When T.J. Oshie ended a classic Olympic showdown by outduelling the Russians in the shootout, he became an instant hero back in the United States. And while most of the host nation was crestfallen by his derring-do, Oshie had at least one Russian on his side: Maxim Letunov thought the American was great.
As luck would have it, Letunov was selected by Oshie’s NHL team, the St. Louis Blues, mere months later at the draft. He went later in the second round after the Blues had taken countryman Ivan Barbashev 33rd overall. Both players may be Russian, but they shatter stereotypes.
Barbashev is a 200-foot player who enjoys playing physical and took on a shutdown role with the world junior team, despite the scoring prowess that helped him finish second on the Quebec League’s Moncton Wildcats with 25 goals and 68 points in just 48 games. Scouts even joked that they didn’t believe he was Russian based on the way he plays the game. Despite those accolades, the big winger slipped to the second round of the draft when he seemed to be destined as a mid-first rounder.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Barbashev said. “I just forgot about it and now I’m really happy.”
Not only does Barbashev go to a franchise already knocking on the Stanley Cup’s door, but the youngster has buddy Dmitrij Jaskin already there – the two played on a line together in Moncton when Barbashev was a rookie.
Letunov also played in North America this season, suiting up for the United States League’s Youngstown Phantoms and finishing third in team scoring with 43 points in 60 games. The interesting thing about Letunov is that he’s committed to Boston University for the 2015-16 campaign, a rare Russian to go NCAA.
“It’s a great school with a great history and they have a really good strength and conditioning coach,” Letunov said. “Obviously good hockey and education too.”
Strength will be an area of focus for the youngster, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and just 155 pounds. Fortunately, weight is easy to gain – the talent that Letunov possesses cannot be ingested through protein shakes.
“He’s extremely skilled and he computes the game very quickly,” said Youngstown teammate J.J. Piccinich, a Leafs draft pick. “You talk about hockey sense, it just clicks for him. He’s not the fastest kid, but he never needs to be – he knows where to be.”
Letunov will return to Youngstown for the upcoming season, as will Kyle Connor, who led the team in scoring as a 17-year-old. Connor, a University of Michigan commit, will be highly sought after at the 2015 NHL draft and the hope is a better showing for the Phantoms in 2014-15 after the team finished last in the Eastern Conference this past campaign.
“I hope, yeah,” Letunov said. “Last year was frustrating, but we’re looking forward and we have a really good team. We’ll turn around in the league.”
And while St. Louis has no need to rush the pair of Russian prospects, it’s going to be nice for GM Doug Armstrong to know he has an increasing stable of talent to dip into if need be in the future.