- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2011

These aren’t the Cold War days of hockey where fans saw Russian stars only in events such as the Summit Series against Canada and the Challenge Cup against NHL All-Stars.

Instead, there were 32 Russians who played in the NHL last season.

With Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov, of course, the Capitals boast one of the best Russian contingents in the league, headlined by arguably the best player in the world. More are in the pipeline — and that’s far from a coincidence.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Caps, better than any other team, have found a niche mining the former USSR for talent. They’ve drafted six Russian-born players, continuing last year when they took Evgeny Kuznetsov in the first round. And while other teams have strayed away from selecting Russians because of signability issues and the intimidating presence of the Kontinental Hockey League, the Caps have stocked their system.

“We don’t hesitate to take them because we think they will come to play in Washington,” general manager George McPhee said. “Last year was a great example, I thought, of being able to pick up a terrific player late in the first round.”

Kuznetsov is an example of a great Russian player slipping in the draft because teams worried about him staying in the KHL and not signing an NHL deal. He’ll be there one more season (McPhee said the Caps are fine with that), but he’s now considered one of the top prospects in the game.

“Many teams bypass the player because they worry about whether they’ll report, and that was really to our benefit,” McPhee said. “He is an outstanding prospect and as good as any player that was selected in that draft.”

Perhaps if Kuznetsov — or even third-rounder Stanislav Galiev — were from North America, they wouldn’t have been passed over by so many other teams. Still, there’s a fear among some general managers to commit to taking Russians.

“We’re afraid to take Russian players,” Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said this past season. “I don’t think we’re the only team, because they’re very hard to get signed. You just lose sight of them.”

One prominent agent who has represented Russian players said recently that with the threat of the KHL, “GMs and chief scouts are scared to invest that much equity with that kind of risk.”

That’s not the case with the Caps. Along with Kuznetsov, Washington has Galiev, defenseman Dmitri Orlov and right wing Dmitri Kugryshev waiting in the wings.

A few of the top Russian players available in tonight’s draft include winger Nikita Kucherov and defensemen Zakhar Arzamastsev and Alexei Marchenko, who are all ranked in the top 25 European skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

The level of Russian talent in this draft — or the availability of a super prospect like Kuznetsov — isn’t as good as last season, but McPhee and his staff won’t hesitate when other teams balk.

“If we can continue to make our organization better because some teams are going to pass on those guys, we have to draft them,” he said. “We said we would do it and we would do it, and we’ll see what develops this year.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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