While we wait for the regular season to start in various leagues across North America, several European leagues are underway. The New Jersey Devils have six prospects playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) as well two prospects playing in the top junior league, the MHL. In today’s post, I will be checking in on how these prospects have started their seasons.
Nikita Popugayev is back! The 23-year-old, right-handed shooting wing has resumed his hockey career with HC Sochi after retiring from hockey before the 2021-22 season. I’ll get into what he’s doing this season but first a refresher on Popugayev as a prospect. The 4th round pick from the 2017 Draft has always been an enigmatic figure due to his size (6’6”, 201 lbs. frame) and skill but could not consistently produce and impact games. His hockey career has been a rollercoaster since his draft season of 2016-17. He started that season with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and played well with 22 goals and 29 assists in 40 games. However, he was traded to the Prince George Cougars during the season and ended up struggling there, with just 7 goals and 11 assists in 31 games. He would start the 2017-18 season with Prince George but would only have 2 goals and 5 assists in 13 games before moving back to Russia. He joined CSKA Moscow and would split his time between the top-flight KHL (12 games, 0 points), second-tier VHL (14 games, 5 points), and top-tier junior league, the MHL (3 games, 2 points). In 2018-19, he joined Amur Khabarovsk and had a goal in 36 games as he averaged 7:43 per game. He did produce in the MHL with 11 points in 12 games. He eventually ended up back in North America to finish the season with the Binghamton Devils in the American Hockey League (AHL) with 5 points in 17 games. The 2019-20 season would see him under contract with Binghamton but unable to crack the roster. He ended up spending the season with the Adirondack Thunder in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) where he had 9 goals and 16 assists in 47 games. In 2020-21 he split his KHL season between Dynamo Moscow (13 games, 3 points) and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (12 games, 3 points). He ended up retiring from hockey before the 2021-22 season.
So far this season, Popugayev has played in 10 games with 2 goals, 14.29 SH%, 1.40 SH/GP, and 9:10 ATOI. He has both of those goals (1 EV, 1 PP) over his last 3 games where he’s averaged 15:20 per game playing up on the 2nd line. He had spent most of the beginning of the season on the 4th line so this is a nice promotion for him. Hopefully, he can get his hockey career back on track and become a legitimate prospect again. He’s set to be a free agent after this season. Check out the nice move he made for his first goal of the season:
The 2022-23 season is Yegor Zaitsev’s age 24 season and 5th full KHL season. It is also his final season under contract with Dynamo Moscow. The defenseman is a former 7th-round pick of the Devils from the 2017 Draft where he was an overage prospect. Every year since his first full-time KHL season in 2018-19 has seen Zaitsev’s average ice time and role increase. Last season he played in 45 games with 9 points, +13, 36 PIM, and 16:36 ATOI. Zaitsev seemed primed for a big role this season but thus far has only appeared 4 games with no points, -2, 2 PIM, and 14:52 ATOI. There are already reports that he could be traded to another team so this will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Up next is another defenseman, Daniil Misyul. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl defender will turn 22 years old next month and has a contract with the team through this season. The former 3rd round pick from the 2019 Draft is entering his 4th full-time KHL season. He has seen his ice time and role increase every season and that has continued so far this year. Through 11 games he has an assist, even rating, 4 PIM, and 15:39 ATOI. He’s spent most of the season so far on the 2nd pairing with Alexander Yelesin, a veteran defenseman who played in 4 games with the Calgary Flames in 2019-20 and 66 games for their AHL affiliate from 2019-21. Hopefully, Misyul can continue to develop and grow into a larger role throughout the season. Here’s his assist from earlier this season:
Now we are going to get into the most promising prospects out of this group. First, let’s start with the offensively gifted, left-handed shooting wing Arseni Gritsyuk. The 21-year-old was drafted by the Devils in the 5th round of the 2019 Draft. His stock has risen after a 2021-22 season that saw him win the Aleksei Cherepanov Award as the Best Rookie in the KHL and an Olympic Silver Medal. Last season with Avangard Omsk, he had 16 goals and 12 assists in 39 games. He shot at 15.8% and averaged 2.6 shots per game and 14:35 in ice time. He continued to play well in the playoffs with 6 goals and 4 assists in 13 games. Gritsyuk is off to a slow start this season with a goal and 3 assists through 11 games. He is shooting at a low 4.00% and is averaging 2.27 shots per game and 16:03 in ice time. He’s had numerous linemates so far as Avangard has scrambled their top 9 as they search for the right lines. Lately, he’s been playing with former Devil Vladimir Zharkov. Gritsyuk is a flashy winger that plays the game at a high pace and knows how to manipulate space to get scoring chances. I’m confident we’ll see him go on a scoring tear sooner than later. His contract with Avangard only goes through this season. Check out his goal and one of his more recent assists below:
Now on to the best defenseman in this group, Shakir Mukhamadullin. The 6’4”, 194 lbs. defenseman was drafted by the Devils in the 1st round of the 2020 Draft. He’s now entering his age 21 season, on loan to Salavat Yulaev Ufa, from the Devils who have already signed him to an entry-level contract. As expected, his role has increased every season after making the KHL in 2019-20. He’s been able to utilize his one-timer on the PP through his time in the KHL and used his mobility in the offensive zone at even strength to produce. In 2020-21 he posted 3 goals and 7 assists in 39 games and in 2021-22 he had 3 goals and 4 assists in 34 games. He made his debut for the Utica Comets (AHL) in the playoffs last season and had 2 assists in 3 games. This season he has played in 10 games with an assist, +2, 0 PIM, and an average ice time of 15:30. Like last season, he’s been partnered on the 2nd pairing for Ufa with team captain Grigory Panin. I’m sure the Devils are hoping they can bring him over to North America full-time in 2023-24 as he’ll already have plenty of experience in the KHL after this season. Here you can see his PP assist from earlier in the season:
The prospect off to the hottest start in this group is forward Zakhar Bardakov. Drafted as an overage prospect by the Devils in the 7th round of the 2021 Draft, Bardakov was known for his great work ethic and physical style of play. His rookie season in the KHL was strong with Vityaz where he played in 44 games with 8 goals, 3 assists, 32 PIM, 52.3 FO%, and 10:27 ATOI. That strong season would result in SKA trading for Bardakov before the 2021-22 season. Due to roster issues, he only appeared in 19 games last year with 3 points, 16 PIM, 42.9 FO%, and 11:46 ATOI. Through 10 games this season he is already up to 2 goals and 3 assists along with 14 PIM, a very high 22.2 SH%, 45.9 FO%, and 14:45 ATOI. He’s been consistently on the 3rd line with Valentin Zykov and Alexander Volkov this season. Both of those players have varying levels of NHL and AHL experience. According to Elite Prospects, he’s on pace for 13 goals and 20 assists in 67 games. He’ll surely see his shooting percentage regress to a more normal number but I’d like to see him hit 10+ goals and 10+ assists on the season. Those totals would be a career-high for Bardakov. Check out one of his goals and assists below:
Now let’s take a look at the two defensemen playing junior hockey. Daniil Orlov is a left-handed defenseman that was drafted by the Devils in the 4th round of the 2022 Draft. Scouting reports have described him as a defensive defenseman and that’s what he likely profiles at the higher levels, but he did produce in the MHL last season with Sakhalinskiye Akuly with 9 goals, 21 assists, +3, 45 PIM, and 22:22 ATOI. This season he’s played in just 2 games while averaging 16:59 per game for his new team, MHK Spartak Moskva, the affiliate of HC Spartak Moscow. He’ll turn 19 years old in December and perhaps we will see him make his professional debut at some point this season.
Artem Barabosha is a right-handed defenseman that was drafted by the Devils in the 7th round of the 2022 Draft. He’s known for his aggressive and physical style of play. Last season he played for Krasnaya Armiya Moskva, CSKA Moscow’s junior team, where he had 4 goals and 7 assists along with a +18 and 16 PIM in 45 regular season games. He averaged 15:20 in ice time per game. In 19 playoff games, he had 3 assists, -2, and 41 PIM. On the international stage, he also won a Gold Medal at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. So far this season, Barabosha has a goal, assist, even rating, 2 PIM, and an average ice time of 16:10. He doesn’t turn 19 years old until mid-March so this is his age 18 season. It will be interesting to see if he gets a call-up to the KHL or VHL this season.
Which of these prospects do you view as having a legitimate chance to make the NHL someday? What do you expect out of each of these prospects in 2022-23 and beyond? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!