I was fortunate to attend the Karjala Cup in Helsinki last week, a men’s tournament on the international level, and there was plenty of future talent on the ice throughout the event. Between players that have already been drafted and players that are expected to be drafted in the next year or two, there were 27 NHL prospects in total, but I tried to concentrate on the most relevant ones. Russia led the way sending 19 NHL prospects to the tournament, the Czech’s sent four, and each of Finland and Sweden sent two. Here are my observations on the NHL hopefuls from the 2021 Karjala Cup:
RUS #39 Matvey Michkov (2023) / 3 GP – 1G 1A 2PTS – 0 PIM
W / 5-10 – 159 lbs / 2004-12-09 / left
Still just 16-years-old, Michkov was really good in the tournament and already looks like a future NHL star. In his debut, he had a bit of a slow start and he was playing on the fourth line but after that first game tension, Michkov was really good in the rest of the games. Against Sweden, he scored an amazing lacrosse-style goal and started to gain more confidence, which improved throughout the tournament more and more. Michkov is amazingly versatile and he can do just about everything in terms of his offensive game. He can build a rush, deke players, give great passes, or shoot the puck by himself. He can control the puck in the offensive zone and is constantly looking for free space when off the puck. Someone might criticize his shot selection but basically every shot he takes is surprising and dangerous, and it seems that he has unlimited ways to score a goal. What is really unique is that he can score a goal without even having a scoring chance; his lacrosse-style goal and assist (shot off the dead angle, teammate buried a rebound) were great examples of that. Michkov’s motor was also great, as he created multiple turnovers and created a play of those situations, whether it was a pass, shot, or a deke. He was also able to run Russia’s top PP unit, which is – again – exceptional at his age; he controls the puck, can create with his vision, or just terrorize goaltenders by shooting the puck himself. There’s obviously a long way to go but at this point I see Michkov having the potential to become one of the best players in the world.
RUS #22 Marat Khusutdinov (MIN) / 3 GP – 0G 2A 2PTS – 0 PIM
W / 5-11 – 176 lbs / 2002-07-17 / left
Khusnutdinov is a fast skating, skilled playmaker with a responsible two-way game. He looked really good, playing with a great motor and high energy. For a smallish player, he protects the puck very well and has the skills and vision to create plays both in the offensive zone (i.e his second assist which was an amazing backdoor cross-crease pass) and off the rush. He isn’t afraid of the dirty areas and for his size, his physicality is more than adequate. He showed some electric skating and great top speed, and his pivots in the offensive zone dropped the defender off his back multiple times. Khusnutdinov isn’t only a good offensive player, he also is a responsible defensive player despite finishing the tournament with a minus-3 -rating. He showed some really good backchecking a few times and played solid on the penalty kill. I really liked Khusnutdinov in the tournament and while he might not have the highest NHL certainty, I see that he has a pretty good chance of becoming a good NHL player for Minnesota in the future.
RUS #10 Dmitri Voronkov (CBJ) / 3 GP – 2G 1A 3PTS – 14 PIM
C / 6-4 – 190 lbs / 2000-09-10 / left
Voronkov was one of the top players and captained a young Russian roster. He didn’t really stand out in terms of his offensive game but he played a reliable two-way role and brought a physical presence, getting under the skin of the opponents. This 6-4 power forward might not be the most skilled player but along with the physicality, he also flashed some puck skills and strong skating while managing to produce three points in as many games. He can keep the offensive cycle going with solid passing and string puck covering. Voronkov was used in all situations; he’s a solid 5-on-5 -player, kills penalties well, and is a good net-front player on the PP. His faceoff-% was only 34%, so that’s definitely an area that he needs to develop but that isn’t uncommon for young players. I see Voronkov having a pretty good chance of getting into the Blue Jackets’ NHL lineup in the future, but his role would definitely be in the bottom-six.
RUS #91 Nikita Chibrikov (WPG) / 3 GP – 0G 2A 2PTS – 0 PIM
W / 5-10 – 172 lbs / 2003-02-16 / left
Chibrikov didn’t have a big role in any of Russia’s games but he improved throughout the tournament and got more ice time towards the end. He had a productive tournament despite the limited role, scoring two assists. This skilled, 5-10 winger flashed his high-end puck skills a few times in the tournament. Chibrikov can pull off highly skilled moves and he is a fast, explosive skater. He showed good passing in transition and there were a few chances that he created for himself with that skating-skill combination. The primary one of his two assists came with a great backdoor pass off the rush, utilizing his good vision. Chibrikov’s two-way game was also solid and he was even used to kill penalties, putting his body on the line with a few blocked shots. His lack of strength and physical game is still a bit of a problem, but he looks very promising overall. Chibrikov has divided opinions, but I like his skill-based game a lot and he showed some of his best attributes in this tournament. He doesn’t have the highest NHL certainty, but he does have a high ceiling and if everything goes well, he could eventually become a top-six producer for the Jets.
RUS #98 Vladimir Grudinin (2022 draft) / 2 GP – 0G 0A 0PTS – 0 PIM
D / 5-10 – 159 lbs / 2003-12-09 / left
Grudinin had a small role and only played in two of Russia’s games. However, considering he is still a first-year draft-eligible, he looked good in those outings. Even though he couldn’t score any points and finished with a minus-2 rating, I saw a lot of positive things in his game. He made good plays under pressure and was efficient on the breakout, opening up the ice with good passes. He showed good mobility and puck handling and was able to control the puck in the offensive zone. I liked that he put his body on the line, blocking shots and even throwing a few hits despite his small stature. His defending looked good, he closed the gap pretty well and showed some good one-on-one defending. I’ve heard good things of Grudinin and he surprised me with his mature showing. I think he looks like a strong prospect, and I’d probably rank him as a second or third-rounder for the 2022 NHL Draft at this point.
RUS #96 Dmitri Rashevsky (WPG) / 3 GP – 0G 0A 0PTS – 0 PIM
W / 6-1 – 165 lbs / 2000-10-09 / left
Rashevsky is an energetic, speedy winger with great puck skills. He finished without a point and with a minus-two rating in the tournament but there were positive things in his game as well. I really like his motor, effort, and how electric he plays on every shift. He isn’t the best skater technically but has very fast feet and plays with a good pace. His hands are really fast as well, and he controls the puck well to pull off skilled moves, even in tight spaces. He also has a good wrist shot that he releases quickly to deceive goaltenders. Even though Rashevsky didn’t necessarily find much offensive production in the tournament, I think that he has a pretty good upside, and considering how he’s played this season in KHL, I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks into the Jets’ NHL roster in the future. I believe his high-tempo game would suit the North American playing style pretty well.
RUS #57 Alexander Nikishin (CAR) / 3 GP – 0G 1A 1PTS – 2 PIM
D / 6-4 – 216 lbs / 2001-10-02 / left
Nikishin was one of Russia’s leading defenders at the Karjala Cup. He showed a balanced, well-rounded game through all three contests. Nikishin has a large frame which he utilizes pretty well, though there’s room to improve in terms of his physical play as well. He controls the gap well and can throw some hard hits when presented with an opportunity. Nikishin might look like a stay-at-home defender at first glimpse but he actually has really solid puck skills. He even played on Russia’s second PP unit in the tournament, showing smooth hands and efficient passing from the point. He also blasted one great wrist shot which hit the post, narrowly missing his first goal of the tournament. In the defensive zone, Nikishin was very good with the puck under the pressure and was good on breakouts, opening the ice well. He also moved the puck well in the offensive zone. His footwork and skating looked surprisingly good for a player his size as well. Nikishin’s strong performance kind of came out of the blue for me but he definitely looked good. On the back of this performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks into Carolina’s NHL roster in the future.
RUS #95 Artyom Galimov (ANA) / 3 GP – 2G 1A 3PTS – 6 PIM
C / 5-11 – 176 lbs / 1999-09-08 / left
Galimov had a good tournament, tallying two goals and an assist. He is a skilled forward with good smarts who showed some strong play reading ability and vision, and despite not being the greatest skater, he played with a solid pace to his game. His transitional game was really solid as he was able to make both controlled zone entries and exits consistently. Galimov is a solid two-way player, even though his defensive zone game looked a bit lazy from time to time. I don’t see Galimov’s chances of becoming a regular NHL player being that great but his showing in this tournament was positive and promising.
CZE #55 David Jiricek (2022 draft) / 3 GP – 0G 0A 0PTS – 0 PIM
D / 6-3 – 190 lbs / 2003-11-28 / right
Jiricek played well in the tournament despite being held off the scoresheet. These were only his first national team appearances but after some opening game nerves, he was one of the leading defenders for the Czechs. Jiricek played a good all-around game and after gaining some confidence, he started to show off more of his puck skills. He was strong on breakouts, giving good and precise first passes to push play in a positive direction. He also was able to clear the zone under pressure well. Jiricek also reads and anticipates the game very well and he showed that a few times in the tournament. His offensive zone game was good as well; he handled the puck while controlling the blue line and was able to keep the cycle going, leading to a number of good shooting opportunities in the final two games. One thing that I noticed and really appreciated was how he likes to sneak towards the back post when on the weak side in the offensive zone. Jiricek’s defensive game looked good as well. He is a big player and a physical one, and showed that with a few hard hits while maintaining solid gaps in transition. Jiricek’s shot selection might not always be the best, but in my opinion, it is usually a good thing to shoot if you hit the net. There were some hasty decisions and misconnected breakout passes but overall this was a very good showing from a 17-year-old. In my personal 2022 draft rankings, Jiricek’s definitely in the top-10 at this point.
CZE #20 Lukas Jasek (VAN) / 3 GP – 0G 0A 0PTS – 2 PIM
F / 6-1 – 172 lbs / 1997-08-28 / right
Jasek had pretty horrible statistics in the tournament as he was left scoreless and with a minus-4 -rating. He is a smart, skilled playmaker with good vision and smooth hands. His skating is smooth but it lacks speed, which forced him into turnovers a couple of times. Jasek looks great when he has the puck and he is a bit of an artist; he can be dangerous for opponents, but also for his own team. He showed a tendency to try something fancy and lose the puck instead of making the smart simple play. He has a solid frame but isn’t at his best in physical battles. All that said, I don’t want to focus entirely on the negatives as Jasek still has some upside. He has a ton of skill with the puck and great vision. His faceoff-% was 53%, which is really solid as well. Jasek left the AHL to play for the Pelicans this season and even though he’s been one of the best players in Liiga, I doubt he would return to North America. He might eventually, but getting into the Canucks’ lineup seems like a longshot for him.
SWE #29 Pontus Holmberg (TOR) / 3 GP – 1G 1A 2PTS – 0 PIM
F / 5-11 – 179 lbs / 1999-03-09 / left
Holmberg is a smart winger with good puck skills and solid skating ability. He scored two points in the tournament and showed off his positive attributes. He has a nice set of hands and showed them on his goal, driving to the net and finishing with a great backhand. He is a smart player and can create off the rush as well. He showed one great example of that as he slowed down a rush and gave a great pass for his teammate who was driving to the net. Holmberg showed a good motor and hounded the puck, coming away with a few takeaways. He protects and controls the puck well and sometimes even makes himself seem bigger than he really is. He isn’t the greatest skater but showed some solid footwork to maneuver through traffic. His two-way game looks solid and there were plenty of sequences where he supported his defenders well. I see Holmberg having a chance of eventually getting into the Maple Leafs’ lineup in a bottom-six role, but if he really reaches his ceiling, he could become a solid middle-six player as well.
FIN #18 Vili Saarijärvi (ARZ) / 3 GP – 0G 1A 1PTS – 2 PIM
D / 5-10 – 183 lbs / 1997-05-15 / right
Saarijärvi is an offensive-minded defender who is really good with the puck in general. He handles the puck very well and spreads out the opposition on the breakout. He supported rushes and created offensive chances with his vision while showing off his dangerous shot on the powerplay. Saarijärvi’s problems come with his defensive game as he doesn’t control the gap very well and is caught out of position from time to time. That led to him being late on the play or slow to react on multiple occasions. He is also a smallish player and when he got into physical puck battles, he tended to lose them. However, he utilized his good footwork to elude pressure and win some battles. He was also able to use his feet and hands to carry the puck himself on the breakout a few times. I don’t necessarily see Saarijärvi having much chance of breaking into Arizona’s NHL lineup, but he is a high-quality offensive defender for European leagues.
Other NHL-affiliated prospects of the Karjala Cup
RUS G Yaroslav Askarov (NSH) / Played in a loss against Sweden, which didn’t go that well (SVS 23/27, .852 SV%).
RUS D Semyon Chistyakov (NSH) / Balanced two-way defender who didn’t play a lot.
RUS D Arseni Koromyslov (’22) / Smallish sample size in this tournament but could have some value in next summer’s draft. Didn’t really impress me though.
RUS D Nikita Novikov (BUF) / Was on the roster but didn’t play.
RUS F Vasili Ponomarev (CAR) / The versatile playmaker played very little.
RUS D Alexander Yelesin (CGY) / Had lots of TOI and looked good but I see the possibility of him returning to the North America being quite slim.
RUS F Fyodor Svechkov (NSH) / Skilled, playmaking two-way forward only played in two games, and not much in either one of those. Would’ve wanted to see him more since I believe he is a future NHL player.
RUS F Vitali Abramov (OTT) / Energetic winger played in two games, didn’t score any points. Might go back to AHL someday but I see his NHL potential being really low.
RUS F Bogdan Trineyev (WHS) / Was named to the roster but didn’t play.
RUS D Shakir Mukhamadullin (NJD) / Big defender with decent puck skills and solid skating. Had a pretty big role, also with PP time, but I think his showing in the tournament wasn’t really that positive. Finished with one assist. Will probably move into North America in the future, but I don’t see much long-term NHL potential.
RUS F Nikita Guslistov (CAR) / Fast skating forward with a good motor. Based on this tournament, he might not be amongst the top guys in Carolina’s prospect pool but is still young at just 19 years of age. I don’t see a lot of NHL potential but maybe some bottom-six upside if he moves to the AHL in the future and plays well there.
FIN D Tony Sund (SJS) / Solid showing, pretty much nonexistent chance of returning to North America though.
CZE D Dominik Masin (TBL) / Had a defensive role, but I see his chances of getting into the NHL as pretty nonexistent. Finished the tournament with a minus-two -rating and 12 PIM.