Prospect Spotlight: Bardakov Rising
Ever since former-Devil Brandon Baddock aged out a few seasons ago, others have had to take on the dubious mantle of finishing last amongst the Outsiders on AATJ’s Top 25 Under 25 list of the youngest New Jersey Devils players and prospects. This year, that “honor” fell to Zakhar Bardakov, who dropped from 44th to 49th on our list, taking the bottom spot from Nikita Popugaev. Devils fans may recall that Popugaev famously quit hockey by burning his equipment and becoming a social media influencer after finishing last amongst the Outsiders in 2021.
An update on @NJDevils prospect-turned-Instagram influencer Nikita Popugaev:— Mike Gould (@miketgould) October 8, 2021
He recently posted a minute-long video of him parking a BMW in a field before pulling a bag of hockey equipment out of the trunk and lighting it on fire, reading a fashion magazine as the bag burns. pic.twitter.com/IkzHiy8k3e
Although Popugaev is back to playing hockey this season for HC Sochi (more on him below), the hope is that Bardakov’s career will be a bit better than a literal bag fire. As a 7th round double-overager pick in 2021, the Russian winger has a lot to prove before he can be considered a potential NHLer. Last year, Bardakov was given little opportunity to do that playing only 19 games and averaging 11:46 ATOI for the Western-Conference leading SKA-St. Petersburg team that lost in the Conference finals to CSKA Moscow. So, at a glance, AATJ’s ranking seems understandable.
So, should Devils fans write Bardakov off? Well, no. Conway’s Russian Hockey Blog gives some insight in how much ice time junior-aged prospects are typically given. I highly recommend following the link and pouring through the data. The chart considers junior-aged players as 20 and under, which Bardakov was for most of last season. Note that while these statistics are from two seasons ago, they still demonstrate how sparse ice time is for players 20-years and younger in the KHL. A few points jump out. First, a whopping 22% of junior-aged players that laced up in the KHL during this time period weren’t even given one solitary shift. Second, Bardakov’s 11:46 ATOI would put him towards the upper echelon of minutes for players his age or younger in the KHL.
Last season, Bardakov had 1 goal and 2 assists in 19 games for SKA in the regular season and no goals, two assists in 16 playoff games. No longer junior-aged, the Russian menace has already eclipsed last year’s production with three goals and six assists in eighteen games with an increased ATOI of 14:22 and is even outpacing Arseni Gritsyuk in NHLe, who finished 11th this year in our final rankings.
The season is still young, but thus far Bardakov is showing that he can be more than a one-dimensional physical presence. Other prospect watchers seem to see something in Bardakov. Corey Pronman of the Athletic went so far as to rank Bardakov 13th in his Devil’s pipeline rankings this summer even before this recent uptick in production. [The Athletic $]
While Pronman’s ranking seems overly generous, AATJ’s ranking of 49th was more than a bit harsh. So, where should Bardakov be ranked? As in most things, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. In this writer’s humble opinion, a fairer ranking right now would probably fall somewhere in the mid thirties with the potential to rise into the top 25 should Bardakov build on his early season successes throughout the year.
For those who want a better insight into Bardakov’s game, I highly suggest reading this scouting report by Steve Kournianos of the Draft Analyst and this writeup by our very own John Fischer on AATJ from when Bardakov was drafted. Both articles are a few years old, but they highlight Bardakov’s hard-nosed defensive play style. For those who prefer visuals, I recommend this video by Wolf Hockey from around the same time.
At 6’2’’ and approximately 200 pounds, Bardakov’s path to the NHL, should he make it that far, would be in a similar role to Nate Bastian. Though Bardakov has a reputation of playing with a bit more “snarl” and high energy than Bastian (the word “menace” seems to follow Bardakov around) the general play style of both players consists of winning puck battles, killing penalties, playing a strong defensive game and chipping in a few goals around the netmouth on the power play or at even strength. While far from a top player, Bastian has proven to be a very useful NHLer and teams need players like him in the system to fill depth roles in the bottom six. Already a skilled defensive forward, with this year’s increase in offensive production, Bardakov has a chance to become one of those players.
Is Bardakov a lock to make the NHL or even come to North America? Absolutely not. He is signed with SKA through the 2023-2024 season and may never make the transition. That said, I like his overall skill set more than I like the aforementioned one-dimensional play of Brandon Baddock (who, congratulations to him, actually played in his first NHL game for Montreal this past year) and I like his chances more than I like some of the Devils other longer-shot prospects, such as Jaromir Pytlik, who has struggled to find consistency since his draft year.
Overall, I think the Devils could have done a lot worse than Bardakov as a 7th round pick and if his recent scoring trend continues now that he’s returned from injury, he should rise up in the rankings next year. He is a unique player in the Devil’s system, which gives him a bit of an edge should he ever be brought over. Given that Bardakov’s game relies on winning puck battles and playing around the netmouth, his transition to North American ice should be a lot easier than other player prototypes, such as pure snipers, who need time and space to release their shot or smaller danglers lacking elite speed, who often struggle to elude players on the smaller ice.
What are your thoughts on Bardakov? Do you think he should have been ranked higher this past summer? Should the Devils try to bring him over after his contract expires? Please let us know in your comments below.
Prospect Updates Across Europe
The spotlight of this week’s update, Zakhar Bardakov injured his knee on October 13, 2022 in an open gate mishap during an entanglement with Lokomotiv forward Artur Kayumov. [Gaming Deputy] After missing nine games, Bardakov returned to SKA St. Petersburg’s lineup Saturday recording an assist in a 4-3 win over Magnitogorsk. [FlashScore.Com] Bardakov has now more than tripled his NHLe from last season to a very respectable 33 points given the defensive pest role that he plays. Though Bardakov’s penalty minutes have been drastically reduced in recent years, the Russian menace was in a particular surly mood in his return this weekend.
Last year’s KHL Rookie of the Year Arseni Gritsyuk is off to a slow start this season for Avangard (Omsk) with only 10 points in his first 25 games despite a slight increase in ATOI up from 14:35 last year. Per Mason Gallina, part of the reason for Gritsyuk’s diminished production is likely due to a temporary demotion to the fourth line after struggling in Avangard’s first thirteen games. [The Hockey Writers]
Avangard is also struggling as a team hovering near the bottom in the Chemyshev Division making Gritsyuk’s situation less than ideal, to put it mildly.
It is unknown whether Gritsyuk recently shared a taxi with fellow-Russian Nikita Popugaev, but the Russian winger has been absolutely snakebitten to start the season shooting a career low 3.6% down from 15.8% last year. As Gritsyuk has never finished a full season shooting less than 10%, the law of averages suggests that the goals should start coming soon. The good news is that Gritsyuk seems to already be pulling out of his slump with four of his ten points coming in the last couple weeks after a recent promotion back to the top half of the lineup, including this power play goal for his second of the season.
The aforementioned Nikita Popugaev has put aside his social media influencing career to return to hockey. The Russian prankster has had a respectable reemergence thus far with 5 goals and 3 assists in 22 games for HC Sochi. For those interested in learning more about Popugaev’s odd hockey career, I recommend watching this video by Odd Man Rush highlighting Big Poppa’s transformation from potential first round hockey prospect to social media influencer. Welcome back to hockey, Mr. Popugaev.
Shakir Mukhamadullin has been terrific so far this year after a slight dip in his sophmore campaign following a record-setting rookie season in the KHL for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. The lanky Russian defenseman is still very much a work in progress, but his development is encouraging. Mukhamadullin is trending up, having recorded 8 points in a 10 game span, including this rocket on the PP against AK Bars.
Daniil Misyul is enjoying an uptick in minutes in his fifth season with Lokomotiv in the KHL up from 13:32 last season, while playing an average of 23 shifts per game. Misyul’s offensive numbers are what they are for the steady left-handed defender, which is not much, even though he has nearly tripled his production rate so far this season. With the Devils stacked on the back end in the prospect pool, Misyul appears to be a long shot to come over to North America after his KHL contract expires at the end of this season, but the Devils do own his rights should they decide to add some more defensive depth.
Some might not consider Yegor Zaitsev a prospect now that he’s turned 24. Known for his steady defense, Zaitsev has been scratched for Dynamo Moscow more often than not this season. Live sport lists Yegor Zaitsev’s only injury as occurring in 2017 and Zaitsev seems to be coming in and out of Dynamo’s lineup, so either Zaitsev has been a healthy scratch or there’s a nagging undisclosed injury keeping him in the press box. At 24-years-old, Zaitsev is as developed as he’s likely to get and seems to be sliding out of the Devils prospect pool.
Daniil Orlov has bounced around early this season between the MHL, VHL and KHL, where he was playing a very respectable 13:16 TOI for Spartak Moskva. Making the jump from Russian juniors to the KHL as an 18-year-old defenseman is an encouraging leap in the 2022 4th rounder’s development. Unfortunately, Orlov is currently injured. Details of the nature of Orlov’s injury have been extremely scarce as is the timetable for his return. If I learn anything, I will provide an update next week.
Not much seems to have changed for Artyom Barabosha thus far this season. On the positive side, the bruising backend’s trend of taking considerably less penalties has continued so far this year. (Barabosha had 16 PIMs in 45 games last year and 37 PIMs in 17 games in his first season in the MHL). However, the Russian blueliner’s already meager production has dropped even lower to start the season. Barabosha will never be a high producer, but he needs to do more in the offensive end at the lower levels if he wants to rise up any depth chart.
Another Devils prospect who has ping-ponged around in the early stages of this season is 2022 5th Round Pick, Petr Hauser. After dominating the Czech U20 league for three games and some time on loan to HC Banik Sokolov of the Czechia2 league, Hauser has made the jump to 12th place (out of 14 teams) HC Sparta. In HC Sparta’s latest loss on November 4th, Hauser only saw 4:13 minutes of ice time. If his minutes do not improve, Hauser may soon find himself back on loan to HC Banik. At 19-years-old, the most important thing is for Hauser to play and he’s not getting much opportunity right now for HC Sparta, so such a move may benefit him in the long run.
Jaromir Pytlik has been injured to start the season, though he has suited up for one game, while on loan to LHK Jestrabi Prostejov in the Czechia2 league. According to Scott Wheeler of the Athletic, it is believed that Pytlik will rejoin Rytiri Kladno once he recovers. [The Athletic $] Hopefully, Pylik heals up soon and gets his season started. A once promising prospect, the 6’2’’ center has struggled to find consistency since his draft year, when he put up 50 points in 56 games for the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL.
After being loaned back to the second-place Pelicans following an encouraging rookie camp in New Jersey, Topias Vilen has continued where he left off playing steady defense in the Finnish Elite League. That’s not new. What is new is Vilen’s eye-popping offensive increase in NHLe from 4 to 24.
Before this past weekend, Vilen recorded 5 goals and 2 assists in 11 games compared to 0 goals and 6 helpers in 50 games last season. Vilen is shooting at an unsustainable 17.9% rate, so one should expect his goals per game to fall back down quite a bit, but any production is increased production over last year. It is a short sample size, but should Vilen prove to be a late bloomer offensively, given his highly-developed defensive ability, he may be another blueline gem in an already-crowded system on the back end. The Devils appear wise to have signed Vilen to his ELC this past summer.
This incredible game-winning goal by Vilen in the final nine seconds against HC TPS on October 29th indicates that something is popping for the 19-year-old. Check out how quickly Vilen cuts to the middle and beats the goalie clean to seal the win. It is a thing of beauty.
One of the biggest question marks in the prospect pool going into this season was how Jakub Malek would adjust to stiffer competition in the Finnish Elite League after dominating the lower Czech leagues the past few years. It’s early yet, but so far Malek has struggled to find a groove behind 28-year-old starter Marek Langhamer, who has been dominant for Ilves with a 1.74 GAA and .934 SV% to go along with a 7-4-2 record. To start the season, Malek is 2-1-2 with a 3.33 GAA and a Andrew Hammond-esq .869 SV% in a small sample size of 7 appearances. It’s far too early to make much of these numbers, but Malek is going to have to earn his playing time in the SM-Liiga and thus far he has not.
The good news is that after a disappointing season last year Nikola Pasic is now dominating the Allsvenskan. The bad news for the 22-year-old diminutive scoring winger is that the Allsvenskan is Sweden’s second league and Pasic has yet to stick in the SHL. Pasic scored 0 points in 13 games for Linkoping HC last season and has not played a game in the SHL since.
While the early numbers in the Allsvenskan are encouraging, they may also be a bit misleading given that Pasic is scoring at a whopping 23.5% rate and his shooting percentage for Sodertalje SK last year was only 9.4%. The season is still young, but Pasic’s window to earn an ELC is growing shorter by the day. Hopefully, Pasic will gain some confidence from this puck luck and earn another opportunity in the SHL soon.
Around the Pool
- After some eligibility issues, Victor Hurtig (Michigan State) and Samu Salminen (U-Conn) have both started their collegiate seasons. Salminen did suit up for one game with U20 SM-Sarja while he was waiting for his visa issues to resolve, with nothing to show for it.
- Artem Schlaine has transitioned well so far with his new team playing an increased role for the Wildcats and putting up nine points in his first ten games.
- Luke Hughes (9 points) and Seamus Casey (10 points) are both off to hot starts for the University of Michigan. [Elite Prospects]
- Chase Stillman will wear an “A” for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL this season. [TheOntarioHockeyLeague.Com]
- Peter Robinson took a closer look at 2022 6th round pick Josh Filmon, who put on 20 pounds and added a few inches to his already large frame. [NHL.COM] Filmon is also off to a hot start this season for Swift Current in the WHL with 10 goals and 15 points in his first 12 games. Here’s his 9th of the season.
- Mason Gallina of the Hockey Writers recently posted an informative update on various Devils prospects including Luke Hughes, Nemec’s first AHL goal and the aforementioned Josh Filmon. Mason’s updates are a good read and well worth your time. [The Hockey Writers]
- Speaking of Nemec’s first AHL goal, watch it in all of its beautiful glory here courtesy of topslovakprospects:
- The general play of the Utica Comets has not been as beautiful. The Devils AHL affiliate has a middling 3-4-0-1 record to start the season. The Comets latest game last Saturday featured a 22 save performance by Nico Daws and a timely second period goal by Nolan Foote to seal the 2-1 win versus Rochester, so hopefully better times are ahead. [The Ahl.com] More on them next week.
- To pour salt on Utica’s wounds, Ben Birnell reports that Nikita Okhotiuk suffered an upper body injury in Utica’s opener against Hershey. [Daily Sentinel] He has not played since.
- A day after Mackenzie Blackwood went down with an Injury against Edmonton, Utica has signed goaltender Brandon Kasel to a PTO. [Utica Comets]
EUROPEAN PROSPECT OF THE MONTH
Stick taps for Shakir Mukhamadullin, who has been tearing it up lately for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL. The Devils pool of defensive prospects seems to get stronger by the day. Let’s hope Big Shak continues this upward trend.
First, I would like to thank Brian Franken for his tremendous work covering Devils prospects over the years. I always enjoyed reading his updates and I wish Brian well in all his future endeavors. I also want to thank John for this opportunity. To show my appreciation, I promise to aggressively extol the virtues of gritensity, size and crease-clearing at the expense of those fancy stat analytics. Just kidding about that last part, John, but sincerely, thank you. I appreciate this.
Second, I’d like to dedicate this first article to my mom, who passed away in 2016. We went to many Devil’s games together, including Game 4 against Detroit when the Devils hoisted their first Stanley Cup in 1995. My mother got her start covering sports in college in the 1970s. After graduation, she wrote for a local paper for a number of years until her arthritis became too much for her to handle the rigors of the work. I miss you, mom.
Third, I have been on this site for a long time under the name Jtclockwork. Some of you may recognize that username, hopefully from my more well-reasoned comments and not from my occasional head-scratching misses (Vladimir Zharkov is going to break out and go on a tear one of these days, right?). For those wondering why I am using my middle initial without spaces, it’s because apparently I have a doppelganger who already registered on this site with my name and this is the only variation of my name that I could use.
Lastly, this is the format I plan on taking going forward: a spotlight on a single prospect, followed by a rotating summary of the progress of all the other prospects in the same league(s) or region: (European, Utica, Collegiate, Canadian Juniors), a player of the month for that update and then any other important prospect news in the leagues not covered that week. I may add some sort of for fun section later after I get settled in. We shall see how it goes.
I feel this format will help me keep the updates focused. Many times there are only few games in some of these leagues each week and oftentimes updates would be little more than “Player took one shot and was a -2.” Focusing on one group of prospects each week should prevent this and allow for a more in depth analysis of spotlighted players as well as an update that feels more impactful each week without sacrificing content. This format also allows me to put a stronger focus on prospect development and looking at whether players seem to be improving, stagnating or degrading compared to past seasons or even between updates. At least that’s the hope. We’ll see how it works out.
I’m happy to take suggestions for any prospect spotlights or anything else you, the readers, want to see. What do you think of Topias Vilen’s offensive outburst? Is he another late round steal? Are you disappointed with Jakub Malek’s struggles in the SM-Liiga? What do you think of Nikita Popugaev’s return to hockey? Will Big Shak keep his strong play going? Please post your comments below.
Next Week: An update on the Utica Comets with a spotlight on Simon Nemec’s adjustment to the AHL. Until then, Let’s Go Devils!