KHL Report: January 2021

Aaron Coulter

2021-01-13

The KHL Report is back!

It feels good to be writing those words after a difficult few months in my personal life, which included a bereavement. Hockey has a way of helping people through hard times and it certainly has for me. I’m excited to be back writing about the KHL and interacting with other writers and fans again. The Gagarin Cup playoffs are just under two months away but there is still a lot of hockey to be played before then.

January sees the Russian World Juniors players return to their clubs after their fourth-place finish. There were some standout performances, so be sure to check out Dave Hall’s Prospect Rambling’s discussing the tournament. This article will focus on the other prospects who have been playing in the KHL during this period. 

Vitali Kravtsov, LW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (New York Rangers)

I was excited to watch Kravtsov after being really impressed by his play earlier in the season. He has put up decent numbers to date (12 goals and 17 points in 34 games) and looked to be ready to take the next step in his development into a high-quality player. I must admit though, after watching his recent performance against Spartak Moscow, I was disappointed in what I saw.

He was anonymous for large parts of the game at five-on-five and really struggled to make any impact on the game. I hold Kravtsov in such high regard that it frustrates me to see him spend most of the game away from the puck. When he gets the puck in space, he can make things happen, such as beating a defender with a between-the-legs deke and driving to the net. But for large parts of this game, he was either at the opposite side of the ice from the puck or getting out-worked along the boards.

It was another story on the powerplay, however. Playing in the bumper position, he was able to work himself into space and get a dangerous shot off. His first attempt hit the post and the second effort caused a scramble in the crease, with a video review required to see that the puck didn’t quite cross the line. On another powerplay, he was able to use his long reach to pick the defender’s pocket and keep the puck in the offensive zone. Space seems to be the key to Kravtsov’s success and if it is taken away from him, he can be largely ineffective.

I’m certainly not ready to lose faith in him after one poor game. However, these issues have been a reoccurring theme for Kravtsov and if they’re not addressed, he is in danger of becoming a powerplay specialist who needs to be sheltered at five-on-five. I have every confidence that he is better than that and will be watching him closely in the hope that this was just one bad game amongst many good ones.

Artur Kayumov, LW, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Chicago Blackhawks)

Kayumov is quietly having a very good season in Yaroslavl. He currently sits on nine goals and 21 points after 37 games and plays on arguably the most dangerous line with ex-NHLers Anton Lander and Teemu Pulkkinen. His contract with Lokomotiv runs to the end of the 2021-22 season, so it may be a while before we see him in North America if he ever makes the transition. He is a player who projects to be a very good KHL player, but there are still question marks around how his game will translate to the NHL.

Kayumov likes to play high in the defensive zone and is always looking to break out and attack the offensive blueline where possible. He is not the fastest skater but skates well enough to be effective at this. I really like the way he is able to create space once he gets into the offensive zone, either by using a quick deke or by changing pace to create separation from the defenseman. In the tweet below, you can see an example of Kayumov’s ability to move the puck up the ice and create a scoring opportunity after a nice move.

Kayumov has also been a key part of both the powerplay and penalty kill. He alternates between the right half wall and the bumper position on the powerplay, using quick passes to try and create openings. On the penalty kill, he doesn’t look anywhere near as comfortable. He can be caught puck watching, which allows opposing players to get in behind him and receive the puck in a dangerous area. This happened on two separate occasions in my most recent viewing of him. 

Overall, Kayumov is a creative force on the ice, who will be a key player in any future success Lokomotiv has. Whether his game can keep developing and grow to an NHL standard is yet to be seen but there should be enough skill to keep the Blackhawks interested.

Ivan Chekhovich, LW, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (San Jose Sharks)

After a challenging first year of pro hockey in the AHL, Ivan Chekhovich has bounced back with a really nice start to his KHL career. He has been playing first-line minutes and been a mainstay on Torpedo’s first powerplay unit. His 12 goals and 25 points in 28 games is a really strong start for a player who only turned 22 in January. He was also named KHL Rookie of the Week for Week 17.

He is an offensive-minded player who plays with his head up and can make difficult passes look easy. This makes him a more attractive proposition as a prospect because his skating is just average and he doesn’t have the speed to burn past defensemen. He is not slow though and is quick to react to plays that are developing. The video below is an example of Chekhovich anticipating where the puck will be and reacting more quickly than the opposition.

Chekhovich possesses an accurate wrist shot that can beat a goalie cleanly. He has a real knack for finding space in the slot, which affords him space to get a shot off. Against Traktor, he scored by creeping in at the back post unmarked to fire into an empty net. On another play, he found space in the slot between the forwards and defensemen to get another dangerous shot off. He also had a nice backhand assist in that game, which shows he is a true dual-threat that can score and also create opportunities for teammates. 

He may never become an NHL regular but he has enough talent to play games at that level. I would like to see him round out his game a bit more though, especially in battles along the boards and in his own zone. He doesn’t have the biggest frame but being stronger on pucks will be required if he is to succeed at the next level. 

Dmitri Voronkov, LW/RW, Ak Bars Kazan (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Voronkov has been quietly going about his business this season. He is playing on the first line but is only averaging 14:39 of ice time. His points total of six goals and 16 points in 37 games doesn’t scream first-line player. As always though, points don’t tell the whole story and when you watch Voronkov play, you can see the type of impact that he has.

The main strengths to Voronkov’s game are his motor and the use of his stick when defending and forechecking. He is a real handful on the forecheck, using his feet to close the gap before utilizing his long reach to disrupt the puck carrier and occasionally cause turnovers. Ak Bars’ first goal against Salavat Yulaev came directly from Voronkov forechecking and stripping the defenseman of the puck. There were multiple other examples in that game of the disruption his stick can cause.

Voronkov isn’t going to win any speed skating competitions but his skating is pretty good for a guy his size. His size is also a positive on the powerplay, where he can plant himself in front of the goalie and provide a very effective screen. There are issues with his game though. His passing was pretty poor in the Salavat Yulaev game. On one occasion he gave the puck away in the neutral zone which led to an odd-man rush the other way. On another occasion, he had a teammate wide open in the slot but his pass went into his skates, and the play broke down.

Overall, Voronkov looks like he could be an effective bottom-six player at the NHL level. I don’t think he possesses the skill to project as anything higher than that and probably needs to play a simple game to be effective. His contract with Ak Bars runs through 2022-23 so it will be a while before we see him in North America.

Ivan Morozov, C, SKA St. Petersburg (Vegas Golden Knights)

“The key to success is consistency” is a well known saying and it succinctly sums up why Morozov is having a strong season with SKA. He is a dependable presence at both ends of the ice and rarely makes the wrong play. His stat line of eight goals and 19 points in 41 games may suggest he is limited offensively but, as the tweet below shows, he also can make skillful plays to create offense.

SKA coach Valeri Bragin is not always trusting of younger players, as we have seen this season with Vasili Podkolzin, but Morozov is a young player who has earned his playing time. He is over 60% in the faceoff dot, a team-high, and is centering the second line. He is also a regular on the second powerplay unit. All in all, he is a reliable player who makes a positive impact both offensively and defensively.

I have no doubts that Vegas will want to eventually sign him and bring him to North America. The only issue I have is whether he can be more than a bottom-six role player. Although he does have the skill, he has never really shown it on a regular basis. If he can put it all together and start being more of a regular offensive threat, then he could be a really interesting prospect. Even if he doesn’t, he still has enough quality to contribute at the NHL level.

Thanks for reading and be sure to follow me on Twitter @a_coulterhockey

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