Russia certainly made a statement at the recent 2012 World Junior Championships, knocking Canada out of the gold-medal game, and is poised to make another statement at this year's NHL entry draft scheduled for June 22 and 23 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Keep in mind this list is purely based on projection and who I believe will become good NHL players, not where they'll be selected on draft day. That will come later with our mock drafts. When I was scouting for different NHL teams, often there was a mandate. For example some teams needed to get bigger, some needed defense more than forwards, or some teams were lacking depth at the center position. All of that has a bearing on where a player is selected, whereas this is my evaluation of the 50 most talented players in the draft pool.
Since the start of the season, we've already seen a lot of movement. While Nail Yakupov continues to impress, other highly-regarded picks have dropped considerably. Take Andreas Athanasiou (London Knights, OHL). He was a potential top-10 pick at the start of the season, flaunting high-end speed that got some imaginations going. But since the summer tournaments, he's been a relative disappointment, with scouts questioning his willingness to work in the high-traffic areas and pay a price to score. So, perhaps to the surprise of some, Athanasiou didn't make the cut for my Top 50. He's lurking just outside and can certainly crack later versions if he can answer some of the questions scouts have about his game.The same can be said for Daniil Zharkov (Belleville, OHL) and Anton Slepyshev (Metallurg Novokuznetsk, KHL), my other two honorable mentions.
This list is by no means set in stone -- just as the draft boards of NHL teams will remain in flux until June -- and we'll revisit it more than once before draft day. Over that time, Athanasiou, Zharkov, Slepyshev and the 50 prospects above them can do a lot to change my mind one way or the other in the second half of their seasons. Consistency, improvement and the ability to demonstrate at least one dimensional asset are keys for continued positive impressions.
With all of that in mind, here's a look at the Top 50, starting with our No. 1 prospect: Nail Yakupov.