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Would the Wild Gamble On Russian Star Danila Yurov In This Year's Draft?

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If you distilled the secret to Minnesota Wild head scout Judd Brackett’s success into one simple sentence, it might be this: Don’t let top talents fall far. It led him to success in Vancouver, and it appears to be his modus operandi in Minnesota.

When Brock Boeser showed he could score goals in high school and the USHL, Brackett pounced at 24th overall in 2015. Taking Elias Pettersson at 5th overall meant Brackett went slightly off the board on a divisive prospect. In 2018, he pounced on Quinn Hughes at 7th overall, despite six other teams passing on the slight defenseman.

In Minnesota, that’s continued. Is Marco Rossi small? Who cares? He’s talented, so Brackett snagged him at 9th overall in 2020. Isn’t taking a goalie in the first round risky? Not so much that Brackett wouldn’t trade up to land Jesper Wallstedt. Injuries limited Carson Lambos in his draft year, but Brackett bet on his top-10 talent at pick 26 last year.

So if you’re thinking of who Brackett might target at 24th overall this year, the best place to start is: Which talented player will fall into his lap?

Scott Wheeler of The Athletic thinks it might be Russian winger Danila Yurov. Despite ranking 12th in the draft class in Wheeler’s personal rankings, he has Yurov falling to Minnesota at 24th overall in his latest mock draft. Once there, Wheeler projects Brackett to pick up Yurov with a smile on his face.

No one would blink if the Wild traded into the top-10 and selected Yurov, especially if acquiring that pick involves Kevin Fiala going the other way. So why could a talented player fall within striking distance of the Wild?

There are some smaller reasons that might affect any top prospect. Yurov is a lock to play winger in the NHL, which means he’s at a less premium position than centers or defensemen. He’s also not extremely physical, which may turn some teams off.

But let’s be honest, his home country is the only reason a talent like Yurov would fall to Minnesota. Even in normal circumstances, Russian prospects typically go way later than they should. The St. Louis Blues took Vladimir Tarasenko 14th overall in 2009. The Washington Capitals drafted Evgeny Kuznetsov¬†26th in 2010, and Artemi Panarin went undrafted that year. The Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed future MVP Nikita Kucherov¬†58th overall in 2011.

Hell, in the 2015 Draft, the Wild had Kirill Kaprizov ranked in “the low 20s.” They passed on him three times, even taking a project goalie at 111th overall. Fortunately, Minnesota traded into the fifth round to grab their future star at pick 135.

And this is all under normal circumstances!

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the future of Russian players and prospects in flux. The NHL and KHL suspended their transfer agreement, which partially means that most of the NHL basically lost access to all contract information.

It’s usually a pain to get Russian prospects to come to America, as the Wild saw with Kaprizov and are now experiencing with 2021 second-rounder Marat Khusnutdinov. Now, it’s even harder to project. It’s unlikely, but Yurov could theoretically sign a 10-year KHL deal without the NHL knowing.

Throw in the possibility of the Russian government blocking all players from returning to North America, and there’s more risk than usual. “The Russian Factor” in the NHL Draft has historically been tinged with xenophobia. But through no fault of their own, geopolitics add a real layer of risk on this year’s Russian prospects. At least in the short term.

Brackett has the draft capital and personality to roll those dice. Minnesota already has a robust prospect system that may add another top prospect or pick to the mix by trading Fiala. He has two second-rounders to add surer things to mitigate Yurov’s risk. And drafting Vasily Podkolzin 10th overall in 2020, then Khusnutdinov 37th in 2021 shows he’s not afraid of taking Russians.

With those two things in mind, Yurov is more than worth taking that bet. If you’re looking for an organizational replacement for Fiala in this year’s draft, Yurov is a good place to start. He’s a very good skater who is deadly in transition, which is one of the foundations of Fiala’s game. Yurov maybe doesn’t have the high-end shot Fiala possesses, but most of Wheeler’s list of his strengths are a dead-ringer for No. 22.

“He pushes tempo,” says Wheeler. “He’s a strong and balanced skater, he’s an excellent give-and-go player who excels at playing in and out of space.”

Yurov might even possess something Fiala lacked to succeed in Minnesota: The ability to not drive Dean Evason crazy. Elite Prospects’ J.D. Burke, David St. Louis, and Cam Robinson rated him as one of their top-5 two-way forwards in the 2022 class. He’s responsible defensively, and like his countryman Khusnutdinov, uses his skating to be a pest for opponents.

Scouts don’t necessarily project him as a star, but his numbers do. Throw out his 0 points in 21 games for the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He played less than four minutes a night for them. Pay attention to how he destroyed the MHL, Russia’s junior league.

He posted 13 goals and 36 points in 23 MHL games last season. Those 1.57 points per game were higher than stars like Kucherov (1.42), Panarin (1.16), and KHL star Nikita Gusev (1.19) produced in the MHL during their draft-eligible seasons.

His NHL Equivalency (NHLe), which translates production in leagues to an NHL equivalent, put him at 45 points, according to Byron Bader of Hockey Prospecting. That surpasses Shane Wright (37), Logan Cooley (37), and Juraj Slafkovsky (27), the presumptive top-3 forwards in this Draft. Coincidentally, that 45 NHLe in his draft year perfectly matches Pettersson’s 2016-17 season.

It’s why Hockey Prospecting projects Yurov as having the highest chance of being a star in the 2022 draft class. His top comparable is Alex DeBrincat. Fitting, since DeBrincat went much later than his production would indicate, though for a different reason (being 5’7″).

Courtesy of Hockey Prospecting

It’s hard to not see Brackett exploit this market inefficiency if he gets any chance to do so. Yurov has skill, production, and a work ethic. Brackett may not even have to wait for pick 24, either. He’s made aggressive moves up the board for Wallstedt and Khusnutdinov. Fiala could very much be in play to secure a top-15 or higher pick.

The fit between player, scout, and organization just appears too good to ignore this possibility going into next month’s draft. And if Brackett makes it happen, a lot of other teams may kick themselves like they’re doing with Boeser, Pettersson, and Hughes.

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