Hello and welcome back to my latest installment of the 2016 NHL Draft Preview. Today we venture into the QMJHL and take a look at a player in New Brunswick.
Today we look at:
Weight: 214 lbs
Team (League): Acadie-Bathurst Titan (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League)
ISS rank: NR
CSS rank: C (no rankings released)
FC rank: NR
THN rank: NA
DTJ rank: 48
Current Statline for 2015-2016 Season: 25 GP, 8G 10A 18P 10PIM, -1, 0.72 Points/Game
First things first, no there is no relation to the Washington Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is a relatively common last name in Russia.
From Yekaterinburg, Russia, Vladimir Kuznetsov was selected first overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft by Acadie-Bathurst Titan from the QMJHL (to the surprise of quite a few who expected Dmitri Sokolov to be the first one taken). Upon drafting him, the general manager, Sylvain Couturier, remarked, "We are very excited to select a player like Vladimir. He is a big and strong winger with skill..."
This is Kuznetsov's first year living and playing in North America, and his season was off to a relatively cold start, which is to be expected from an import getting used to the different rink size as well as the language and culture outside the rink. He's been playing on the second line for Acadie-Bathurst, mostly Right Wing but also some Left Wing work. Over the past month, his play has improved and he's been getting on the scoreboard more often. He's been getting very consistent time on the Power Play, playing on the Titan's first PP unit.
Kuznetsov is an intriguing prospect to me because he has a very good awareness of the offensive zone and the rink overall, but there are some elements lacking to his game (I will elaborate on this a little later). The first thing you notice about Kuznetsov is just how big of a guy he is. His EP page lists him at 6'1", 190 lbs, but the Acadie-Bathurst official page lists him as 6'2", 214 lbs (I'm more inclined to go with the team's official page when it comes to size differential), but on the ice he looks even taller than that. Of course he doesn't look as big as Andrew Cordssen-David, the 6'5" defender for Acadie-Bathurst, but Kuznetsov does look like he's pushing 6'3", and he's still only 17 years old with time to grow taller and larger.
Kuznetsov is not hard to miss, he's a big lumbering skater roaming around. He almost looks a little hunched over in his skating, which is probably why he looks taller to me than he actually may be. While on the Power Play, Kuznetsov's main role is to be one of the two forwards in front of the opponent's net (Acadie-Bathurst runs a 3-2 Broad Umbrella type Power Play). Occasionally, about twice a shift or so, Kuznetsov is able to roam around the offensive zone and look for an open passing lane or a shooting angle on the net. He doesn't usually have to fight his way into the slot area, he just ends up there someway or somehow. For a big guy, he can sneak around the ice quite well.
When the puck is on his stick he uses his body well to protect it, and he's able to use the boards very well. This isn't necessarily in the sense of winning board battles, but rather bouncing the puck off the boards to avoid an incoming defenseman. He's got a very hard slapshot, but doesn't use it too much (mainly from the blue line if he's roaming on the Power Play...this is also a good one-timer from him as well), and an impressive wrist shot as well. His passes, while very accurate for the most part, lack a certain crispness that I would like to see some improvement on.
Defensively, Kuznetsov is pretty well-aware of what's going on around him. He usually doesn't leave his zone and doesn't chase people around too much. However sometimes in trying to prevent a point shot, Kuznetsov leaves the opportunity for an opposing player to break through to the slot for a good scoring chance. This is an issue Kuznetsov will have to work on if he wants to be effective at the next level. He can't simply rely on his good stickwork, but instead needs to work more on his positioning in regards to where the puck is and where the attacker in his zone is, whether they are open or not.
On that note, one thing that stands out to me about Kuznetsov is how he's able to use his stick so well on the defensive side of things. He stick always seems to be in the right place at the right time to intercept or block an incoming pass through his zone or while skating back through the neutral zone, or even while he is in the offensive zone forechecking. Offensively, Kuznetsov can handle the puck rather well, he doesn't try any dangles or dekes. He plays a rather simple game offensively like that. He can get around defenseman somewhat well and is a threat offensively, almost when he chooses to be.
The thing about Kuznetsov is that it seems like he coasts around the rink a lot, and I'd like to see him a little more active within the play, and not simply the scoring plays. I understand fully well that this is still a year in transition for Kuznetsov as he is coming from across the world, learning different rink sizes, playing styles, coaching systems, and a more focus on defensive play in North America, but it is also his draft eligible year and this is something that he must learn and improve upon.
The biggest concern I have for Kuznetsov, and why I project him to be taken in the upper-middle third round of the draft is his skating. His situation reminds me of Leon Draisaitl's situation during his draft-eligible year in that he's a relatively fast skater (I know Draisaitl is incredibly fast, but this is for the sake of comparison), but not quick or agile. It's because of this first step that he seems to gaffe on which results him being a bit behind the rest of the players on the ice, and not driving the offensive play.Draisaitl has since improved his skating tremendously. I'm not comparing the talent or the playing style of these two young men, but rather the similarity in the skating situation. I believe Kuznetsov's skating is holding him back significantly. Now I'm not looking for a Scott Niedermayer-type skater, but I believe if Kuznetsov could skate more agilely, he would be able to make a much better impact on the games, and not just on the scoreboard.
So here you have a promising young player who is still growing into his own body and sometimes thinks the game faster than his body can react. He's not an exceptional thinker of the game, he just seems the ice pretty well. He's got a hard, accurate shot as well as good passing instincts, but needs to improve on his passing speed, overall skating, and physicality. If Vladimir Kuznetsov puts everything together I can see him playing at the second line level of the NHL, but he will have to really hard for it.
From a Devils' perspective, unless he can improve his skating (especially because of Hynes' system is strong in transition) and support of teammates within the attacking and neutral zone, I don't think he would fit well in the new team vision Ray Shero and John Hynes are advocating for. I may be wrong though, and I don't want to beat a dead horse, but in order for him to be an effective player within the new system, Kuznetsov must improve on his skating. However, with the skillset he has, and the type of playing style he presents, if Kuznetsov is able to fix these developmental issues, then he has the potential to be very productive within the Devils' system of play.
I am very interested in following the rest of Kuznetsov's season in Acadie-Bathurst, and I hope he improves because the offensive instincts are there, and there's a reason why he was selected 1st overall in the CHL Import Draft. Acadie-Bathurst is not a strong team, in fact they have the 3rd worst record in the entire QMJHL, and Halifax is right behind them in the standings.I hope you enjoyed my write-up of Vladimir Kuznetsov! If you have any feedback, suggestions, or players you’d like to see my write about, please let me know!
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Thanks for reading!