Every year, there’s always that one player who is the trendy “sleeper” pick in the NHL Draft. It’s that one player who may not be rated very high by most scouting agencies, but they still have high-end potential. This year, I think that player happens to be Marat Khusnutdinov out of the MHL in Russia.
Name: Marat Khusnutdinov
Team: SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (MHL)
DOB: July 17, 2002
Weight: 165 lbs
Khusnutdinov’s 2019-20 Season
During the 2018-19 season, Marat Khusnutdinov was a member of the Vityaz Podoslk organization in Russia. He spent the season on Vityaz’s U18 and U17 teams and he also saw a great deal of action on the Russian national team with both the ’01 and ’02 birth years.
Last summer, the Erie Otters selected Khusnutdinov with the 8th overall pick in the CHL Import Draft. That same week, it was announced that he was set to move from the Vityaz Podolsk organization to the powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg organization. So, he decided to spend the 2019-20 season in Russia rather than North America.
He was set to move up to the MHL (Russia’s U20 junior league) from the U18 level, but he was not guaranteed 1st line minutes. SKA-1946 has a very deep MHL team with many talented older players who may hear their names get called during this year’s NHL Draft. They had a total of 7 players who were ranked in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings.
Marat Khusnutdinov wore the ‘A’ for SKA-1946 despite being one of the youngest players on the MHL squad. He has been a captain at many levels, including international play. One of the intangibles you get with him is great work ethic and fantastic leadership ability.
He skated in 44 games for SKA-1946’s junior team where he put up 38 points in 44 games with an average TOI of 14:46. His production at this level wasn’t the greatest for a top NHL prospect, but it’s important to note that he was placed in a middle-six checking line role, saw limited power play time, and was one of the youngest players on the best team in the MHL.
The MHL also has a huge talent gap between the league’s best teams and the league’s worst teams. SKA-1946 was the top team in the Western Conference with a 55-5-4 record while the worst team in the conference, ORG Junior, had a 1-61-2 record.
I wanted to make sure that Khusnutdinov’s production didn’t just come from feasting on weaker competition. It turns out that he has 16 points in 19 GP (0.84 PPG) vs. teams in the top half of the standings and 22 points in 25 GP (0.88 PPG) vs. the bottom half. So there’s really no red flags there.
I also wanted to take a look at the even strength primary point production per game numbers among the 2020 MHL prospects in their draft year:
Projected top-20 pick Rodion Amirov takes the spot with 0.76 EV1 P/GP, but he saw 6 more minutes of ice time per game than Marat Khusnutdinov. Amirov is also 9.5 months older than Khusnutdinov which is another very important factor to consider. When taking those factors into consideration, I don’t think Khusnutdinov’s lack of “elite” production is as big of a negative as some make it out to be.
At the international level, Khusnutdinov captained the Russian U18 squad to a gold medal at both the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the World Junior ‘A’ Challenge in 2019. He did not appear on the scoring sheet very often, but he was a key player for Russia during both events. He was relied upon for his fantastic two-way play.
The Tracking Data
Similar to my Lucas Raymond profile, I tracked the on-ice 5v5 Corsi For % (shot attempts for vs. shot attempts against) over the last 5 MHL games I watched of Marat Khusnutdinov. I primarily focused on the stronger competition in the MHL as all 5 games I tracked were against teams in the top half of the standings. Here’s the results:
As you can see, Marat Khusnutdinov did not have the greatest possession numbers in the games I watched. However, it’s a very small sample size which causes the data to be very noisy. In the 7 games that Will Scouch tracked of Khusnutdinov, he posted a CF% of 64.7%. Those are two wildly different results, but that can happen when comparing two small sample sizes. I do think Khusnutdinov tended to struggle against bigger, skilled teams in the MHL and my numbers tend to show that.
Will Scouch also tracked zone exits and entries in his viewings and Khusnutdinov happened to maintain control on 76.7% of all exit and entry attempts which is insanely good. He is an absolute machine in transition and it’s one aspect of his game that makes him a special prospect.
So let’s transition into talking about just how special Marat Khusnutdinov is in transition. He is so great and entering/exiting zones that you never have to worry when the puck is on his stick. He can recover the puck behind his own net, carry it up the ice with ease, and set up possession in the offensive zone. Here’s an example of that:
As Khusnutdinov carries puck up the ice, it shows how confident he is when he has the puck on his stick. He attacks the neutral zone with speed and his head up as he scans the ice for seams that he can work his way through. If there are no available seams to skate through, he is able to find his teammates with his unique arsenal of quick passes. He’s an unstoppable force when he is cutting through the neutral zone with his great edgework and hands.
Let’s take a look at another Khusnutidnov zone entry:
The play starts with Khusnutidnov reading the play and getting his stick on the puck to break things up. He has Flames’ 2019 3rd round pick, Ilya Nikolayev, on his tail but he manages to box him out and hang onto the puck. As he enters the offensive zone, he is faced with 3 opponents staring him down, so he hits his teammate with the quick little backhand pass and goes off for a line change.
Now there were many instances where Khusnutdinov would do a lot of hard work in transition just to have his teammate bobble the puck or turn it over. His linemates for SKA-1946, at times, were not the greatest, but it’s clear that he makes the game easier for anyone who plays alongside him, especially in transition. Not many players can flip the ice in their favor as quickly as Marat Khusnutdinov can.
Typically, when a prospect is described as a two-way center, you tend to think of a bigger player who has some offensive skill but is not too flashy. Marat Khusnutdinov, at 5’9″ and 170 pounds, turns that old cliché on its head. He has a bunch of intriguing tools on the offensive side of the puck, but I think he is equally as intriguing on the defensive side.
I think there are two traits that make Khusnutdinov such an effective defensive player. The first trait being his incredible hockey IQ, he just knows how to play the game properly and efficiently. He knows exactly how much pressure to add on to the opposition and is very careful to not overcommit on any given play.
The second trait that makes his defensive game so great is his high octane motor. Every second of his shift, he is out there working hard and trying to make plays. If he happens to give the puck away in the offensive zone, he’s going to hound that player until he gets the puck back. His work ethic on the ice is one of the reasons why he has been placed in a leadership position on nearly every team he has played on.
Here’s an example of Khusnutdinov’s (#22 in white) defensive effort:
Khusnutdinov battles hard in the corner to fight for possession, but the two Almaz players manage to free up the puck. But that’s not the end of the defensive effort of Khusnutdinov as he trails the puck carrier up the ice and just hounds him on the backcheck until the puck is back in his team’s possession.
I think one of the reasons why his defensive game is so developed is because he has always had to deal with being one of the smaller players on the ice. The MHL has him listed at a little over 5’9″ while NHL Central Scouting has him at 5’11”. I personally do not think he is any taller than 5’10”, but who knows. His lack of size can be a negative at times as he does not have a long reach and can be outmuscled by larger players along the boards.
However, Khusnutdinov’s lack of size has allowed him to focus more on the positional aspect of defense and he knows the angles to take to gain leverage against bigger players alongside the boards. He takes no shortcuts on the defensive-side of the puck that some larger players may be willing to take.
Here’s just one great example of his great defensive positioning as he breaks up the cross-ice pass:
One of SKA’s defenseman was caught in the offensive zone on this play, so Marat Khusnutdinov had to cover for him. He notices the Spartak player streaking towards the net, so he just flips himself around and breaks the play up with ease. Just an all-around high effort, high IQ play.
And even though Marat Khusnutdinov may lack size, he does not shy away from dishing out a big hit when possible:
He knocks Alexander Daryin, a Coyotes 2019 draft selection, to his feet as he lays his body into him. But the part I love about this is the end of the play where Khusnutdinov continues to battle for the puck, gains possession, and does a creative little behind-the-back pass off the boards to an open teammate.
Khusnutdinov carries his defensive acumen over to the penalty kill where he is a highly effective player. Once again, he just has that great awareness of where everyone is located on the ice that all great players seem to have. He also has the ability to cover a great amount of ice in a very short period of time due to his excellent skating ability. He has very strong edgework so he is able to pivot and change direction with ease. Just take a look at all the space he manages to cover in this PK sequence:
He’s not afraid to drop down and sacrifice his body to block a shot on the power play. He does not back down when applying pressure. He’s going to win those 50/50 puck battles on the PK. His style on the PK is reminiscent of the Columbus Blue Jackets “power kill” as he’s aggressive in applying pressure and he isn’t afraid to push for offensive opportunities while shorthanded.
Untapped Offensive Potential
Don’t get me wrong, Marat Khusnutdinov has amazing offensive tools to work with, but I still believe that his offense has a chance to be elevated to that next level. His production at the MHL and international level has not been too great for a player who many consider a borderline 1st round pick in 2020. I think this can be partially attributed to the role he has been placed in as he is typically relied upon defensively and is not always placed in a prime position to rack up the points.
The MHL is also a very strange and unstructured league, so it’s difficult to weigh how much great production or lack thereof actually means at that level. But I do know that Khusnutdinov has all the tools you need to become a fantastic playmaker and offensive producer as he continues to develop. This shorthanded goal in OT really shows us what Marat is capable of on offense:
Throughout this whole play, he has an attacking mindset. He looks to enter the zone, but decides to circle back which gives him more time and allows him to generate some more speed. Instead of simply dumping it in and going off for a line change, Khustnutdinov wants to take this thing to the house. With his beautiful edgework and stickhandling, he manages to beat three HC Kapitan skaters and their goalie.
Khusnutdinov shows just how deceptive he can be with the puck on his stick during this play as the defenders do not know if he’s going to cut inside or outside until it’s too late. He just has so much creativity on offense and he’s not just a north-south attacker. Marat will find seams in the defense and will try to exploit them.
Here’s another play that shows off his creativity when finishing. He’s tried this move a couple of times where he pulls it between his legs in front of the net. He finishes it off for a goal here:
In terms of his passing ability, I think he has shown flashes of all the traits you look for in a playmaking forward, but he may not have been as consistent as you would’ve liked to see. Once again, I think this can be attributed to the role he was placed in rather than not having the ability to be a playmaker. He has the vision to read the ice and he has shown that he has the skill to perfectly wire a cross-ice pass.
Khusnutdinov has a nice arsenal of quick little passes that he loves to use when setting up in the offensive zone. He can do a quick little backhand, forehand, or even behind-the-back pass very quickly and with ease. He’s very deceptive with these passes as he is able to get them off with as little movement as possible. Here’s an example of a nice little zone entry and drop pass below to set up his teammate for a shot:
In terms of his shooting ability, I think he has an accurate shot with a quick release. He also gets a good amount power behind his shot considering his size. I would say that he is especially good at getting a shot off when closely defended. His hand-eye coordination allows him to work well in tight spaces.
The thing is, he does not use his shot as much as the other MHL prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft (38th in Shots/GP among MHL first-year draft eligibles). And when he does get a shot off, it’s typically from in close. The shooting ability is there, he’s just never going to be a volume shooter. He’s more willing to drop a pass to a teammate for a shot like in the clip above rather than attempting to rip a shot through traffic.
Finally, let’s talk about skating. He’s just a very difficult skater for opposing defenses to contain, not necessarily because of his straight line speed, but because of his shiftiness do to his incredible edgework. Don’t get me wrong, he has solid straight-line speed, but the bread and butter to his game is just his fantastic edgework. It allows him to be a step ahead of defenders as he can make a read on their pokechecks and change direction very quickly. His edgework also allows him to generate a great amount of speed as he circles back around to the puck.
The most glaring weakness to Marat Khusnutdinov’s game is definitely his size. NHL Central Scouting has him listed at 5’11”, but the MHL has him listed at 5’9″ and I do not think he looks any taller than that. It’s always going to be an obstacle that he is going to have to overcome as he continues to develop. It may be even more challenging as a center as that is a position typically occupied by larger players.
But just take a look at Brayden Point in Tampa who has developed into one of the best centers in the game. He was 5’9.75″ and 160 pounds at the 2014 NHL Draft Combine. If a guy can play the center position, he can play the center position and it does not matter what size he is. Size can be a weakness, but how much of a weakness is up for debate. I think Khusnutdinov has the two-way play, tenacity, and IQ to be a center in the NHL, even though 5’9″ centers are very rare.
He just doesn’t have the “play-on-the-perimeter” tendencies that some other smaller players have. This is probably attributed to his great lower body strength that allows him to battle hard against bigger opponents. He already has a good base to work with and he will be able to build on his strength as he continues to hit the weight room.
I would also say his production, or lack thereof, is another weakness, especially if a team plans on selecting him in the 1st round. His production has been more in line with what one would expect out of a 2nd/3rd round pick, not really a 1st round pick. But, it’s important to note that Khusnutdinov is very young (he wouldn’t be draft eligible until 2021 if he was born 2 months later) and he played a checking line role on a very deep MHL team.
Once again, it’s a weakness in his draft profile, but how much weight should be placed on it is up for debate. I think there’s so much evidence that reveals that Khusnutdinov brings much more to the table than his MHL and international tournament numbers show. If a team drafts him in the 1st round, they are betting on his tools rather than his production, which can be risky but I think it’s the right call in this case.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to find weaknesses for Khusnutdinov’s overall game as he is such a well-rounded player. Most of his weaknesses just stem from his projectability as an NHLer.
Any team that drafts Marat Khusnutdinov is getting a center that has a ton of intriguing tools to work with. On offense, he has shown some incredible skill on some highlight reel goals and has the ability to make defenders look silly out there. He has the vision and the skill to create on offense. Toss in his skating ability and it makes for a very dangerous offensive player. He’s got Datsyukian-like traits.
In transition, he is just awesome and he is absolutely one of the best players in that area in the 2020 NHL Draft class. It’s his vision and his shiftiness that make him difficult to stop as he carries the puck up the ice and through the seams of the defense.
On the defensive-side of the puck, he already plays such a sound game at his age. He’s very tenacious on the forecheck and backcheck, but is careful not to overcommit. He knows how to gain leverage on bigger players to win loose pucks. He’s also able to cover such a large area ice in a short period of time which allows him to be especially effective at applying pressure on the PK.
All that being said, I think Marat Khusnutdinov has the potential to be an effective middle six center at the NHL level. Yes, I know he’s 5’9″, but I think he has all the traits that would allow for a player his size to be an effective center in the NHL. I think his offensive ceiling is still a little questionable because he has yet to be “the guy,” that main centerpiece on offense, for most of the teams he’s played on. However, I do think the tools are there for that area of his game to potentially develop into something special.
Khusnutdinov may be a riskier pick in this year’s draft because the overall structure of his play is still a little unrefined (maybe it’s just the MHL), but his talent and his potential are impossible to deny. If I’m an NHL team, I start looking very hard at him in the last third of the 1st round and if he falls into the 2nd round, even better.
It’s really hard to project where Marat will go in the 2020 NHL Draft at this point. I think he could go anywhere from the teens in the 1st round to maybe all the way down to the 3rd round. We saw Pavel Dorofeyev, another Russian and MHLer, fall all the way to the 3rd round in 2019 after some mock drafts had him going in the 1st. So who knows where he will go?
One thing I am certain of is that Marat Khusnutdinov will be a great value pick for any team that selects him due to his high ceiling. He’s someone the Sabres should definitely look at if he’s still available when their 2nd round pick rolls around. The Sabres’ cupboards are pretty barren when it comes to high-ceiling forward prospects.
I think people could be calling Khustnutdinov the steal of the draft just a few years down the road. He’s got great skill, a well-rounded game, and teams always undervalue Russian prospects in the NHL Draft.