The Calgary Flames’ selected Yan Kuznetsov with their second round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Ranked as high as 41 on some boards, the big-bodied two-way defenceman is committed to the University of Connecticut. Our team sat down with him to discuss being drafted by the Flames, his journey as a hockey player, and what Flames fans can expect from him when he turns pro.
Kuznetsov’s hockey journey is similar to many European and Russian players who set their sights on NHL stardom at a young age. He left his hometown of Murmansk when he was just 10 years old with his mother and sister, opting to move to Ryazan, just outside Moscow, to pursue hockey.
Murmansk’s junior hockey program didn’t provide the opportunity for Kuznetsov to develop properly as the small town had just 10 players in his age group at the best of times. “We don’t have a lot of coaches, a lot of players, in my age group… we were practicing with older guys because they didn’t have enough players, so we were practicing with four age groups at the same time,” Kuznetsov explains.
This prompted his move to Ryazan, and then to a boarding school in St. Petersburg 18 months later where he played and studied until he was 15. With the goal of getting drafted, he looked into moving to Canada or the United States, and his hockey advisor at the time recommended he move to the United States to play in the USHL. Without a single hesitation or even stopping to think about it, Kuznetsov accepted the offer and made the move across the pond to play for the Sioux Falls Stampede.
He finished his first season in North America with four assists in 34 games, a strong showing, but not without its challenges. “The most difficult thing was the language; I couldn’t talk at all”, Kuznetsov admitted when talking about the challenges of moving to America. “I was pretty good at grammar but I didn’t speak. It was so hard for me.”
But the language barrier wasn’t going to get in his way. Not wanting to let down his teammates, coaches, and most importantly his family, Kuznetsov was determined to overcome this first big obstacle in North America: “I took it seriously. I was studying hard during the season in Sioux Falls.” Kuznetsov was quick to credit his billet family and coaches for helping him improve his English.
After a promising season in the USHL, Kuznetsov was scouted by several high profile American universities, including Boston University, Harvard, Yale, and UConn. “I liked UConn the most. I liked their atmosphere here, the team, and coaches. I saw they were really interested in me and wanted me to develop, so I think that was the right choice.”
At least so far, it looks like UConn is a good fit. As the youngest player in the entire NCAA last season, Kuznetsov surprised many scouts with his strong two-way play. His offensive contributions were decent as well as he scored two goals and 11 points in 34 games. The next step was to get drafted, but, out of nowhere, the global pandemic struck.
Kuznetsov was fortunate to have continued training during the pandemic due to connections in Russia. “I have a teammate, Vladislav Firstov, playing with me here; he’s drafted by Minnesota. He lives in Yaroslavl so [when the pandemic started] I came to his house, was living there for probably two months, and we were working out for the first 40-50 days. We started to skate in May and then I came back to St. Petersburg in June [where] I was practicing with my former teammates I played with when I was in the boarding school. We were buying the ice there and our coach who was coaching us when I was in St. Petersburg was skating with us.”
Not many young players had the opportunity to continue on-ice sessions during the pandemic, but Kuznetsov was able to skate with familiar faces and coaches and continue to work on his game. Whether that impacted his draft stock is unknown, but the Flames were very interested in Kuznetsov heading into the draft.
Kuznetsov explained that the Flames were the team he spoke to the most before the draft, and there was a lot of mutual interest between the player and the team. Unbeknownst to him, the Flames had watched Kuznetsov for two years since he started in the USHL, and expressed serious interest in drafting him.
Yan Kuznetsov: “Uh no, it’s actually was pretty interesting. I talked to the Flames the most out of all the teams so I had a couple regular interviews, I had an interview with the psychologist.
YK: So yeah. And they just regularly checked up me like they did phone calls, all this stuff.
TWC: Very cool. So they’ve had an eye on you for a while, it looks like, eh?
YK: Yeah, yeah.
The Flames will be getting a player who loves to play in all situations, wants to contribute all over the ice, and both sides of special teams. Kuznetsov made a point of talking about how comfortable he is playing in whatever role is required, and how important his young freshman year was in shaping how he plays.
“Yeah, I’m a big guy,” Kuznetsov laughed when asked about what it was like playing against more mature players last season. “It’s a great experience. Some of the players have played here for three years, so there are a lot of things I can learn from them. I think it’s a big benefit for me. I got a lot from last season, so this season is going to be easier for me.”
He has lofty goals for the upcoming season as well: “I want to be in the championship! We have a really good team this year I think. We have a chance, even though we have all these struggles with the pandemic. Hopefully we practice hard and everyone has the same goal in their heads so hopefully it will turn out well.” The NCAA season is currently set to resume on November 20th, and Kuznetsov is itching for the chance to get back into game action with his teammates.
Kuznetsov is a player to watch. When asked about what type of player he is, he said he’s a big two-way D who can play in any situation, play big minutes, has a good skillset, is a good skater, can skate fast, and has a great shot. He understands the game and might not be the flashiest on the ice, but doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s very proud of who he is as a player and is determined to develop into a pro.
Currently a finance major, Kuznetsov was very clear that is top priority is hockey. He wants to make the jump to pro, whether that’s the AHL or NHL, as soon as he’s ready. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be wearing a jersey with a Flaming C on it in 2-3 years.
Thank you, Yan, for taking the time to sit down with us and answer our questions. We appreciate the time and wish you the best of luck in your career.