June 24, 2023

Matvei Michkov is the biggest wildcard heading into the 2023 NHL Draft

Simply put, the Matvei Michkov situation is the biggest wild card scenario set to play out at the 2023 NHL Draft.

The 2023 draft is one of the deepest we’ve seen in over a decade. While the top of the draft will be loaded with high-end talent, one of the most skilled players will likely be selected much lower than his talent suggests. Capable of becoming a superstar in the league one day, Michkov will be this draft’s biggest storyline.

“It’s arguably the top thing I’ll be keeping an eye on at the draft,” FCHockey crossover scout Jake Janso said. “This could be a situation where a player with immense talent falls farther than he should. It has the absolute potential to be one of those ‘why did he fall so far?’ retrospectives should it happen.”

Though the talent is certainly there, Michkov, No. 3 in FCHockey’s Final ranking for the 2023 draft, could fall out of the top four due to circumstances out of his control. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, organizations could be wary of selecting Russian players due to the geopolitical climate of the nation. 

After those political aspects stands the issue of Michkov’s contract in the KHL, as he’s signed for three more seasons with SKA St. Petersburg. Unlike in other European leagues, NHL teams cannot buy out the contracts of their prospects currently signed with KHL clubs. Instead, the players themselves must buy out their own contracts. For instance, Washington Capitals first-round pick in 2022 Ivan Miroshnichenko recently bought out the final year of his deal with Avangard Omsk, allowing him to sign his entry-level pact.

Because of his homeland and current contract situation, Michkov’s stock has slipped, with Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, and Will Smith all considered safer picks and better-known quantities at the top of the draft.

Just two years ago, Michkov was contending with Bedard as 2023’s top prospect. Facing off head-to-head at the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, Michkov statistically got the best of Bedard, finishing with 16 points (12 goals, four assists) compared to Bedard’s 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) on the road to being named tournament MVP. 

“I believe he is closer to challenging Bedard at No. 1 than most people think,” Janso said. “While Bedard boasts a more well-rounded and mature game, he does not have the pure offensive upside that Michkov does. If everything breaks right for Michkov, he may end up being the most prolific scorer from this class.”

While playing in Russia, Michkov has outshined plenty of big names on multiple lists in the annals of the hockey-rich nation. Suiting up for the Russian National Team at just 16 years old, Michkov became the country’s youngest-ever player, surpassing Alex Ovechkin.

Michkov’s 2022-23 season didn’t get off to the best start, failing to register a point with the Russian giants in three games — finding himself relegated at times to the lower-tier VHL. With limited minutes in the KHL, he was eventually loaned to the league’s bottom-dwellers in HK Sochi. Michkov found his groove, and more minutes, with HK Sochi, scoring nine goals and added 11 assists in 27 games. Despite playing half the amount of games as his teammates, he still finished as the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

Though his numbers weren’t jaw-dropping, Michkov’s .67 points-per-game are the highest ever for a draft-eligible player in the KHL.   

It’s a result of the skill-set Michkov is working with.

“He boasts a complete arsenal of scoring weapons that give him the potential to be an all-out offensive superstar,” Janso said. “His combination of shooting skill, puckhandling, and playmaking, all at an elite level, separates him from his draft peers in the offensive category.”

With a prodigious talent pool in this year’s draft, players hearing their names announced in the teens would be top-10 picks in most other years.

There’s an argument to be made that multiple drafts in the last decade would see Bedard, Fantilli, Michkov, Carlsson, and Smith all selected first overall.

In the previous three drafts, we saw Alexis Lafreniere (2020), Owen Power (2021), and Juraj Slafkovsky (2022) selected as the top picks. While all three were highly touted, there’s a strong possibility Michkov would have been chosen over each of them had he been in the same draft class.

“Slafkovsky, Power, and Lafreniere were all fantastic players, but none boast the pure potential of Michkov,” Janso said. “Very rarely does a prospect legitimately display 100-plus point upside.”

Though Michkov excels offensively, he currently lacks an NHL-caliber defensive game. Not willing to put his head down and work to gain quality position in the defensive end, his state of mind needs some refining if he’s to be used in all situations. 

When play isn’t necessarily going his way, Michkov can get down on himself and his teammates, forcing plays that aren’t necessarily there, seemingly unengaged.

“Michkov displays moments of hesitation or mental collapse that generally result in poor passes and mistimed opportunities,” Janso said. “He has a tendency to send errant passes under pressure and this generates a lot of turnovers. Additionally, his defensive game needs some serious refinement.”

After all the questions surrounding Michkov over the past year, teams will soon have a chance to speak with him face-to-face as he arrives in Nashville a few days before draft night.

Front office members on teams with top-10 selections at the 2023 draft at Bridgestone Arena will reportedly have the opportunity to bring any concerns to the forefront starting Monday, possibly swaying their decision on the Russian dynamo in either direction. 

“I think his pre-draft meetings can help ease a lot of the concerns teams may have around his post-draft decisions surrounding where he plays,” Janso said. “That’s one of the bigger questions around his future is what path he chooses to take to the NHL. Additionally, a good showing of a desire to work and progress his game may quell the concerns around his defensive shortcomings.”

Whether Michkov manages to make his way into the top-five or drops closer to ten, wherever he lands will be the story of the night when it’s all said and done. Whichever organization is willing to be patient until his KHL contract is up will have one of the league’s most acclaimed prospects coming into their roster at 21 years old. 

In the grand scheme of things, plenty of highly rated prospects take two to three years before making an impact in the NHL, so waiting on one who can potentially become a 100 point-plus winger seems well worth the risk and wait. 

“I’m very curious to watch his draft position,” Janso said. “There are definitely issues with his game and situation that will deter teams, but I see Michkov as the highest risk, highest reward pick in this draft. If a team can snag him outside of the opening five selections, they’ll be getting a potential superstar, and if he’s there after 10, I’d be sprinting to the podium.”

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