The six best freshly signed European NHL prospects

A handful of talented prospects with new contracts are ready to shine.

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When the COVID-19 lockdown kicked off in March, the focus was on maintaining good health, flattening the curve and finding a path back to normalcy. 

Far down on the priority list was the contract status of European hockey prospects. But if you follow prospects enough, you know how important this year is for top talent. Three big prospects – Minnesota forward Kirill Kaprizov, Montreal defenseman Alexander Romanov, and NY Islanders’ goaltender Ilya Sorokin – have recently signed contracts and are expected to make an immediate impact with their respective teams. But that comes with a catch: there’s a bit of a waiting period.

All previously unsigned prospects who have inked deals since the NHL announced its Return To Play plan, can not play during the post-season, even if their deal is set to begin this season. For those three players, they’re allowed to join their clubs for training camp and can be part of the team’s playoff roster, but they’ll be unable to participate in any game action.

The situation is challenging for everyone involved. On the plus side for the players, the timing means they get to shave a year off of their entry-level contract and get closer to negotiating a more lucrative deal. But in Kaprizov’s case – a two-year ELC – the 2020-21 season isn’t a sure thing yet, at least in an 82-game season. What happens if it becomes a half-season or no season at all? Would it make sense for Kaprizov to go back home to the KHL to start playing in September, while the NHL playoffs are still active? How will that affect negotiations down the line?

Making the trek over to the NHL has never been harder thanks to the current global instability, and we can’t even be fully sure this season will be completed without any major hiccups. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a handful of talented prospects with new contracts ready to shine when the time allows for it. Here’s a breakdown of six recently signed European players you need to know about:

Kirill Kaprizov, LW/RW – Minnesota Wild

It felt like the time would never come that Kaprizov would join the Wild for NHL action, but that day is finally getting closer. Kaprizov – a fifth-round pick in 2015 – led the KHL in goals scored the past two years with 63. Only former NHLers Vadim Shipachyov (133) and Nigel Dawes (119) have more points than Kaprizov’s 113 in that span. As far as big-name European prospects go, nobody has been as highly valued this season as “Kirill the Thrill”

The timing couldn’t be much better for Minnesota. The Wild have struggled to generate offense over the past three seasons, and their prospect pool is one of the weakest in the league. Kaprizov brings goal-scoring to the table, but he can’t do it alone. If he winds up slotting into the team’s first-line in the future, the young Russian could get a nice boost playing alongside Kevin Fiala and Eric Staal, although the Wild will need to address long-term scoring solutions to surround Kaprizov with the best talent possible. If the club can succeed on that front, Kaprizov has the makings of a consistent 60-point scorer.

The big question, of course, surrounding any major Russian prospect: will he be the next Artemi Panarin or the next Vadim Shipachyov?

Alexander Romanov, D – Montreal Canadiens

Do the Canadiens have a star on their hands? Defense has been Montreal’s biggest weakness for a few years now, but Romanov has the potential to be an immediate top-four option for the Habs next season. Despite playing limited minutes in the KHL – and lacking in offensive output with just seven assists as a result – Romanov improved his defensive zone coverage and puck-moving prowess while using his exceptional skating and physical traits to his advantage.

A key in Romanov’s development will be for the young defender to play an important role right out of the gate in 2020-21. While he can’t play for the Canadiens during this post-season, he’ll get the opportunity to skate and practice with the club, gaining familiarity with the team’s systems. That alone is important for someone who didn’t get adequate opportunities back home. When he did see significant ice time – like at the 2020 World Junior Championship – he was one of the best defensive prospects in the world. Romanov might not be a big point producer but, at the very least, he’ll be a physical defenseman that can move the puck at a high speed – Drew Doughty vibes, anyone?

Ilya Sorokin, G – New York Islanders

Finally, the Islanders have their man. Much like Igor Shestyorkin on the New York Rangers, Sorokin made his mark as one of the KHL’s top goaltenders for the past half-decade since going No. 78 to the Islanders at the 2014 draft. Sorokin had just 10-plus losses once in a five-year career as CSKA Moskva’s starter and was a mainstay of the Russian national team in various tournaments over time.

Sorokin’s arrival will make the Islanders’ goaltending situation more interesting next year. It’s assumed the club will lose Thomas Greiss – one of the best backups in the NHL – to unrestricted free agency. This would allow Sorokin to share the crease with Semyon Varlamov. But if Sorokin can produce the results that Shestyorkin did in the Big Apple, could he earn the starting role early into 2020-21? Having Varlamov – a fellow Russian – as a goaltending partner should help ease the transition for Sorokin, on a team that’s capable of remaining in the playoff hunt for some time if their goaltending needs are met. The Islanders still have a wait ahead of them, before bearing the fruits of years of development, but Sorokin should be worth it. He even has the potential to be a top-five goaltender before you know it.

Grigori Denisenko, LW – Florida Panthers

The Panthers have been looking for someone to relieve the pressure set on Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and Denisenko might be that guy. A dynamic scoring winger out of Russia, Denisenko’s first full KHL season saw him record six goals and 12 points in 38 games. That’s nothing special on the surface, but only Kirill Marchenko had more as a U-20 player this season, and Denisenko’s was still one of the better statistical performances from that age group over the past five years (the KHL isn’t known for giving ice time to young players). Against his own age group, Denisenko was one of the best players internationally, recording 10 assists and 15 points in 15 games with Russia’s U-20 team. 

If Mike Hoffman or Evgeni Dadonov leave Florida via free agency, Denisenko will have a chance to immediately become a top-six forward. That might be in the best interest of the Panthers. Their crowded lineup hurt the development of center Henrik Borgstrom and the team won’t want that happening to Denisenko, even if it means sacrificing goals in the short-term. Giving their star prospect opportunities right out of the gate will serve both parties well. At this point, Denisenko’s first-line potential should excite Panthers fans as the club inches closer to being a true Stanley Cup contender.

Pius Suter, C – Chicago Blackhawks

One of the biggest European free agents this summer was Suter, an undrafted forward who carved out a solid career in the Swiss league. Suter had a tough 2018-19 season with just nine goals and 24 points in 41 games, but he hit the 30-goal, 50-point mark for the first time in his career thanks to a tremendous season with the ZSC Lions. 

Suter’s value is best utilized as a bottom-six energy player capable of putting up around 10-15 goals a season. He may not dramatically move the needle, but he will play a valuable role providing depth for Chicago in a way they’ve been missing the past two seasons. For a small forward standing at 5-foot-11, Suter likes to play physically and gives it his all on every shift – exactly what a team wants out of a utility option. The Blackhawks have found a way of producing top-quality European talent, and Suter’s numbers aren’t far off of what Dominik Kubalik – a rookie 30-goal scorer – produced in the NLA. Suter might be one of the best off-season steals across the league and, if any team can get the most out of their European prospects, it’s Chicago.

Artem Zub, D – Ottawa Senators

The Senators are still in full rebuild mode, so signing one of the most coveted European free agents in Zub was a nice get for a franchise in need of positive news. A quick 6-foot-2 defender, some may remember Zub from his strong performance with the Olympic Athletes from Russia two years ago. He finished with four assists in a pivotal top-four role en route to a gold medal.

His biggest challenge now will be assimilating into a young Senators lineup with existing gaps on defense. Zub’s play is reminiscent of current Sens D-man Nikita Zaitsev, with both providing a well-rounded stay-at-home style. Don’t expect anything flashy from Zub but, as the team looks to curate a young, developing group and potentially snag a couple of quality defenseman through the draft, his shutdown play style will be greatly appreciated. Reliability is the name of the game for Zub: if you use him for his strengths and don’t overplay him, you’ll get positive results.

Which prospect will make the biggest splash as a rookie next season?

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