Everyone is prepared to judge what they witness over the course of the next two weeks.
The 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship is set to begin on Christmas Day and, due to the pandemic, potentially more eyes than ever will absorb the action of the tournament. With no competition from the NHL and some logistical drama about positive COVID cases in the Edmonton bubble, there exists a high degree of intrigue regarding whether the event can proceed smoothly, if at all.
If the tournament can take place with no hiccups, then the great takeaway from the event, as is the case every year, will be the performances of the participants. Their successes and failures will be placed under a microscope. Their most spectacular goals and greatest mistakes will be scrutinized. If a player finishes the tournament with zero points or 15 points, their achievements will be sensationalized and waves of commentary will pour in from people’s television sets and from social media.
For many spectators, this will be the first time that they have seen some of these players. Their performances will, thus, be judged harshly, as these will be their first impressions of the individuals. Scouts who have paid close attention to these players across their respective leagues will be familiar with their games and might compare their play here to their efforts with their club teams.
It is crucial to remember, however, that this tournament and others like it are not reliable indicators of whether a player will succeed professionally. Point totals at this tournament are less important than the shift-to-shift contributions of players, especially in an offense-oriented, high-octane tournament such as this where goals can occur in bunches and players deserving of points can be robbed over the course of a small handful of games.
The short sample size is worth taking into consideration, as well as the tournament’s highly-skilled, improvisational, and often rush-based style of play. There are issues of chemistry to consider, as well as parity, or lack thereof, within the round-robin groups.
These factors, in addition to others, may give certain players a greater opportunity to produce at the event than others. One should not lend too much credence, thus, to the placement of names on the points leaderboard at the end of the World Junior tournament. Instead, the tendencies, on-ice decision-making, and line-driving ability of players should be the focus of evaluations.
There are many top draft-eligible prospects and recent NHL draftees in this tournament whose performances will generate much debate among fans of the teams who drafted them. This week, we will look at two of those players from Team Russia, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Rodion Amirov and Columbus Blue Jackets’ Yegor Chinakhov, both drafted in 2020. In addition, we will revisit one top prospect who flourished at the 2018 and 2019 World Juniors but whose journey to the NHL has been difficult: St. Louis Blues 2017 first-rounder Klim Kostin.
When Yegor Chinakhov’s name was called with the 21st-overall selection at the 2020 NHL Draft, most observers were speechless. Few had predicted that this second-time draft-eligible winger would be chosen in the first round. After being passed over in 2019, Chinakhov experienced a breakout 2019-2020 campaign in the Russian MHL, scoring 27 goals and 69 points in 56 games — fifth among scorers in the league. This was a major improvement over his total of eight goals and 16 points in 37 games the previous season with Omskie Yastreby, the junior affiliate of the KHL’s Avangard Omsk.
In their 2020 final rankings, NHL Central Scouting ranked Chinakhov 30th among European skaters. Thus, some analysts were blindsided by this draft choice.
With the 21st pick, #CBJ select Yegor Chinakhov and puzzled everyone on Sportsnet's panel. #2020NHLDraft
The fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets were responsible for the bold and off-the-board selection is not as much of a surprise. In similar fashion to their jaw-dropping selection of Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujarvi with the third-overall choice in 2016, a wise decision in retrospect, the Jackets made another splash with this pick. Dubois exuded grit and forechecking ability with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, whereas Puljujarvi was a lanky, open-ice, north-south puck rusher who excelled on the basis of his straight-line speed and shot.
One may notice a trend with Columbus’ recent selections, especially after considering 6-0, 178 lbs Chinakhov’s style of play. In our previous article, we examined the Jackets’ 2018 second-round selection, Kirill Marchenko, whose two-way game and forechecking abilities were standout features.
Chinakhov, much like Dubois and Marchenko, excels at the forechecking aspect of the sport. Our analysis of his game includes a look at his performance with Avangard Omsk this season against Amur Khabarovsk on November 15, 2020:
What one may initially notice is the degree to which Chinakhov is conscious about the defensive side of his game. He exhibits a tendency to regularly cover for his defencemen when they pinch in the offensive zone. There are times, thus, when Chinakhov moves from low to high in the zone and then back again.
He is very active positionally.
There is one key element of his positioning that allows him to be as effective as he is, which is his choice of routes along the ice. Unlike other players who might play a scrambly, puck-chasing style, Chinakhov provides effective puck support by choosing intelligent routes to the puck and sufficiently anticipating where the puck will be.
Often, when he must send the puck back to either of his defencemen at the point, he will skate up to the blue line in case he must cover for them as a result of a turnover.
We can see numerous instances of Chinakhov’s back-checking abilities in our footage against Amur. With 16:53 of the second period, he swoops through the neutral zone as his teammate attempts an errant stretch pass from his own zone. The opponent is in a position to potentially intercept the puck, but Chinakhov puts himself between the puck and the opponent so that if that player takes the puck, he can not proceed forward.
Moments later, with 16:46 on the clock, he enters the path of an Amur player moving up the ice, steals the puck from him, and quickly turns back up the ice with it for an offensive opportunity off the rush. However, instead of forcing a shot on goal and potentially giving up possession, he rings the puck around the boards. Avangard’s right defenceman pinches on the opposite side. Meanwhile, Chinakhov takes his place at the right point until his forward linemates can be in a position to check the opponent down low. Once they establish pressure and the defenceman slides back up the right side, Chinakhov returns low and helps his linemates in the corner so that they may regain possession. As a result of this, they regain possession and begin to initiate a controlled attack in the offensive zone.
Additionally, while on the forecheck, Chinakhov understands how to efficiently spin away from the opponent’s pressure along the boards and keep plays alive.
He often prefers to serve as a playmaker at the right half-wall, and on the Avangard powerplay, he is usually stationed on the right side of the team’s set-up. He spent time in this role with Team Russia at the Karjala Cup last month.
His positioning, 200-ft game, and ability to positively influence his team’s pressure in the offensive zone are impressive for a 19-year-old rookie in the KHL. He has averaged 13:36 of ice time per game this season but has played as much as 21:34.
This is a high-IQ player who has turned many heads since his selection at the NHL Draft earlier this year. He fits with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ recent draft philosophy and now has an opportunity at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship to demonstrate to international observers why he was a top selection.
Furthermore, he currently leads all U20 players in the KHL in scoring with eight goals and 15 points in 27 games, five points ahead of the runner-up, and nearly double that of the fourth-ranked player in that department and our next topic of discussion, Salavat Yulaev Ufa’s Rodion Amirov.
As of this writing, it appears that Team Russia’s U20 head coach, Igor Larionov, has opted to place Chinakhov on the fourth line of his squad to start the 2021 World Junior tournament.
CBJ first rounder, Yegor Chinakhov – who leads all U20 KHL skaters in points this season, is skating on the 4th line for the Russians
Strange for a club that’s going to need offensive punch outside of that top line.
Amirov, meanwhile, has been assigned to the team’s first line with the 2019 tenth-overall selection Vasily Podkolzin and 2020 37th-overall choice Marat Khusnutsdinov, both currently with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg. Podkolzin is a two-way winger who has already participated in and been successful at two previous U20 World Junior tournaments. He serves a similar role to Chinakhov as a forechecker and thus has been given priority on the top unit.
Russia practicing with a first line of Rodion Amirov (TOR), Marat Khusnutdinov (MIN) and Vasily Podkolzin (VAN). If that line sticks, it has a chance to be something special to watch https://t.co/vPnWleRiAX
The Toronto Maple Leafs opted for high-end skill and elusiveness at the 2020 NHL Draft, selecting top Russian junior Rodion Amirov with their 15th-overall selection. Amirov, a 6-0, 177 lbs left-winger, was ranked fifth on NHL Central Scouting’s list of European skaters and is another slick and crafty player who will complement their current core group of skilled forwards. He currently has five goals and eight points in 23 games with Ufa while averaging 13:56 of ice time per game.
He was named the best forward at the 2020 Karjala Cup after scoring three goals at the event and has been a very popular topic among observers in recent months.
Amirov is more of an offense-first type of player than Chinakhov. His game leans more heavily towards nifty, one-on-one maneuvers in transition, as well as creativity off the rush rather than physical play or forechecking along the boards. He is, at this point, not very strong or aggressive at the boards, although he uses his quickness to apply pressure from a positional standpoint in the offensive zone. He must add strength, as he is sometimes out-muscled along the boards. His stick checking attempts on the forecheck are not usually enough to take the puck back from the opponent.
When he has the puck at the boards, Amirov can create space for himself by quickly circling away from the opponent. He is an agile skater who can make sharp pivots to elude opposing checkers.
He is also a very poised stick handler, and his dynamic puck-rushing abilities are evident any time he gains possession of the puck. At the KHL level, he is already a very noticeable player when it is on his stick. His quickness and agility allow him to move up the ice with authority when there is space ahead, and he can counter in an instant if the opposition turns the puck over. He has a quick release that allows him to surprise the opposing goaltender off the rush.
One example of this is evident in our footage of his most recent performance with Ufa against SKA on November 28, 2020. This was also his final performance prior to joining Team Russia in preparation for the upcoming 2021 World Juniors. He spent the game on a line with 23-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mikhail Vorobyov and 19-year-old Danil Bashkirov.
At the World Juniors, he should excel. The wide-open style and lack of defensive structure of junior hockey allow creative, fleet-footed players such as Amirov the freedom to improvise and attack with quick-strike, rush offense. With his agile maneuvers in the offensive zone, he should also be a threat to beat opponents one-on-one and create enough separation for high-quality shot attempts.
Team puck movement at the junior levels is slower than in high-end professional leagues, and players are nowhere near as positionally-sound. It is the opinion of this scout that junior hockey is comparable in terms of its pace to the NHL of the 1990s. Defensive breakdowns are more common as well, allowing players like Amirov opportunities to be major contributors on the score sheet.
When teams trade chances, players such as Amirov feast.
There are times, however, when he tries to do too much in one-on-one situations and is subsequently contained, resulting in his team’s loss of possession. He is also occasionally guilty of making errant passes and forfeiting the puck as a consequence of poorly-devised exhibits of creativity.
One potentially-problematic feature of his game is his tendency to have his back turned against the flow of play when making himself available for a breakout pass from his defenceman. Too often, he waits for the puck from a standstill along the left boards with his body facing his own defender. In these situations, when he receives the puck, he is not able to subsequently turn and free himself from the opposing defenders, who have at this point closed much of their distance towards him. He is forced to either distribute the puck to a teammate or chip it ahead and then pursue the loose puck.
This limits his opportunities to carry the puck up himself. He gives himself no room to move up the ice with it.
I have seen this issue in the past with other prospects who struggled to translate their puck-rushing skills from junior hockey to the NHL. Hunter Shinkaruk is one such player who, in his appearances with the Vancouver Canucks, was unable to find space in the neutral zone due to his awkward positioning during his team’s breakouts. Amirov must regroup lower in his own zone and provide puck support while his team moves up the ice.
His gap control also requires improvement, as he often leaves too much room for the opponent to maneuver with the puck. There are opportunities for him to impede the opposing puck carrier with his body, but he instead relies too heavily on stick checking. He is also occasionally too passive on the backcheck.
At last month’s Karjala Cup, Amirov was utilized on Team Russia’s penalty kill. Head coach Igor Larionov is certainly familiar with the shorthanded offensive threat that star scorers can provide, having played in an era when this was a common strategy among professional clubs. Junior clubs regularly use their scorers as penalty killers. He is unlikely to play a penalty-killing role in NHL, but at the World Juniors, we may again see him in shorthanded situations.
With regards to Amirov’s professional future, the offense-oriented style that he plays will make his transition to the NHL lengthier than, for example, Chinakhov’s. The Leafs drafted him on the basis of his upside rather than the completeness of his game. Unlike some of the subjects of our last Ramblings edition, Eeli Tolvanen and Nail Yakupov, neither intensity nor offensive hockey IQ are issues of particular concern with this player, as he can anticipate offensive plays and generate creative opportunities with the puck. He has also shown that he is capable of tracking loose pucks and pressuring the opponent.
One might look at Nikolaj Ehlers as a player he will want to model his game after, although the current Winnipeg Jets forward is a faster straight-line skater. Ehlers is a skilled puck carrier and an elite player in transition, but more importantly, he is an underrated back checker. Even though he is not very strong at just 6-0 and 172 lbs, he regularly uses his speed to place his body in the path of the opposition. He also provides support deep in his own zone so that he may carry the puck up the ice himself with his high-end skating abilities.
Further development is crucial as Amirov’s game is still unrefined. His gap control and defensive body positioning need improvement. He must become stronger along the boards, both so that he may elude checks and contribute to his team’s forecheck. There are numerous habits that he must change in order to find success in the NHL. Fortunately, these changes are quite possible if he is committed to these necessary adjustments. He is a project, and his professional success will hinge upon the lessons he learns over the next few seasons.
The future looks somewhat troublesome for the St. Louis Blues’ former 31st-overall selection in the 2017 NHL Draft. Akin to fellow 2017 draftee Eeli Tolvanen, Kostin was ranked among that draft class’ top players at the beginning of his draft year.
His 2016-2017 season was filled with disappointments. He had very little success with his club teams in the KHL and VHL, scoring just one point in nine games with the latter league’s Dynamo Balashikha. He was left off of Team Russia at the 2017 World Juniors and, the following month, in January 2017, he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his campaign prematurely. Despite all of this, he remained the top-ranked European skater in NHL Central Scouting’s final 2017 draft rankings. His performances that year were inconsistent, and the injury only compounded the issue. As a result, he nearly fell out of the first round altogether.
He has spent the past three seasons with the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage, scoring at a rate of roughly 25 to 35 points per season in that league. His rate of production saw a marginal increase from 0.36 points per game in 2018-2019 to 0.625 points per game in 2019-2020. He scored 13 goals and 30 points in 48 games last year with San Antonio as a 20-year-old.
Due to the pandemic, however, he was loaned to the KHL’s Avangard Omsk to start the 2020-2021 campaign, where he has not fared well whatsoever. Let us keep in mind that this is the same team Yegor Chinakhov currently represents.
Under head coach Bob Hartley, Kostin has averaged a mere 9:48 of ice time per game and scored only four assists in 21 games with the team.
While one could point towards his lack of ice time as a primary reason for his abysmal performance this year, there are greater issues with Kostin’s game that Coach Hartley has seemingly identified. He does not trust this player, and upon further inspection, there are glaring flaws that may limit Kostin’s ability to be an effective contributor in the NHL.
Only once this season has he played more than 13 minutes in any match with Avangard. Against HC Vityaz earlier this month, he received a season-high 16:36 of TOI. This is among the matches we will be looking at today: his game against HC Vityaz on December 13, 2020. In addition, we can observe all three minutes and thirty-one seconds from his match against Amur on November 15, 2020.
Kostin is a north-south power forward. With a 6-4, 212 lbs frame, a strong motor, and a physical edge, he possesses many qualities that anyone would covet in a power forward. He is a very aggressive player with significant straight-line speed, and any time he makes contact with another player at the boards, he is likely to throw a heavy body check.
He has already recorded 40 hits this season with Avangard despite only averaging 9:49 of TOI per game through 21 matches.
For some sense of perspective, the Blues’ Sammy Blais led his team with 155 hits in 40 games last season while averaging 12:35 of TOI; the second-most active body checker, Ivan Barbashev, recorded 144 hits with 13:27 of TOI over a span of 69 games.
Kostin’s rate of body checking would have placed him among the most physical players on the St. Louis Blues’ roster.
As a north-south power forward, he is most comfortable while speeding up the left side of the rink. One of his more common plays is his wide drive towards the net. Being a left-handed shooter, he will drag the puck along the outside as he cuts into the middle of the ice. However, as seen in our footage, in this position, his balance is compromised and there are occasions when he is pushed off of his skates. After suffering a shoulder injury in 2017, he sustained another injury in that region in November 2019.
Here is a look at two of his AHL performances from late in the 2019-20 campaign. Twice in this footage, we see him crashing into the end boards as a result of an attempt to drive in from the left side with the puck.
Our footage here features his performances against Grand Rapids on March 3, 2020, and the Chicago Wolves on January 10, 2020, respectively:
The smaller rink seems to benefit Klim Kostin, however, as his physicality along the boards is his most noteworthy attribute.
He plays a very simple offensive game. He is capable of pressuring the opponent with his strength and speed, but once he regains possession of the puck, he has a habit of shooting the puck on goal from the corner or simply ringing the puck back around the boards to the point. He does not demonstrate much creativity with the puck and does not seem capable of generating dangerous offensive chances on his own. Despite being an aggressive player and an adequate forechecker, Kostin is a passenger as far as offensive contributions are concerned.
He is neither a consistent offensive presence in transition nor in the offensive zone. There are stretches when he simply does not contribute much to the play, hence perhaps his lack of usage in the KHL this year under former NHL coach Bob Hartley.
With high expectations to produce, at the age of 20, he should have been producing at something closer to a rate of 1.0 points-per-game in the AHL than his 0.625 PPG last season. His rate of production last season was slightly better than Tolvanen’s last season (0.57) but lower than Casey Mittelstadt’s (0.694).
He provides an element of physicality and intensity that neither of the others possess. However, his lack of offensive vision or creativity and his one-dimensional style of attack will make it difficult for him to become an offensive player with the St. Louis Blues. He does not create enough offense to be a realistic top-six option in the NHL.
He does, however, possess the potential to become an adequate bottom-six contributor in the NHL based on his speed, physicality, and ability to create trouble for his opponents along the boards with his body checks. Unlike with Chinakhov, there is no sense of certainty regarding Kostin’s ability to translate his game to the NHL, as he lacks a high-end ability to process plays. An NHL team may find a role for a quick and powerful 6-4′ checker such as Kostin, but there is a chance he may only become a replacement-level player in the league based on his inability to adequately influence his team’s possession of the puck.
Some may have expected more from Kostin as an offensive player based partly on his success at the 2018 and 2019 World Junior tournaments. He scored five goals and eight points in five 2018 tournament games, and three goals, six points in five 2019 matches, respectively. Success at the World Juniors is not a strong indicator of a player’s success in the NHL. With four goals and eleven points in seven games, fellow 2017 draftee Casey Mittelstadt was the scoring leader and MVP of the 2018 tournament ahead of other noteworthy participants such as Elias Pettersson and Cale Makar, two current NHL stars and 2017 draft class peers who were awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy after their respective rookie NHL campaigns. Neither stood out at the World Juniors relative to Mittelstadt — Makar scored three goals and eight points in seven games, while Pettersson scored five goals and seven points in seven games.
In an event such as this, all four lines tend to be geared towards offense with most roster members generally having been their club teams’ top offensive players. The wide-open style will produce unforeseen results on the score sheets as the skaters’ defensive weaknesses are exposed. The lack of parity between teams in international tournaments can also lead to skewed point totals and opportunities for certain teams to compile goals. The small sample size of games and lack of time to develop chemistry are among other important factors to consider when one assesses players at international events.
The most important takeaways for scouts should be the habits and tendencies of players at international events. The point totals at the tournament should have less bearing on an observer’s opinion of a prospect. A player such as Klim Kostin or Casey Mittelstadt can outscore both Elias Pettersson and Cale Makar at these tournaments. Some of the tournament’s top scorers excelled simply because they were top junior scorers but not future NHL pros. Undoubtedly, the high-profile players at this year’s tournament will be under severe scrutiny based on their team and individual performances, as will other notable participants. Point totals will likely be cited in the discourse.
Yegor Chinakhov might not score as many points as Rodion Amirov in at the 2021 World Junior tournament, but his path to the NHL will likely be shorter and clearer due to the maturity of his game. Amirov and his slick, high-octane maneuvers are almost certain to be a catalyst for Team Russia next week, but his future as an impact player in the NHL remains distant by comparison.
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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