He may have been a pleasant surprise at the World Junior Championship (Under-20) last month, but the cat is officially out of the bag on Russian winger Evgeni Kuznetsov, who just tore it up at the 6 Nations (Under-18) Tournament in Belarus.
The last major international competition before April's Under-18 Championship, the 6 Nations (Belarus, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and USA) had a lot of 2010 draft eligibles, and Kuznetsov was named the top forward after scoring six goals and nine points in five games in taking the 6 Nations Cup with a 5-0 record. The Russians beat USA in a 2-1 nailbiter, leaving the Americans to finish the tourney with a 4-1 record.
Kuznetsov has average size (5-11, 170 pounds) but is an explosive skater with very soft hands who is able to score highlight reel goals at will. He's not the most intense of players, but there is no arguing with his skill set. I was impressed with him at the WJC, and wrote up a scouting report on him that you can read here.
The rumor I've heard about Kuznetsov this season is that he wants very badly to come over to North America next season and play major junior hockey, so if that's the case, expect him to be one of the top picks in the June CHL Import Draft.
Other players in the 6 Nations who made name for themselves were Finnish forward Teemu Pulkkinen, who started the season as one of the favorites to crack the top-10, but dropped far when he suffered a significant wrist injury that shelved him for more than three months. He's back now and scoring goals in the Finnish Jr. league, and he tallied five goals in as many games for Team Finland in this tourney, so this will help his draft status. An undersized player who is not a great skater, Pulkkinen is nonetheless one of those natural goal scorers who has a lethal release, uncanny accuracy and simply finds a way to get himself into position to generate quality scoring chances in every game.
Jason Zucker finished second to Matt Nieto (2011 eligible) in scoring on Team USA, and has continued his strong international play after a gold medal at the WJC in Saskatoon. Not to be outdone was goalie Jack Campbell, who continued his winning ways by posting a 3-0 record with a 1.67 GAA and .919 save percentage. More on Zucker and Campbell here. Another potential high pick in 2011 for Team USA, Brandon Saad, had a decent tournament based on reports. He's huge and very skilled, but pretty one-dimensional at this point.
Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.), who left Nobles and prep hockey for the U.S. NTDP this year and is headed to Boston College next fall, finished with a solid 2 goals, 5 points in as many games. I'll be talking to him this week when he returns to Ann Arbor from Minsk, as he will be the featured player in the March issue of New England Hockey Journal's monthly Prospects Pulse column. After a slow start with the U.S. Under-18 Team, Arnold has improved significantly and is gaining confidence in the USHL and international play. He's a solid skater with good offensive skills and has some upside.
Swedish goalie Johan Gustafsson, one of the top European goalies in this draft class, had a disappointing tournament, posting a 1-2 record and .881 save percentage.
Another player to keep an eye on for the 2012 draft is 16-year-old forward Martin Frk, who led the Czech Republic in scoring with three goals and five points. He's garnering some attention in his native country, and if he continues to develop, he could be a household name by this time next year, even though he'll still be another year away from being drafted.
But it was Kuznetsov grabbed the spotlight, even getting into several fights in leading his team to the best record of the tourney. He impressed a lot of folks at the WJC, so this is one more feather in his cap. If not for the fact that there is a lot of risk with drafting Russian players given the lack of transfer agreement and other issues, I'd say Kuznetsov would be a slam-dunk for being picked in the top-30, but at the rate he's going, he may yet sneak into the first round. If not, some team would probably do well to invest a second-round selection on him, even with the questions.