has become an exploitable talent pool, ripe for a general manager interested in taking risks in the later rounds, a general manager like Craig MacTavish.

MacTavish has surprised a number of fans and sports writers by reaching to the KHL for an infusion of talent for the Oilers' system. In May, he signed UFA defenseman Anton Belov to an ELC and followed that up with two Russian draft choices: Bogdan Yakimov 83rd overall and Anton Slepyshev 88th overall. MacTavish went back to the UFA well one more time for Denis Grebeshkov to round out his defensive lineup. Scott had taken a closer look at both Yakimov, the big centre and Slepyshev, the talented winger, and came away with positive reviews for both selections. Scott notes of the Slepyshev selection:

...it's the kind of selection that's indicative of a shift in draft strategy towards selecting players who, if everything breaks right, could be real difference-makers.

The decision to draft a Russian player, even one that has made no public commitment to North American hockey, like all things comes down to math. Take the case of Slepyshev. Even though he was ranked 38th in the consensus rankings last year, he made it clear he was going to remain in Russia, at least for his developmental years. That commitment to his homeland scared away all 30 NHL teams and Slepyshev went undrafted. However, a player with the talent to be ranked (and drafted) 38th overall has historically become an impact player 14.9% of the time.* The table in the previously linked article shows the odds of players drafted in later rounds becoming an impact player and the odds aren't good. If a team believes that 38th-ranked player is 50/50 to ever come to North America, he's still a better bet anywhere between 51-100 than a player in the 51-100 range who is North American or committed to coming to North America. If a team believes the odds of the player coming to North America are 1-in-4, then the player is essentially a toss-up as a pick after 101 compared to a player ranked in that range.

In the 2012 draft, Nikolai Prokhorkin was ranked #54, yet was available to the Kings at #121, Nikita Gusev was ranked 66th, yet fell to the Lightning at #202, Valeri Vasiliyev was ranked 73rd, yet fell to the Flyers at #201. The common thread is that these are all examples of teams taking measured risks on players with a much larger chance of becoming an impact player in the NHL than their draft slot would indicate. It seems that Craig MacTavish has recognized the inefficiency and will exploit it when the opportunity arises.

*Caveats include that KHL concerns pushing players down the charts may have slightly impacted the "impact player" study.

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