On May 2, 2019, the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft was in full swing. There had been some prior rumblings of a big move on draft day and it was the Moose Jaw Warriors and Calgary Hitmen who made it happen.
Moose Jaw sent defender Jett Woo, a 2018 second-round pick of the Canucks, to the Hitmen for Ryder Korczack, two draft picks and Nashville prospect Vladislav Yeryomenko. Woo is a star who had just come off a 66-point campaign for Moose Jaw with his sights set on an NHL roster spot in the near future. Yeryomenko, on the other hand, had just finished a tough season for Calgary, regressing to near his freshman season numbers in the WHL: just 33 points after a 13-goal, 41-point year in 2017-18.
“After [my second year] I was full of enthusiasm. I thought that now I am in this league, I will play a lot and calmly score 60 points, but the coach changed again,” said Yeryomenko recently when discussing the past two years. After missing the playoffs in 2018, Calgary named Steve Hamilton as their next head coach; the divide between coach and player was immediately noticeable.
In year three, Yeryomenko’s ice time dropped as he was relegated to the second pair and was struggling to find the score sheet. After the 2019 World Junior Championship, the defender found his stride, notching seven goals as he helped lead the Hitmen back to the postseason. But, at this point, it was clear Yeryomenko was not to be involved in the Hitmen’s future plans: the organization approached him about a potential trade (something they had been pondering since Christmas) and he didn’t object.
The Belorussian didn’t have a plan to leave Canada when acquired by the Warriors, but had some choice words for Calgary’s organization. “In general, there were many complaints about our [Russians’] game: it’s not there, I train too little, etc. They think that Russian guys are lazy,” noted the defender about his former coaching staff.
Summering in Moose Jaw
By all indications, Moose Jaw anticipated Vladislav Yeryomenko to play in the WHL this season and Nashville expected him at training camp in September. That’s not too different than what the defender expected himself, but he was never sold that it would be the right move. “I thought that playing another year in the junior league was the end for me. I had to go to a new level and play with the masters of the KHL and NHL level,” said Yeryomenko.
It was a well-kept secret that he had spent July skating in a tryout opportunity with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. But, on August 18, Moose Jaw confirmed that Yeryomenko was signing a three-year contract with Dinamo and leaving the organization.
Back in Belarus
Injured to start the season, Yeryomenko was taken aback at the responsibilities handed his way once he hit the ice in his home country. Since coming to Dinamo, he’s lined up on the top pair with Marc-Andre Gragnani - a veteran of 78 NHL games and 382 AHL games - and is averaging 19:48 of ice time each night.
“Dinamo is my first pro level team. Honestly, I did not expect that I would receive so much playing time,” noted Yeryomenko. He’s settled in nicely with Gragnani, who anchors the Preds’ prospect’s tendency to join the rush with two-way stability.
Yeryomenko maintains infrequent contact with the Nashville brass. He’s been to development camp in Nashville and enjoys training under an organization with a reputation for developing defenders. When asked about planning the move to the KHL with Nashville, Yeryomenko added, “There was a conversation and my agent was talking to the club. They agreed and were not against the move.” He pointed out, too, the relationship his current head coach has with the Predators; Craig Woodcroft was Nashville’s Rookie Development Camp Director from 2012 to 2014.
The 20-year old defender thinks, with the proper learning curve, he can make the leap to the AHL or NHL in the next two years. And, with how he has assimilated to the KHL, I’m not surprised by the confidence.
After 30 games, Dinamo Minsk sits second to last in the KHL’s Western Conference with just 25 points (9-14-7); that’s the third-worst record league-wide. En route to that record, the Bison have allowed a league-worst 100 goals in all situations; only nine teams have scored fewer goals than Dinamo, too.
So, when evaluating Yeryomenko’s adjustment to the KHL, we’re already working with a disadvantage: his club is one of the worst in the league. But, in both zones I’ve noticed encouraging improvements to his game.
In the chart above (courtesy of Bryan), you can see that, at even strength, Yeryomenko has helped allow 3.66 goals-against per 60 minutes this season while Minsk has scored just 2.33 goals-for per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice. That’s not great, but what’s behind those numbers?
Offensively, Yeryomenko has been excellent relative to his peers. Through 23 games, Nashville’s draft pick has scored twice on 37 shots (shooting 5.41%) and added four assists; three of his six points are primary points scored at even strength. That seems unimpressive, but those numbers rank him second among defenders on Dinamo (behind Gragnani) and third in scoring among all under-21 defenders in the KHL. To understand the scope of how impressive is that Yeryomenko is playing 20 minutes per night at his age, consider that there are just 19 under-21 defenders who have skated in 10 or more games this season. The Belorussian is one of four to register more than five points and one of three to score more than once.
Yeryomenko’s offensive strengths have long been his skating ability and wrist shot. Unlike in the WHL, defenders don’t have ample opportunity to step lower into the slot for scoring chances in the KHL. Luckily, Yeryomenko has found success with his well-placed wrist shot, including his first pro goal seen above and the assist below.
The clip below is from a three-on-three overtime period. Yeryomenko (#8, blue) does an excellent job of maintaining his defensive positioning as the puck carrier enters the zone. He forces a contestable puck and then ties up his opponent along the boards. When the puck springs loose towards the net, it’s Yeryomenko who makes a heads-up play to recover the rebound and spring his teammate for a breakaway.
Yeryomenko isn’t the fastest player on the ice, but he possesses a fluid, strong skating stride with good edge control. In the clip below, we get a small glimpse of what could be should he commit to his stride more when entering the offensive zone.
But there’s also moments where he appears hesitant or just unsure. In the sequence below, I would love to see him step up for an offensive zone entry when he taps the puck in the neutral zone. Instead he makes a passive play that results in a turnover; when the shooter comes in, he doesn’t challenge and instinctively looks to play a pass that isn’t there.
Conversely, watch below as Yeryomenko takes maybe three strides off forceful pushes to masterfully break up a zone entry. He plays with an extremely active stick and it benefits him well when defending like that. One development I’ve noticed since coming to the KHL is his increased tendency to focus on tying up opposing sticks in the slot, which you can notice later on in the sequence.
Yeryomenko has the tools to succeed in the KHL. Playing top minutes at age 20 - albeit on a terrible team - is impressive enough, but he’s scoring at a good rate so far and has displayed some solid defensive awareness.
Throughout the season, I’ll be manually tracking more advanced metrics for Nashville’s prospects. My sample size is too small to report data right now, but I’ve noticed how impressive Yeryomenko’s controlled zone exit rate is so far. If he can continue to push that play up the ice without sacrificing the puck or his pace, I anticipate Dinamo’s offensive prowess could improve.
There’s no doubt this will be a trying year for the Bison and Yeryomenko, but I’ve been quietly impressed with his play so far.
Yeryomenko recently completed a three-game stint with the Belorussian national team in some friendly matches. It’s a preview of what may come in Switzerland in May, where Yeryomenko will have an excellent chance of suiting up for his home country at the 2020 IIHF World Championship (he’s graduated from WJC eligibility).
It’s often our default to see the Canadian Hockey League as the best breeding ground for prospects, and that isn’t without merit. There was naturally some concern when Yeryomenko made the move to the KHL, but his results so far have been relatively impressive in the world’s second-best league.
All stats are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and khl.ru. The data viz is courtesy of Bryan Bastin with data tracked and compiled by myself.