We’re less than four months removed from the 2023 NHL draft and the shine of last year’s class hasn’t faded one bit.
The first overall selection, Connor Bedard, is already a game-breaker. The second-overall pick, Leo Carlsson, and third-overall pick, Adam Fantilli don’t look far off from becoming impact players this season. The 13th overall pick, Zach Benson, could very well spend the entire year in the NHL, too.
But far in the distance, the seventh overall selection, Matvei Michkov, is having an extraordinary season of his own in Russia — the type of season that reminds us why, in the years leading up to a highly anticipated 2023 class, prospect pundits dubbed it the “Bedard/Michkov” draft. It also leaves one to rethink how he slipped beyond the top five.
Michkov, 18, is tearing up the KHL right now.
Since being loaned to Sochi after dressing for just one game with SKA St. Petersburg, Michkov has recorded 14 points in 14 games and was just voted into the KHL All-Star game. According to EliteProspects.com, Michkov currently has the highest single-season point-per-game output of any U-20 KHL skater (minimum 10 games) since the 2008-09 season.
At first glance, it’s fair to rebut that in the name of small sample size. However, if you combine his production this season with last year — when he recorded 20 points in 27 KHL games — Michkov ranks sixth in total U-20 KHL points per game (0.73).
None of this should come as a surprise, considering Michkov is a generational talent. Yes, you read that right. The 5-foot-10 winger is a tantalizing talent who possesses spectacular hands, an elite shot and an ability to score at will.
Leo Carlsson is an excellent prospect that should surely go in the top 5 in the 2023 draft but Matvei Michkov is one of the best European prospects we’ve ever seen. pic.twitter.com/Ri6VvJNKWz
— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) January 13, 2023
However, it’s fair to wonder if the five teams that drafted after Chicago really missed the ball here. Even with the ‘Russian Factor’ being exacerbated in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s pretty hard to reconcile Michkov slipping to seventh overall.
Notwithstanding the geopolitical factor, Russians slipping in the draft is nothing new.
The ‘Russian Factor’ has long been contemplated within NHL scouting circles. And it goes beyond the fact that oftentimes players like Michkov — whose KHL contract runs through the 2025-26 season — aren’t free to come over to North America until they’re 20 or 21. Newsflash: That’s when most players break into the NHL, anyway.
Historically, the reasoning behind the apprehension of drafting certain Russian prospects has to do with a lack of control over their development.
The KHL isn’t a prime development situation for prospects and it goes beyond the fact that young players don’t get optimal deployment like they would in junior, college or even the AHL. There’s a well-documented history of KHL teams displaying animosity towards NHL prospects.
It’s common to see prospects unjustifiably play scarce minutes in the KHL, or even get sent down to the Russian minor leagues — like what happened to Columbus Blue Jackets winger Kirill Marchenko — simply because of their NHL pedigree. Michkov experienced this at the beginning of his 2023-24 campaign when he started the year out with SKA St. Petersburg, a team with deep ties to Vladimir Putin.
Michkov was a healthy scratch for three of the teams’ first four games and logged just 6:12 TOI in the sole game he played. His coach, Roman Rottenberg, the son of a Russian Oligarch, had no previous coaching experience before becoming the club’s coach.
Matvei Michkov since landing in Sochi (8 GP)
• 4 goals
• 9 points
• 32 shots
For reference, he’d be leading SKA in goals, points, and shots per game
There’s also always been a fear that it’ll be a challenge to get Russian players over to North America. Granted, this mainly applies to players who aren’t bonafide stars and could be asked to start in the AHL — where players earn a fraction of the salaries they’d make in the KHL, all the while undergoing a massive culture change. But given the war in Ukraine, the fear of Michkov being forced to remain in Russia beyond his current contract is legitimate.
In Russia, all men ages 18-27 are required to serve in the military unless they have an official exemption. The Russian government has leveraged this to help the KHL out before, with Flyers goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov being the most recent example. Two months after signing an entry-level contract with the Flyers in the summer of 2022, Fedotov was arrested by a SWAT team, detained on grounds of military evasion and promptly exiled to a military base in the far northwest corner of Russia. He missed the entire 2022-23 season before returning to CSKA Moscow, which is regarded as an extension of the Russian Army
Russian players are oftentimes unfairly labeled as “selfish.” It’s a dangerous and broad accusation to make and it discounts language barriers, culture differences and subconscious xenophobia that unquestionably taint the judgment of North American talent evaluators. Michkov’s personality had reportedly been a red flag in the scouting community, however, access to him was hard to come by this year.
Scouts tend to latch onto information they want to hear, and one has to wonder if those whispers fall in line with this. Especially when discussing an 18-year-old — particularly one considered the best Russian teenage talent in recent memory — the very notion of writing off a young player that may come across as “cocky” or “self-centered” is pretty shortsighted. Especially in a league where executives are able to see the good — or rather bypass the bad — when drafting players like Logan Mailloux or Mitchell Miller.
Now, the red flags surrounding Michkov weren’t totally ludicrous, but you have to wonder if they were alarming enough for teams like the Sharks, Canadiens or Coyotes to justify bypassing a potential superstar (we’ll give the Ducks and Blue Jackets a pass here, as Carlsson and Fantilli don’t appear as far off in talent compared to Michkov).
Sure, Michkov may not have wanted to be drafted by one of, if not all of those teams — given that he reportedly made it known he preferred certain organizations over others — but if you’re one of those teams, don’t you have faith in being able to change his perception of your organization over the next three years, while he finishes his KHL contract? The Sharks and Coyotes each had two first-round picks, too, which makes their decisions to pass on Michkov all the more surprising. We’re talking about a player capable of being an MVP candidate one day. If they drafted him and were unable to change his mind four years later, they’d surely garner an attractive consolation price via the assets they’d receive in a trade.
The NHL draft is a crapshoot in and of itself, and opting for the “safer option” that high in the draft was unwise when a talent like Michkov is on the board.