By JOHN WAWROW
AP Hockey Writer
Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek provided a simple answer regarding his decision to select defenseman Pavel Mintyukov 10th in the NHL draft amid increasing concerns over Russian-born prospects’ availability to play in North America because of issues stemming from the war in Ukraine.
“The talent is undeniable,” Verbeek said shortly after making the selection on Thursday night. “We’re looking to get our franchise going in the right direction, towards winning the Stanley Cup, and we think this player is really going to help us get there.”
Verbeek wasn’t alone in his thinking on a night three Russians were selected among the 32 picks, with the final six rounds of the draft in Montreal being held on Friday.
Following Mintyukov’s selection, the Washington Capitals choose forward Ivan Miroshnichenko 20th, followed by the Minnesota Wild taking right wing Danila Yurov four picks later.
All three attended the draft and were projected to go in the first round, though questions were raised as to whether their draft stock might fall because of travel restrictions in and out of Russia and Belarus and the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr went so far as to say a mock draft conducted by his staff finished with Russians being shut out of the first round for the first time since 2005.
Fears were heightened further last week, when Philadelphia Flyers goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov was suddenly assigned to a remote military base in northern Russia, according to the player’s agent, J.P. Barry. Selected in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, Fedotov signed with the Flyers in May after completing his contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
Miroshnichenko’s situation is more complicated because his junior season in Russia was cut short after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March. He has since been cleared to resume playing.
“Just a tremendous feeling. Such a great organization,” he said through an interpreter.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he and his staff were “somewhat comfortable” in selecting Miroshnichenko based on having team doctors review the player’s medical report.
“Our guys thought the upside was worth taking the risk involved. He’s a really good player,” MacLellan said. “Hopefully, it works out and we’ve got a really good player on our hands.”
While there has always been a risk of Russian players electing to stay home, Mintyukov’s desire to play North America was more clear after he spent last season with Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League.
Though Miroshnichenko and Yurov have only played in Russia, they were selected by teams with a history of drafting and developing Russians.
The war in Ukraine and status of Russian players in North America have become sensitive subjects around the league. Several agents who represent Russian players have declined comment, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman chose his words carefully when addressing the matter on Thursday.
He reiterated the NHL has issued no directives to teams over whether or not they can draft Russian players. He then sidestepped a question regarding the league having concerns of players being barred to leave upon traveling to Russia.
“I think it’s probably not a good idea for us or clubs to get involved in the politics of what’s going on in Russia,” Bettman said.
“I don’t want to say anything that could be misconstrued or cause an inflammation of a sensitive situation,” he added. “The Russian players who still reside in Russia need to make sure that they’re making the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story.
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