Yan Kuznetsov—The Calgary Flames’ second-round pick in 2020—was a controversial player in TWC’s ranking system, ranked as high as ninth (by myself and one other) and as low as 14th. However, one thing that was universally agreed upon is his value in the top-15, and he is a prospect that is going to be exciting to see grow with the Stockton Heat next season.
Kuznetsov’s on-ice performance
In what was to be his final season in the NCAA with the University of Connecticut Huskies, Kuznetsov continued his strong play as a top-pairing defenceman in a shutdown role. While he only played 16 games in a pandemic-shortened season, Kuznetsov took on a greater role on the team, and put up more points-per-game-played. This season, Kuznetsov played a heavily defensive role, seeing time exclusively at even strength and on the penalty kill.
This role is very similar to the role that he saw when he was the first ever American-based player to play for Team Russia at the World Junior Championships this past winter. As one of the team’s youngest players, he still managed the fourth-most time on ice and looked decent when on the ice. While he did not find himself on the scoresheet, he had himself a good tournament in a shutdown role.
Following this season, he turned pro, signing an entry-level deal with the Flames. It is incredibly rare for an NCAA player to turn pro after their second season, and Kuznetsov joins just a handful of others to do the same including Quinn Hughes and Charlie McAvoy. He was also the first NCAA player in his draft class to sign an entry-level contract (ELC). This goes to show just how highly valued he is defensively.
He finished the season in the AHL with the Stockton Heat, where he played his first six professional games. While he did not appear on the scoresheet here, he was good in a sheltered role.
Kuznetsov’s strengths and weaknesses
Kuznetsov excels where most defence prospects do not, on defence. He has incredible positioning and a strong active stick that can knock the puck off opposing players’ sticks. As old hockey men would say: “you can’t teach size,” and Kuznetsov has it in spades. Standing an imposing 6’4″ and weighing in over 215 pounds, he is a big figure on the ice, and uses his big frame and low centre of gravity to keep skaters to the outside. Kuznetsov is not the fastest guy on the ice, but he has a high hockey IQ and is able to read the play going the other way to ensure he is never out of position.
Watch this play where he is the left side defenceman, crushing an offensive opportunity from the other team then making an incredible outlet pass. Poised, patient and effective.
While he is never going to dazzle offensively, Kuznetsov does have a very heavy slap shot and a decent wrist shot that can cut through traffic and find its way to the back of the net.
Take a look at this incredible goal he scored earlier in the year from the blueline:
He also has good vision for the play, and is able to make strong passes to generate chance. Do not expect him to get caught pinching, as he is often the first man back on plays going the other way.
On the Flames, he is probably most similar to a defenceman like Chris Tanev: a steady reliable defensive defenceman who can play a second pairing role. Coaches often bemoan the defensive ability of their younger defencemen, but that will not be a concern for Kuznetsov, who seems to have what it takes to handle this role as a professional at the ripe age of 19. He could be a sneaky good find for the Flames in the second round.
What’s next for Kuznetsov
Next season is going to be very interesting for Kuznetsov, as he looks to solidify himself on the left side of the Stockton Heat blueline. The way that blueline shapes up is going to be very interesting with him, Colton Poolman and Ilya Solovyov fighting for minutes on the left, and Johannes Kinnvall being the one option on the right side as of now.
Kuznetsov has always proven his doubters wrong. Nobody expected much from him when he came to North America to play in the USHL, but he dazzled defensively and earned a spot with the University of Connecticut. In his rookie season, again little was expected, but he put up 11 points in 34 games, good for second among defencemen on his team. He worked his way to being a top-pairing defenceman and earning a role with Team Russia as well as earning an ELC with the Flames. Do not sleep on him, Kuznetsov could be challenging for a role with the Flames sooner than many may think.
Featured image created with Venngage.