If you’ve been following OTF for a while now, you’ve seen Eric’s amazing prospect reports every year. He does a great job breaking down a prospect’s skills and where they should fall in the draft. What I want to do with this series is take a look at some of my favorite prospects from another angle: how would they fit into Nashville’s prospect pool? I’ll look at things like star probability, underlying numbers, and what I think of a player from my watches to give you all the reasons why you should want the player.
For my first case in the series, I’ll be looking at Marat Khusnutdinov, a 5’9” center from the MHL’s SKA-1946 St Petersburg. Khusnutdinov has rocketed up draft boards while being one of the youngest players in the draft, despite playing in a league that’s notoriously difficult to scout. He was ranked 35th among all players in Bob McKenzie’s most recent draft board, which usually reflects the thoughts of GMs and league scouts pretty closely. If you want a full breakdown of his tape, go read Eric’s article here.
Within the Predators organization, there are really four key forward prospects that look like potential NHL difference makers: Philip Tomasino, Egor Afanasyev, Rem Pitlick, and Eeli Tolvanen. Khusnutdinov would add to this group, but what exactly does he bring that the rest don’t?
Khusnutdinov has four qualities that really stand out and make him a prospect worth coveting: high-end offensive skill, an absolutely relentless motor, shifty and speedy skating, and an extremely high offensive and defensive hockey IQ. He projects as one of the higher-upside players that could be found in the late first/early second round, with the main knock on him being his smaller stature. Khusnutdinov projects to likely be a winger at the NHL level due to his size, and I see his reasonable floor to be a solid third-line NHL winger, with potential to become a good to great top-six forward.
The main thing Khusnutdinov brings with that blend of ability is his elite transition play, something that the Predators are in dire need of. This season, Nashville ranked among the worst teams in the NHL in transition, with only Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, and Vitktor Arvidsson grading out well above average in the neutral zone.
Khusnutdinov was absolutely lethal in transition in the MHL, both by the tape and the numbers. He boasted a 76.7% offensive controlled zone transition success rate while ranking third in controlled offensive zone transition attempts, a very impressive rate given his sample size.
Among Predators prospects, only two of the forwards project to be above average or better at transition by my eyes—Tomasino and Pitlick—so adding a guy like Khusnutdinov brings a new element to the organization. Many (including myself) have traced Nashville’s issues on the powerplay and at 5v5 back to their struggles with effective, possession-establishing zone entries, so a guy like Khusnutdinov could potentially provide a boost when he arrives at the NHL level, however far away that may be.
Khusnutdinov also adds strong possession and passing success to his resume, according to Scouch’s database. The thing that caught my eye specifically about Khusnutdinov, however, was his defensive ability. It’s rare that you see the words “strong defender” on a profile for a 5’9” player, at least in men’s hockey, but it’s all over the place when people talk about Khusnutdinov.
In an organization that favors high-effort, two-way players in the bottom six and heavily emphasizes defensive development in the AHL, Khusnutdinov would fit right in. Unlike Eeli Tolvanen or (potentially) Egor Afanasyev, Khusnutdinov is already a plus defender with excellent stickwork and absolutely relentless effort on backchecking. His skill at pickpocketing larger players is rare and makes him stand out next to other smaller forwards like Tolvanen and Pitlick; he very much fits the Nashville mold in this sensibility and it gives me hope that David Poile has his eye on him.
The final thing I’d like to discuss about Khusnutdinov is his skating and offense generation. He’s basically the prototypical “small forward with plus skating ability and skill” guy you see moving up the draft boards, and that’s something different from the other players in the Predators’ prospect pool. More of a playmaker than a goal scorer, Khusnutdinov still has a pretty accurate and threatening shot, but the real beauty of his game comes in his passing.
Among all the forwards that Scouch tracked so far, Khusnutdinov ranks first in pass attempts per 60, with the fourth-best raw pass success percentage. His dangerous passing grades out considerably worse, but is still well above average and stands out as a positive of his game. Among Predators prospects, there’s only one guy who projects to be a potentially game-changing playmaker at the NHL level: top prospect Philip Tomasino. Khusnutdinov brings that deft touch to a group that sorely lacks it, improving his value to the future of the team even more.
In conclusion, Khusnutdinov might be the most underrated prospect in the draft and fits perfectly with what Nashville both wants and needs. I’d love to see the Preds take him in the late first or early second round in the 2020 NHL Draft, boosting the speed, skill, and defensive ability among a group of prospects that don’t really have that same blend of skills. Below is a comparison between Khusnutdinov and the most successful developing draft pick the Preds have recently had in Tomasino. Just food for thought.
How do you feel about Marat Khusnutdinov? Where would you feel comfortable with Nashville drafting him? Please feel free to leave comments below. Feedback is appreciated.