Prospect Ramblings: Kirill Marchenko, Eeli Tolvanen, Nail Yakupov
Boom-or-bust type prospects have always been risky choices at the NHL Draft, but as the league shifts more towards a forechecking-and-possession-based style of play, it makes less sense than ever to select a player who can not forecheck. Too many top draft choices have been used to select one-dimensional, passive forwards, many of whom find themselves subsequently unable to translate their polished puck skills to the NHL level.
As spectators, we tend to take for granted the awareness required by NHL players to pressure their opponent down low in the offensive zone and create offense out of nothing. We more frequently appreciate the occasional rush chances that bring the crowd out of their seats. However, such instances are becoming fewer and further between due to the defensive systems that NHL teams have designed and implemented. Cycling and puck possession dominate the sport, especially during the playoffs.
If a forward can not provide adequate forechecking, their team suffers often by losing possession of the puck and then being trapped in their own zone by the team that knows how to generate sustained pressure. This has become the basis of many successful attack strategies. During the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it became apparent to fans of teams like the Vancouver Canucks that aggressive forechecking opponents, such as the Vegas Golden Knights, were simply better-equipped to succeed. The Knights completely neutralized the rush offense of the Canucks and proceeded to dismantle them with a system that utilized three Knights forecheckers. Sharpshooter Brock Boeser mustered only one goal in seven games against the Knights. Dynamic skaters such as Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were regularly suppressed.
When we consider the lack of ability of such top draft choices as Eeli Tolvanen and Casey Mittelstadt, who share forechecking as a weakness, to even break into the NHL, it is even more difficult to imagine the degree to which they can contribute in any postseason scenario.
If a prospect can not forecheck effectively, it should very well be considered a significant hindrance to their chance of success in the National Hockey League.
This, of course, gives us an opportunity to examine three active players, two of whom are current NHL prospects and one player who was at one time the greatest prize in his draft class. Today, we will look at Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Kirill Marchenko, Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen, and former first-overall pick Nail Yakupov. All three players are currently in the KHL.
There has been a significant amount of buzz surrounding 20-year-old Kirill Marchenko in recent weeks. He has recently played first-line minutes with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and has become a marquee prospect of the Blue Jackets as a result of his recent success.
We can take a look at his performance on November 10, 2020, against Jokerit for a better sense of his style of play.
The most noteworthy element of Marchenko’s game is his consistency on the backcheck.
Although he has tallied 10 goals and 18 points in 27 games so far this season with SKA St. Petersburg — a marginal improvement over last season’s totals — Marchenko’s determination and wherewithal on the defensive side were the standout aspects of his performance in our footage. Nearly every time the puck came back into his own zone, he was present to support his defensemen. Often, when the opponent carried the puck into his end, he would trail immediately behind to provide an additional barrier against cross-seam passes as well as to force the puck carrier wide. On a few occasions, Marchenko skated all the way down to his own goal line to provide defensive support.
These displays of defensive commitment should bode well for the 20-year-old prospect as he adjusts to the NHL game and establishes trust between himself and the coaching staff of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Despite Marchenko’s steady rate of point production, however, his offensive game lacks certain line-driving qualities that one might want from a top offensive talent. While he possesses good speed and carries the puck with poise, there were no moments in this game when he took control of the play and dictated the pace of action. There has been quite a lot of buzz about his game this season. The excitement is justified, and his transition to the NHL will be made easier by the completeness of his game. However, as far as his offensive output is concerned, one may wish to temper their expectations for now.
At this point in time, he tends to rely to a certain extent on his linemates to generate opportunities in transition. Meanwhile, he prefers to hover in the low slot in search of rebounds and high-percentage chances. He possesses quick hands in tight spaces and on numerous occasions was able to maneuver around an opposing player in the low slot before snapping a quick shot on goal. He also provides good forechecking pressure in the corners of the offensive zone. Thus, he has spent time on SKA’s powerplay and has played significant even-strength minutes alongside scorer Linden Vey.
The former 49th overall, second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft has certainly become one of the more noteworthy prospects this season in the KHL. As he continues to develop, it will be worth paying attention to whether he can add some individual flair and offensive confidence to his repertoire.
We can contrast his recent success with the struggles of Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen, once a highly-touted sharpshooter.
The 2020-2021 season has been a disappointment for the 21-year-old Tolvanen. He was once considered to be a high-end prospect based on his ability to score goals as a junior-aged player. His seven-goal performance at the 2016 U18 World Championship brought significant attention to him during his draft-minus-one year. His phenomenal draft-plus-one season in 2017-2018, which included a breakout rookie campaign in the KHL, as well as a standout performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics, made many feel that he was a star in the making. After he scored 19 goals and 36 points in 49 games with Jokerit as an 18-year-old, most teams looked foolish for letting him fall to 30th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Alas, three seasons later, he has four goals and 11 points in 21 games with Jokerit, and it has become clear that he is still not yet NHL-ready. His defensive game is not quite sound enough for him to be trusted in a bottom-six role, and his offensive production has seemingly stalled. His time in the AHL has been rather mediocre for a scorer of this nature, as he tallied just 21 goals and 36 points in 63 games last year.
If he can not prove himself worthy of a top-six position with the Predators, there may be no room for him anywhere in their lineup.
Poile says Tolvanen might be best long-term fit on 2nd line with Luke Kunin and Matt Duchene. (eyes emoji)
One must recall that he fell significantly at the 2017 Draft from his projected Top-15 draft position. As far as his puck skills are concerned, he exhibits abilities consistent with top picks. When I watched him at the time, however, I was partly taken aback by his ineffectiveness as a forechecker. Even with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, he seemed passive when the puck was not on his stick. This is one of the primary reasons why his road to the NHL has been so fraught with difficulty. One of his biggest drawbacks at the time was his play away from the puck, and it remains a flaw.
Furthermore, he has a tendency not to take direct routes along the ice to make himself available to his teammates. On numerous occasions in our footage, he became unavailable as a passing option because of the route he chose to take while moving up the ice. He anticipates well enough to occasionally intercept errant passes by the opponent, and opposition turnovers can lead to some dangerous opportunities for Tolvanen. However, he is quite opportunistic. His success will be quite dependent on the quality of the players around him.
Here is a look at his performance against SKA St. Petersburg on November 10, 2020:
As a smaller player standing at 5-10, he does not exhibit enough strength to fight off the opposition’s checks. If the opponent is in his way when he has the puck, they can usually obstruct his path. He also tends not to generate any degree of pressure in the offensive zone, and he usually prefers to wait high in the offensive zone. On the powerplay, Tolvanen is usually stationed at the point so that when he receives the puck he may slide down for a wrist shot attempt.
Once the opponent neutralizes Eeli Tolvanen’s shot, his contributions become very limited.
A player such as this will require a playmaker who can complement his style. His ability to produce also depends on the reliability and consistency of his shots on goal. Eeli Tolvanen’s shot has been inconsistent. Unlike the sport’s best shooters, Tolvanen can not rely on his shot alone to be a productive NHL scorer. Another former Jokerit player who is similarly burdened with a one-dimensional style of this nature is Teemu Pulkkinen. Pulkkinen amassed 112 goals and 222 points in 241 regular-season AHL games, whereas Tolvanen has not come close to matching that rate of production with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.
Third-line players in the NHL generally score roughly anywhere between 25 to 45 points per season. Tolvanen, thus far, has only been able to match that rate of production in the AHL. He has not excelled to the degree that one would expect from a prospective NHL scorer.
As a DobberProspects Buffalo Sabres scout, I’ve kept a close eye on fellow 2017 draftee, Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres’ eight-overall selection. In fact, Mittelstadt was listed as one of the Fallers on our Sabres 31-in-31 piece last week with a breakdown of his game in that article. Both Mittelstadt and Tolvanen share some of the same problems. Both were high-risk choices at the time, and neither has developed as well as their respective organizations had hoped. They both rely on open-ice skill and do not play well along the boards. Mittelstadt, in addition, does not play at a suitable pace for the NHL.
One must be wary of prioritizing skill above hockey IQ and forechecking ability. In the current NHL, teams do much of their damage against the opponent along the end boards. Effective forechecking and sustained pressure are crucial to every successful team’s attack strategy, especially during the postseason. Teams generally develop tactics to contain the opposition off the rush. They would prefer to force the opposition to play dump-and-chase hockey rather than a wide-open style, as dump-in scenarios are easier to control than odd-man rushes. A reliable defensive strategy for NHL teams, thus, is to eliminate the opponent’s rush opportunities.
The best forechecking teams can generate pressure in spite of the stifling defensive systems of the opposition. Thus, successful teams in the NHL require smart players who can anticipate where the puck will be, retrieve it along the boards, and create a dangerous offensive play for his team. The ability to forecheck is not just a matter of grit. It is a matter of hockey IQ, intensity, and spatial awareness.
I’ve always emphasized hockey IQ as the most important trait for any prospect to have. Puck skills will, in my opinion, always be secondary to hockey IQ, as intelligence encompasses one’s ability to recognize plays, adapt to adversity, and be proficient positionally at both ends of the rink. If a player can be above-average or excellent at applying both defensive and offensive pressure, they can tilt the momentum of the game in their team’s favor and hem the opposition in at the other end of the rink. These players make their teams better on a shift-to-shift basis, whereas low-intensity and opportunistic players have a tendency to trade chances or become stuck in their own zone as a result of flawed positioning.
A high amount of skill can not adequately compensate for a shoddy sense of positioning, particularly in the current NHL. In the past, the allure of skill has pushed prospects up to the top of the draft boards. Too often, boom-or-bust players with high levels of skill, but mediocre-to-low on-ice intuition have been chosen ahead of more well-rounded prospects. These players may have succeeded prior to the Dead Puck Era when rush offense was more commonplace. The NHL was, at that time, more accessible to players of this ilk, but times have changed, and such players now find themselves struggling to be useful in the NHL.
None are more famous in the NHL’s recent history than former first-overall pick Nail Yakupov, the Sarnia Sting’s former 49-goal scorer.
Viewers were captivated by his style of play. Analysts were enamored with this player. He exuded skill, speed, and intensity. His recklessness, enthusiasm, and goal celebrations reminded some of a young Alexander Ovechkin. In spite of all of this, Nail Yakupov had no concept of how to translate his skill set to the NHL.
For the enjoyment of our readers, I’ve cut together some footage featuring Yakupov’s performance at the 2012 World Juniors with commentary by Dave Randorf and Craig Button.
Perhaps part of it was the Oilers’ decision to rush him to the NHL. Unlike Tolvanen, Yakupov was pushed into the NHL almost immediately. Due to the 2012 NHL lockout, he was able to play a superb half-season in the KHL, where he tallied nine goals and 18 points in 22 games with Neftekhimik. Much like Tolvanen, he experienced immediate success in the KHL. He debuted in the NHL once the lockout ended in 2013 and scored a respectable 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games.
This season, at the age of 27, he has just five goals and 14 points in 29 KHL games split between Avangard Omsk and Amur Khabarovsk. Let’s take a look at his game in its current form.
In his match against Amur, we can see the high intensity with which Nail Yakupov plays. He is constantly shuffling up and down the ice in our footage. Despite his efforts, however, there are times when he is simply in the wrong location on the ice. He lacks a proper sense of anticipation and does not seem to be aware of where he should be relative to the play that is unfolding.
For example, when the puck is ringing around the boards and he has an opportunity to meet it in the corner, he instead drifts too far towards the middle of the ice and allows the opponent to gain possession. When he should be pressuring the opponent high in the defensive zone, he is sometimes far too low. His style of play is very jittery and active, but he does not anticipate well enough to apply adequate force on the forecheck. Thus, while he is quite an aggressive player, he is often late to pressure his opponent, and sometimes he is not positioned optimally relative to the puck. He regularly chases the play, as a result.
When one compares his current style of play with his habits as an NHL rookie in 2013, one can see that his game has not changed too considerably. His stop-and-go maneuvers along the boards remain similar, as is his slightly delayed timing on the forecheck. As a rookie, he also tried to do too much with the puck while carrying it through the neutral zone. This habit remains similar today. Additionally, as a young player, he had a tendency to eliminate himself from his team’s breakout by being too far high up in the neutral zone, spacing himself too closely with the opposing defender to receive a pass.
Over the course of eight years, there has been little progress. This certainly speaks to the importance of proper development, which Yakupov did not receive.
In my 31-in-31 piece about the Buffalo Sabres’ prospects a few days ago, I wrote a little bit about Marcus Davidsson, the Sabres’ 2017, 37th-overall selection. After scoring 21 points in 39 games in the SHL in 2018-19, Davidsson has experienced a yearly decline in his production. This season, he scored just one point in twelve SHL games with Vaxjo, after which his contract was terminated. He now plays in the Allsvenskan and has one point in eight games so far with Vasterviks IK.
One might wonder whether Eeli Tolvanen has also been affected. Tolvanen has seemingly stagnated, if not regressed, since 2017-18.
To some degree, hockey IQ deficiencies can be mitigated with appropriate coaching and development. While players who do not already possess an innate sense of positioning are unlikely to gain that necessary level of anticipation to be elite, most can be taught adequate defensive posturing so that fewer mistakes are made.
Nail Yakupov still makes too many mistakes to be a reliable player in the NHL. Tolvanen, likewise, still makes too many errors and is not effective enough away from the puck to be a trustworthy presence in the NHL right now. If he can not produce, then he will most likely be an on-ice liability.
It seems to me that Tolvanen will probably not be a prolific scorer in the NHL. Scoring success requires a higher-than-average intuition and anticipation ability, whereas Tolvanen still needs to meet the baseline positional standards to play in the league. Star scorers are innately able to recognize plays faster and on a more nuanced level than everyone else.
When one contrasts Yakupov’s skill set with those of other National Hockey League players, he is not out of place. His passes are hard and crisp, and he carries the puck with authority. His technical skills are certainly above average.
Junior-aged players who excel primarily on the basis of their speed and puck skills can sometimes deceive spectators into believing that they can compete and produce in the NHL.
He is unquestionably skilled.
The difference between Yakupov and a successful NHL player is his lack of ability to react to plays in a timely fashion. We can say, thus, that his hockey intuition, or hockey IQ, is not sufficient enough for the NHL. He possesses the intensity that one looks for in a player but does not read plays quickly enough. Therefore, he does not arrive until his window of opportunity has closed to execute certain plays. To possess elite hockey IQ, a player should be proactive. To possess adequate hockey IQ for the NHL, the player needs to be sufficiently reactive.
Nail Yakupov’s slow reaction time negates the mechanical quickness that he possesses on the ice. He certainly is a speedy skater, and when he collects the puck in his own half of the rink, he can quickly pivot and fire a head-man pass to a teammate or hustle up with it himself.
Sometimes, he may try to do too much with the puck on his own. However, on numerous occasions in this KHL match, he was able to find enough space to fire the puck on goal and create a decent scoring opportunity.
None of Yakupov’s shots in the KHL footage looked particularly dangerous, which may partly explain his reduced goal totals in his most recent campaigns. The quality of his shot has seemingly declined. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. There are so many factors that contribute to one’s ability to perform at a high level, from age and injuries to equipment and practice routines. Whereas his shot was once one of his strengths, it did not look like a threat during this match.
This point about fluctuations in skill should not be overlooked when one considers the career trajectory of Eeli Tolvanen, or any player, for that matter, who relies more on raw puck skills and opportunistic, open-ice attack strategies than effective forechecking.
Skills can deteriorate. Hence, choosing a player who possesses a high amount of skill but an inadequate sense of intuition and positional awareness is always a major gamble.
Out of the three players we have examined today, Kirill Marchenko has the most probable chance of becoming an NHL regular. The completeness of his game allows him to be versatile, and his ability to read plays is greater than that of Tolvanen, even though he does not possess the sheer skill of the latter.
As the NHL becomes more and more about puck possession and sustained pressure, players who are weak in that area are having more and more difficulty breaking through in the NHL. Now, more than ever, it may be worth considering a lack of forechecking ability as a potential red flag among forwards. If there are other players available of similar ability at the time of one’s draft choice, it might be wiser to choose the more well-rounded option instead.
Kevin is @CambieKev on Twitter. He is a video editor, scout, and hockey historian who writes for Canucks Army, Nucks Misconduct, Pass It To Bulis, and Last Word on Sports among other publications. He is the creator of The Lost Shifts and the 85-minute film, Pavel Bure: A Rocket Through Time.
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