- Craig Custance
TORONTO -- For months, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin have widely been considered the consensus top three picks in the upcoming NHL draft. But two Europeans drew plenty of buzz among those attending the combine in Toronto -- Valeri Nichushkin and Aleksander Barkov. Nichushkin in particular is threatening to crash the North American top three.
One longtime NHL amateur scout, whose team isn't picking in the top five, called both players "top end" and said Nichushkin has the talent to contend for the first overall pick.
"Just take a look at his attributes for the game," he said. "He could easily go No. 1. A very gifted player."
His attributes: He's 6-foot-4, strong on his skates and a great skater. He has great hands and the ability to take over a game. He has been compared to Evgeni Malkin, although he'd prefer not to be.
"I don't want to compare myself to Malkin or [Alex] Ovechkin," Nichushkin said. "Every player is unique."
But like many Russian players, the threat of the KHL complicates things for Nichushkin. He interviewed with teams in Toronto and used his face time to try to convince interested franchises that he is ready to make the move to North America. He did the same while meeting with the media after his fitness testing.
He said his KHL contract was terminated and that he's a free agent ready to sign a contract with any NHL team. But he also made it clear that next season he'll be playing in either the NHL or KHL, no lower levels in North America.
"He understands the whole situation with Russian players because many players promise to come but don't come," said Nichushkin's interpreter in explaining one of his answers. "He tried to convince all teams that he's coming for sure, [that] next season he'll play in NHL."
One NHL team that interviewed Nichushkin confirmed that was his message, but it remained skeptical that it would be an easy process to get Nichushkin to North America when he was ready. Traditionally, one executive pointed out, KHL teams don't just terminate contracts and let a player leave for the NHL without some resistance.
The advantage the KHL has over the NHL is there are no limitations on what KHL teams can pay their young players. For instance, Nail Yakupov's salary last season with the Oilers was $925,000, considerably less than the millions he could have earned playing in the KHL. Like Nichushkin, Yakupov had to answer questions at the combine last year about his plans to play in the NHL or KHL and remained true to his word that he would play in the NHL.
It's now a yearly tradition for the top Russian players.
"It's every year, every player over there. The KHL is a real viable option for those players. They get paid pretty large salaries at a young age. There's a lot of incentive for those players to look strongly at staying in the KHL," said Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, who doesn't have a first-round pick and won't be sweating a Nichushkin decision. "The way our system is set up, we have an entry-level system. You have to pay within certain parameters. ... KHL doesn't have those rules. They pay what they want, when they want. There's always that threat; that's a concern."
But is it a big enough concern to pass on a player who could become a superstar? Washington Capitals GM George McPhee doesn't hesitate to draft Russian players. His team is built around Hart Trophy finalist Alex Ovechkin, but he's also waiting for Evgeny Kuznetsov to join the NHL. He was Washington's first-rounder in 2010 and has been playing in the KHL for Traktor Chelyabinsk. The delay in luring Kuznetsov hasn't changed McPhee's stance.
"[Nationality] doesn't get in the way of our decision-making," McPhee said Friday. "If a guy is a good player, he can make our team better, you pick him. It doesn't matter where you're from."
Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are picking in the range where Nichushkin is expected to be selected, holding the No. 3 overall pick. If Jones and MacKinnon go with the first two picks, Yzerman will have some options at No. 3. Drouin is an electric player, but Yzerman warned that he hasn't ruled anything out.
"The big three, they get a lot of attention, but there's a couple more that are pretty darn good as well," Yzerman said. "That should be in consideration."
He's another GM who hasn't let passports get in the way of picking the best player.
"It shouldn't," he said. "You're competing against the rest of the league for players. You shouldn't exclude anyone in the world, in my opinion. ... I look at the Swedish players, the Russian players we had success with in Detroit. Evgeni Malkin -- you're going to pass up on a potential player like that?"
Trade talks starting
Patrick Roy raised some eyebrows during his introductory news conference when he said the Colorado Avalanche need to consider trading their No. 1 overall pick. But one NHL GM wasn't surprised by the statement, saying it's pretty common practice for the team holding the top pick to see what it's worth.
When I asked another GM the going price for the Avs' pick, he didn't have an answer.
"You'll have to ask [Roy]," he said. "I'd be interested in knowing."
Yzerman, holding the No. 3 pick, ruled the Lightning out of consideration for trading into the top spot.
"I don't think I have the goods that would make sense with our picks," he said. "We're not likely to trade up."
On Friday, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon followed Roy's lead and said he's listening for offers for the No. 2 pick, which is just a GM doing his due diligence.
Depending on whom you talk to, there's a slight drop in talent after the fourth or fifth pick and another one around No. 10. The consensus is that you're getting a really good but comparable player in the 11-40 range. The Phoenix Coyotes are picking at No. 12, and GM Don Maloney said he would be inclined to trade down if possible, probably for that reason.
Between now and the draft, the framework of trades will be sketched out and executed depending on how the draft plays out in Newark.