Rangers on KHL young gun Pashnin's mind
Russian defenseman, a seventh-round draft coup, wants an NHL career
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Each year Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, challenges his scouting staff to identify a player worthy of being selected as one of the draft’s top picks who will be available at whatever point the Blueshirts might draft in the first round.
This commitment to finding such players has led to the recent selections of current Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto 2009-10 college freshman sensation Chris Kreider, and the late Alexei Cherepanov, a budding superstar in the KHL at the time of his tragic death.
In 2009, Rangers scouts took their drafting philosophy one step further. What if it was possible to get a player deserving of selection in the first three rounds as late as the draft's seventh and final round? As it turned out, it was entirely possible -- at the 200th overall selection in the 2009 draft. That’s where the Rangers selected Russian junior star Mikhail Pashnin, who had also been drafted No. 1 overall by the KHL's Moscow CSKA (Red Army) team just days earlier.
To fully recognize the potential seventh-round "steal" that the now 21-year-old Pashnin represents, one has to understand and appreciate the reasons other teams weren't willing to draft him any higher.
For starters, the 5-foot-11, 187-pound Pashnin was already 20 when the Rangers drafted him. A late bloomer in his hometown of Chelaybinsk, Russia, Pashnin wasn’t even known to many North American-based scouts until the 2008-09 season, when he was already beyond his initial draft year.
|Gordie Clark, Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, worked closely with Russian amateur scout Vladimir Lutchenko, right, to determine that Mikhail Pashnin was a player who wanted to be a Ranger one day.|
The bigger reason teams were unwilling to draft Pashnin had to do with his status as the KHL's No. 1 pick. Pashnin was expected to sign with CSKA, which he did, and the thinking was that such a high-profile KHL player might never feel a need to come over to the NHL, just as NHL No. 1 pick John Tavares wasn't expected to be leaving North America for the KHL any time soon.
These factors that scared off other teams were not an issue for the Rangers, who had truly done their homework when it came to Pashnin. Much of the credit goes to amateur scout Vladimir Lutchenko, who has worked for the Rangers organization in scouting Russian hockey for the past six seasons.
During the decades of Soviet hockey domination, Lutchenko was one of the very best Russian defensemen, and he is truly the equivalent of a Hall of Famer in that country. Lutchenko won two Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship golds during his playing days from 1966 to 1980. He also competed in the famous 1972 NHL-USSR Summit Series and the inaugural Canada Cup tournament of 1976.
Impressed by Pashnin's great skill after seeing him in North America, Clark asked Lutchenko to determine if Pashnin had any interest in being a Ranger, let alone playing in the NHL. And when you’re a young Russian defenseman like Pashnin, and a blue-line legend like Lutchenko comes calling, you obviously take notice, particularly when he tells you how much he appreciates your game.
"Pashnin is a warrior, who goes all out in games and does everything it takes to win," said Lutchenko, who said Pashnin's style of play reminds him of Hall of Famer Scott Stevens. "He is a good influence on his teammates, because he has great character and is a solid, hard-working player."
After interviewing Pashnin, Lutchenko told Clark that the young man really wanted to play in the NHL and would likely only commit to two years in the KHL if he felt that a team like the Rangers was interested.
Lutchenko's information was particularly valuable, but another piece of the puzzle was just as important. In addition to Lutchenko, the Rangers had a second X-factor in former Blueshirt Sergei Nemchinov, a member of the 1994 Stanley Cup champions. Known as "Sarge" to many Rangers fans, Nemchinov just happened to be Pashnin's coach at both the Canada-Russia Challenge and the World Junior Championships, and he just happened to be the incoming head coach and general manager at Moscow CSKA.
|Defenseman Mikhail Pashnin is one of the top young defenseman in the Russian-based KHL and saw considerable ice time with Moscow CSKA.|
"I met with Sergei Nemchinov at the World Championships in Germany last month," said Clark. "Nemchinov is very, very happy having him on his team, but Sergei also knows he had his own shot at the NHL, and he believes that if a kid wants to play here and that's his passion then he wants that for the kid, too. ... If he (Pashnin) wants to be an NHL player, then I think Sergei will respect that."
With a year of pro hockey in Moscow already under his belt, Pashnin will be among the more experienced players at the Development Camp. There is no question his experience is of a unique variety, since he is coming off a season where he routinely went up against former NHL stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov and Alexei Yashin.
"Moving up to the KHL was a very good step for Mikhail as well as his own move from Chelyabinsk to Moscow," said Lutchenko. "He acclimated very well on the Red Army team and to the big city. Since playing at the KHL level, he has really improved his intensity and quickness. His body-checking has become harder and he plays a stronger physical game. He is a very hard player to play against and he plays with a lot of confidence."
Pashnin's first KHL season was an eventful one, as he stepped into a primary role, playing roughly 17 minutes per game through the first three weeks of the season before going through an adjustment period where his ice time was cut back even though he managed to score his first KHL goal during this time frame.
Once he became more accustomed to the pro game, Pashnin erupted for a remarkable month of December, averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time and picking up back-to-back assists early in the month during a win at Chekhov and a shootout loss at Mytischi. He also saw a season-high 21:43 of ice time and was plus-1 in a 2-1 overtime win vs. Ekaterinburg on Dec. 3.
"He had a great start to the season, but because of his age he fell off a little bit in the middle of the season," said Clark. "That's what often can happen with young rookies in the NHL, too. But then he regrouped and played really well for them over the last 15 or 20 games."
Pashnin also played four regular-season and four postseason games for the Red Army's farm team, picking up three assists in the regular season and a goal and assist in the playoffs. Clark said Nemchinov told him that Pashnin's development was impressive, and he will see a lot more KHL ice time in 2010-11, which will make him an even better candidate for the NHL.
In a similar vein, Pashnin led all players at the 2008 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge with 22 penalty minutes in six games. He racked up 18 in addition to the goal he scored in the two games against the QMJHL All-Stars, another two vs. the OHL All-Stars and a final two vs. the WHL All-Stars.
At the 2009 World Junior tournament, where Pashnin really emerged as an NHL prospect in Clark's eyes, he played on Russia's top defense pair in all seven games en route to a bronze medal. During a 6-5 overtime shootout loss to eventual champion Canada on Jan. 3, Pashnin had assist on his team's first goal at 5:18 of the first period and finished the game plus-2.
Committed to only one more year in the KHL, Pashnin could be available to sign with the Rangers organization as early as next summer, when he will be just 22. His upcoming stay at the Prospect Development Camp will give him a sense of the Rangers' and North American pro hockey lifestyle and should only increase the NHL appetite he communicated to Lutchenko more than a year ago.
"We would never have drafted him if we weren't sure about the passion he has for playing in the NHL," said Clark. "Now that we've communicated more with him, we know that he clearly wants to come over."