Teams who claim one of the top spots in the NHL Draft often tend to cash in that pick on some of the best offensive talents in the class. That usually means that the players with the best goal-scoring ability are gone early in the first round, leaving those teams that had better performances in the season to accept a few flaws in the prospects they add to the organization.
Vladislav Firstov is one player who shows good scoring ability, but he won’t be selected in the first round — perhaps not even in the second. Some glaring issues in his game make it difficult to reliably project him as an NHL player.
Birthplace: Yaroslavl, Russia
Date of birth: June 19, 2001
Position: Left Wing
Weight: 181 lbs.
Team: Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Firstov had great numbers in his first season in North America, heading overseas for a year in the USHL before he moves on to the NCAA in 2019-20. He ranked third on the Waterloo Black Hawks in both goals and assists, helping them claim one of the top playoff seeds. Unfortunately for him and his team, they faced the eventual Clark Cup champions in their first post-season action, losing the series 3-1. Over four games, Firstov had just two assists on the 11 goals Waterloo managed.
He’s a player who lives for the offensive moments of the game, seeing defensive duties as an inconvenience. Play in his own end largely centres on quick-strike attempts on puck-carriers, hoping to create a turnover, then simply circling his general coverage area waiting for the next chance to do the same. As soon as a teammate regains the puck, he’s racing his way back to the other end.
Should he be the one to get possession, his game comes alive through the neutral zone. Despite a wonky skating stride, he can get up to decent speed and force opponents to retreat. He’s a great stickhandler, not needing much space to pull off a trick or two to fool a defender.
Playing without the puck in the other team’s end, his game is quite similar to what is seen in the defensive zone. He tries to manouevre into a place where he will be open for a shot or try to hide in coverage while defenders focus on others, rarely venturing into contested areas of the ice. Many refer to that as “floating,” not engaging in the battles and instead relying on others to do the work. The term does apply to Firstov, and that’s why not even his offensive game can be counted on to lead him to an NHL career.
Despite what can be described as a lack of involvement, his good hockey sense usually has him in a good position to play the puck when it does come his way. He has the awareness to find the open lanes and the accuracy to connect through ones that aren’t. His great offensive instincts typically lead to good puck-moving decisions. and he makes his plays quickly, That quickness applies to his shot as well, which he can release in a hurry and find any part of the net with its accuracy.
The things he does do well work best on the power play, and it’s no surprise that that’s where a significant portion of his offence (23 of his 58 points) was generated. It should be noted, however, that such proportions are fairly common in the USHL. Eight players equaled or had more than his 17 power-play assists (including Jack Hughes with 20), and his six goals on the man advantage don’t even place him within the top 30.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Dobber Prospects: #47
Future Considerations: #64
Hockey Prospect: #83
NHL Central Scouting: #23 (NA skaters)
Pronman/The Athletic: #58
His offensive numbers still have several outlets ranking him as a mid-second-round prospect. A player with such strong talent can’t be dismissed as the overall quality begins to drop in the prospect pool as the draft progresses. It’s likely that a few teams have him on their “do not draft” list for the reasons stated above, but some will be willing to take the gamble.
The clubs that are still interested will be hoping his collegiate career will bring improvement in his game. The NCAA typically prioritizes defence, so Firstov will have to adapt if he wants to play; a University of Connecticut team that was second-last in Hockey East in goal differential this season won’t be able to trust a player who makes that gulf even greater.
Perhaps the most maddening thing for the scouts who watched him play was that there were glimpses of physical engagement at certain points, as he would battle for pucks in either end zone on occasion. The elements are all buried inside, and it will be up to the UConn coaching staff to bring them out more regularly.
If they can’t, and Firstov is unable or unwilling to adapt, his selection will be seen as a wasted pick when looking back on the 2019 Draft. But should both parties find success in fleshing out his game, they could richly reward the NHL team that took a flier on pure offensive ability.