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What earned Arsen Khisamutdinov, a 21-year-old MHLer, a sixth-round selection?

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An invite to the Canadiens’ European combine, the club liked what the Russian had to offer.

Donat Sorokin/TASS

It’s not often that a 21-year-old gets drafted by an NHL team. It is a safe bet that Arsen Khisamutdinov’s selection is a product of the European combine that Montreal has turned into an annual event. We don’t yet know if it is a recipe for success, but it did give them the inside track on Alexander Romanov last year; a defenceman who is developing surprisingly well and is considered one of the better Russian prospects.

As a sixth-round pick, the expectations aren’t as great on Khisamutdinov, especially considering his age. This draft was his third and final chance to be drafted. In his first year of eligibility, he posted only around half a point per game for Reaktor in the MHL. He improved on his pace in his second year, more than doubling his point total, but it was again not enough.

It was perhaps his stint in the KHL that earned him his selection this season. He remains quite young to play in the second-best league in the world, but he still managed five points in his nine games with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk [yes, most of the names in this article are copy-pasted].

Khisamutdinov has one special tool that makes him stand out from the mass of prospects: his release. He scored 26 goals in 41 games this season in the MHL, 11 more than his next-closest teammate. He isn’t as adept at firing off one-timers, but give him an occasion to take a few steps toward the slot, or even the top of the circles, and the winger can blast the puck in.

The puck flies off his stick hard and deceptively due to the way he sets up his releases. Khisamutdinov loves to skate toward the defence, fake a first release, then step laterally. This move freezes defenders for a second and allows him to get closer to the net, which gives him better odds of picking his spot for the puck to cleanly beat the goalie. But the forward can just as well use the defence as a screen instead of shifting wide of them.

Arsen Khisamutdinov wears #89 in the MHL

In fact, he actively looks for occasions to do that as he places the puck in between an opposing body and the goalie, eliminating the netminder’s line of sight and firing through legs as he gets the chance.

The clip below is a good example of his talent as a shooter. He moves in on the defender and combines both techniques successively to score. He first fakes a shot then pushes his top hand away from his body to move to the right of the defender. The opponent follows him in his motion, but now the forward has reached the top of the circle. He takes advantage of the defensive screen to fire against the movement of the shuffling goalie.

Look closely and you can also see that Khisamutdinov shifts the puck toward himself as he fires, avoiding the stick of the defender. A drag-shot is a common release motion, and the forward employs it in the first video above on another goal, but here he does it with his feet pointed to the boards, not facing the net; a testament to his core strength. The power he can generate also allows him to score even without using supplemental tricks.

He seems to score most of his goals off the rush, but there is no reason to think he couldn’t beat goalies with his wrist-shot from inside the offensive zone, like on the half-wall or the top of the circle on the power play. He could be a weapon from those positions for his KHL team next year.

On top of having a solid release, Khisamutdinov can pull off some dangles. He isn’t as creative a handler as you could find in the top of the draft, but he can get the puck rapidly to his backhand in front of the net to elevate it past the goalie, and can use his long reach to bait pokechecks from defenders only to evade them quite gracefully as he skates through the neutral zone.

The winger can also flash more high-end moves, like the backhand touch through his legs to beat a defender and score, but they aren’t a common occurrence.

Khisamutdinov would be more effective as a dangler if he could attack with more speed. He can gain some momentum with crossovers, and his moblity was more than fine for the slow pace of the MHL game, but his skating is noticeably below average for a typical NHLer. As he is already 21 years old, it is not expected that he improves it by adding more strength as would be the case for an under-18 player with similar deficiencies. There are also some technical flaws in his skating: he strides in a bit of a wide track, tends to be upright, and doesn’t bend his knees to a full 90-degree angle.

The winger’s skating also limits him in his ability to protect the puck. In the sequence below, he seems to have the puck on a string, but can’t get low on his skates and fully on his outside edges to lean against the defender as he arrives in the corner. He gets pushed off the puck as a result.

At 6’3”, Khisamutdinov has the natural advantage to be better against back-pressure in the offensive zone. As he will never be a blazing offensive threat, his success in a professional league will come from his ability to extend his possession time in the offensive zone and find outlets under pressure — that and his shot.

The hope for the Habs is that the winger is a true late-bloomer; one for whom the game only recently clicked, and who is on a steep upward trajectory. There are interesting elements in his game that should make him exciting to follow, but as expected from all sixth-rounders, he will have to add more and hone the ones he does possess to ever have a chance to make it to the NHL.

Khisamutdinov has one year left on his KHL contract, according to the official website, which expires on April 30, 2020. Considering this, he could play in the AHL as soon as 2020-21 and be under the direct tutelage of the Habs’ development staff.