With the 98th overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the New Jersey Devils drafted winger Nikita Popugaev. The big Russian has been in the Western Hockey League for two seasons. Let’s learn more about him.
Who is Nikita Popugaev?
According to Elite Prospects, Nikita Popugaev stands at 6’6”and 205 pounds. His size leaves an immediate impression. It isn’t an issue, it’s a feature. He was born on November 20, 1998. The draft tracker at NHL.com and his profile at WHL.ca lists him as a left winger, EliteProspects has him as a right winger. All the same, he has a right handed shot.
While he started his career in Russia, he made the jump to Canadian junior hockey in 2015-16. In 70 games with Moose Jaw, he put up 16 goals and 31 assists for 47 points. It appeared he was really breaking through with the Warriors in 2016-17. In 40 games, he posted 22 goals and 28 assists for 51 points. However, his rate of production dipped after a trade to the Prince George Cougars - only seven goals and eleven assists in 31 games. Still, Popugaev received a relatively high ranking by Central Scouting Services: 28th among North American-based skaters. That he was drafted at 98th by New Jersey meant he fell and fell hard in this draft.
What Others Have Said About Nikita Popugaev
As to why, a couple of the profiles about the player point to some issues. First, from the Draft Analyst, Steve Kournianos:
Enigmatic Russian import with strong puck skills who on paper had a solid pre-draft season despite struggling with consistency after a midseason trade to a deeper Prince George squad. Popugaev is a mammoth power forward with the kind of overall package designed to score goals in the modern-day NHL. His strengths are obvious the second he hits the ice, as he possesses a massive wingspan and a long stride that allows him to keep the puck away from chasing opponents. And while his shot-release combo is absolutely deadly, he can also make plays and find the open man with accuracy. Nevertheless, the effort isn’t aways there, and far too often does he come across as disengaged. He’ll never be the guy to use in a late-game faceoff or change the momentum of the game with physicality. Still, he is a dual shoot-pass threat who can be next to unstoppable when he feels like putting in the effort.
As much as I don’t like the enigmatic label, the questions about his effort and the drop off in production when going to Prince George are very valid. That’s always a red flag of sorts for any prospect.
David Singh’s short profile on Popugaev at Sportsnet includes this short quote from Jeff Marek. This doubles down on the effort question.
Jeff Marek’s Take: “There’s no denying the talent, but is the will there every night? A big, strong winger who can dominate games physically.”
Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports also profiled Popugaev. He noted that at one point, there was a real buzz for him being a potential first round pick. But issues have arisen that caused him to drop him in his own rankings. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this part about his stuck out:
Popugaev has many of the skills needed to be a top prospect, and to get a first round rating. However, the skating is holding him back as he needs work on being quicker in his first step and his acceleration. In short races for loose pucks, he seems to find himself a step behind. The overall top end speed isn’t bad, but it takes some time to build up to it. His agility is good for a big man, but could use some more work. The skating may come around with time as he grows into his body and becomes better co-ordinated. It will also take some work on technique though, as Popugaev’s first few steps are a bit awkward.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the combination of skating issues and questions about effort was the main driver why he fell all the way to the fourth round. I also don’t think that isn’t unreasonable.
Lastly, here’s an article by Ted Clarke of the Prince George Citizen. It’s focused on “Big Poppy” and other Cougars potentially being drafted at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. While it’s mostly complementary - it’s not intended to be critical - it included this section:
"We're looking forward to it, and hopefully Nikita is picked Friday night," said Cougars general manager Todd Harkins. "I've had quite a few NHL teams ask about his character and his play and we've talked about everything he does very well for us.
"He's just a young kid learning the game in North America and he'll continue to learn and I think his upside is huge. The people that pick him in the draft Friday or Saturday are going to get one heckuva hockey player in the future."
Popugaev has all the ingredients the pros desire - above-average skating skills, a blistering shot, smart hockey sense, superior playmaking abilities, hard to knock off the puck and a big body that can create time and space for his teammates. He also has a reputation as a gentle giant, on and off the ice. Given another season to work with him next season in the WHL, the Cougars hope to bring out more of the ferocity in Popugaev's game.
Even in an article meant to promote local players, there’s an admission that Popugaev could stand to be more aggressive. I have to think that’s part of the effort question. Some may mistake passiveness for laziness. It’s been something that teams have asked his GM about. That said, should that be improved, Clarke summarizes why he would be a tantalizing prospect if he makes those gains. Although I question the “above-average skating skills,” based on what Kerr wrote.
A Little Video
Kournianos actually put a highlight video together about Popugaev. Given that it was posted in Decmeber 2016, most of the clips are with his time with Moose Jaw. That was the team where he performed the best, so it’s worth watching if only to get some hype about the player:
My Initial Reaction to the Pick
On it’s own, I wouldn’t like such a prospect being drafted. The Devils have made an effort in the last two drafts to obtain more prospects who are good skaters where it isn’t a question whether they’ll bring it every night. That said, I like this selection in context of where it is in the draft. This is the fourth round. This is where the more questionable prospects who have significant upsides or one significant skill should be considered. There really aren’t many (any?) safe picks at this point in the draft. What’ more is that I think the issues surrounding him are fixable. Effort can always be improved. Skating technique can always be improved. Defense can be improved. Should Popugaev sort this out, then the Devils could have a really good prospect on their hands: a massive winger with a strong shot who can contribute on offense. The player who sparkled for Moose Jaw is still there in Popugaev. I’m hopeful he comes back and gets better for the future - which would be ideal for the Devils.
What do you think about the pick? Do you like Nikita Popugaev? What do you hope for him? Please leave your answers in the comments and please vote in our poll. Thank you for reading.
The New Jersey Devils drafted Nikita Popugaev at 98th overall (4th Rd.). What do you think about the pick?
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