It was during the 2013 – 14 season when the Edmonton Oilers added Ilya Bryzgalov along with Denis Grebeshkov that an ever expressive Nail Yakupov was asked his thoughts on having some countrymen around.
“Yeah, it’s the Russian mafia,” Yakupov joked, and added his satisfaction in being able to communicate in his native language around the rink. Unfortunately for Nail, Bryzgalov and Grebeshkov weren’t destined to be Oilers for long. Grebeshkov was clearly outclassed and no longer an NHL player, while Bryzgalov looked for opportunities elsewhere.
Just a couple of years later, Yakupov still has one countryman to play Durak with on road trips, but low and behold there are several more on the horizon and the future Edmonton Oilers may someday have the highest Russian content this side of the Alexander Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals.
Who Likes Borscht on the Team Right Now?
Nail Yakupov: Yakupov still hasn’t found the consistency he needs to have as an NHL player, especially a former first overall draft pick. Nonetheless, he rebounded nicely when Dallas Eakins was fired and Todd Nelson took over. He also responded well when paired with Derek Roy, so even though he is teetering on the brink of being a bust, there is a strong belief that this will be the year Yakupov will establish himself with a solid 25 goal 50 point season. Yak has jam, a world class shot, and can deliver a serviceable check when needed. For the time being he will be an Oiler and have the opportunity to fulfill the promise of a number one overall pick.
Nikita Nikitin: Nikitin has arguably the biggest bullseye on his back affixed by Oiler’s fans and has been roundly criticized for indifferent and downright poor play. Amazingly he has survived the trade and buyout deadline and may very well be an Oiler come October. It is quite possible that the tandem of Mactavish and Howson still have some influence and have convinced Chiarelli that he has some value. In fairness, Nikitin does have some skills. He easily has the hardest shot on a team that is looking for a cannon from the blue line to help the powerplay. Nikitin is going into a contract year and that’s typically when most NHLers magically turn it around. Maybe he’ll be a reclamation project . . .
Young Guns on the Way
While there are two Russians currently on the team, the Oilers’ have two hopefuls in the development system that should make the team over the next two seasons, and will likely play in the top 9. They bring the requisite skill set you would expect from Russian trained hockey players, and also bring intangibles that cannot be taught, namely size.
Bogdan Yakimov: Standing 6’5″ and weighing in at 232 lbs., 20 year old Bogdan Yakimov doesn’t require any more time to fill out, in that respect he’s definitely arrived. But Yakimov is not just a big lug, he has hands and can skate. Yakimov also had a decent first year in pro with the OKC Barons with 28 points in 57 games, numbers he will doubtless build upon next year. In his first pro-year Yakimov also showed a keen willingness to learn, paired with a good work ethic, spending extra time with veterans and the coaching staff to learn different aspects on the North American game. In Russia such good behavior would earn the comment, “Mollodets” (translation: Good boy). Yakimov is still young and comparables are never 100% accurate, but forecasting him as a more rugged Victor Kozlov is a definite possibility. With respect to development, I would project him as an NHL player in two seasons.
Anton Slepyshev: Slepyshev has dazzled and teased the Oilers organization since he was drafted in the 2013 entry draft. The concern with Slepyshev was whether he would actually commit to playing in North America or instead continue playing in the KHL. However, any doubt about his commitment to the NHL was erased this year when Slepyshev signed an entry level deal with the Oilers. Slepyshev is not a physical monster, but no slouch either, checking in at 6’2 and 187 lbs and the kid can play. Not only does he play with all the skill you would expect of Russian skater, he’s also a gamer, playing his best in big games against the best competition. That’s what every organization wants. His first year at pro will be the litmus test on his potential, but he is definitely one of the most exciting young players in the system.
Danil Zharkov: Zharkov was pretty cocky when first drafted in the third round of the 2012 entry draft, 90 spots after Nail Yakupov. Zharkov was billed as a potential power forward, and scored 23 and 25 goals respectively in his last two seasons of major junior with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls. Unfortunately his development has not really progressed well since then and while he is playing in the KHL, he has not found much offensive production, scoring 5 points over 58 games in his career there so far. It doesn’t look like Danil’s NHL or pro dream is going to happen, but hey, he’s only 21 years old, stranger things can happen.
Potential Additions off the grid
Vladmir Tkachev: This diminutive offensive dynamo impressed all at the Oilers training camp last year (so much so that he was awarded a contract, that was eventually disallowed) but followed it up with a very lukewarm last year of junior in the QMJHL. When you weigh in at less than a 150lbs. and stand maybe 5’9″you had better be putting up some gaudy offensive numbers and Tkachev did not (33 points in 33 games with the Quebec Remparts last year). Nonetheless there may be a chance he is invited to camp again and has said in interviews he wants to join the Oilers and play with his countrymen already in the system. It’s a longshot right now but so was his surprise camp last year, so there’s still a possibility.
Evgeny Dadonov: Originally a third round pick of the Florida Panthers, Dadonov toiled for a short time in the AHL before bolting for bigger dollars and home cooking in the KHL. Dadonov has played three seasons in the K and had a nicely productive year in 2014 – 15 with 46 points in 53 games. Excellent numbers for that league. He also paced well in the playoffs, outscoring Ilya Kovalchuk with 20 points in 22 playoff games. Dadonov then capped his season with 11 points in 10 games for Russia at the World Championships and in my mind was their most consistent player in the tournament. The Oilers are deep at wing for now, but if there was a buyout for Purcell or a long term injury that needed to be addressed, he could be a splendid addition. At age 26 there wouldn’t be any seasoning required, but he would need to improve his defense, which reportedly needs work. Many of the goals he scored at the World Championships were world class and that’s where I would rate his talent. His rights are till held by the Panthers and I am somewhat surprised they haven’t tried to sign him, nonetheless he’s worth keeping an eye on. If he was made available, it shouldn’t take a lot to pry him out of the Panther’s organization.
How does the future look?
While it’s not likely that two years from now the Oilers will have anything approaching Detroit’s famed “Russian Five” of the 90’s, an all Russian line in the near future is a very real possibility with Big “Bo” Bogdan Yakimov at center and Slepyshev and Yakupov on the wings. As for any other additions, it’s too early to tell, and I can’t see Nikitin sticking around that long, but overall the team will soon have an increased Russian presence.