It’s easy for NHL prospects playing in European leagues to slide a bit under the radar, particularly when they come without a high-round draft pedigree. Sure, everyone follows the status of a German Rubtsov very closely, but a mid-round pick putting up statistics that don’t jump off the page but are perfectly fine after accounting for age and league difficulty can slip through the cracks.
That’s what happened to Oskar Lindblom, before the 2016-17 season, at least. In his Draft+1 season, he played 37 games in the SHL, Sweden’s top professional hockey league, and scored 15 points. He followed that up with 25 points in 48 games the following season, all the while standing out in every age-appropriate tournament in which he appeared.
But the numbers weren’t eye-popping like they would likely have been had he played in Canadian juniors or even the US college hockey system, so he wasn’t widely discussed as a top-tier prospect. That was, until he finally caught up with his older peers last season, won forward of the year in the SHL, and now is banging on the door for a spot with the Flyers.
If anything else, Lindblom’s rapid rise should inspire fans to give a second look to under-the-radar prospects who play in professional overseas leagues at very young ages and carve out roles there, while shining every time they face their actual peers in international tournaments. In other words, maybe fans should pay a bit more attention to a guy like Mikhail Vorobyev.
No. 21: Mikhail Vorobyev
Age: 20 (1/5/1997)
Acquired Via: 2015 NHL Draft -- Round 4, Pick 104 (Pick acquired from Los Angeles along with a sixth-round pick in 2016 in exchange for Pick No. 99 in 2015 on June 27, 2015)
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL) - 3 G, 8 A in 44 GP
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 22
When the Flyers selected Vorobyev in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, he was an unknown to most Philadelphia fans, but certainly not to members of the organization. In fact, in the days following the draft, Flyers crossover QMJHL scout Todd Hearty crowed about the pick as one of their biggest steals.
For Hearty the real prize in the middle rounds was Russian center [Mikhail] Vorobyov, considered a solid second-round prospect by the team.
"We had Vorobyov really high," said Hearty. "We had quite a distance with no picks from 24 to 70...we had to take a goalie in the third (two actually) ...and Vorobyov just kept falling for whatever reason. We got to the 90's, and we got a deal where we could move back to 98 and get another pick, so we took (Samuel) Dove-McFalls, just because we thought the Russian factor might still come into effect, and (Vorobyov) was still there when we picked (at 104)."
A 6-2 center from Ufa, Vorobyov was effective in U-18 competitions for Russia this season, earning accolades for his heady defensive play.
"He needs half a step, which is just strength," said Hearty. "He's a two-way center with size. He's big and he's skilled. I look at him, and I don't see a huge, huge difference between him and (Joel Eriksson) Ek.
Eriksson Ek, of course, was a Minnesota first round selection in that draft and is currently viewed as one of the better forward prospects in hockey, which should hint at just how high the Flyers’ organization was on Vorobyev at the time. The slot in which he was selected was not an accurate barometer of their actual opinion of the Russian center.
In his Draft+1 season, Vorobyev took a clear step forward, even though it went unnoticed by most. After scoring 20 points in 39 games in the MHL (Russian juniors) during his draft year, Vorobyev jumped to over a point-per-game pace (23 points in 21 games) and spent the majority of his time in the KHL. The point production was minimal — three points in 28 games — but just to get to the KHL before even turning 19 was an accomplishment by itself. The hope from those paying attention to Vorobyev last summer was that his experience against men in 2015-16 would lead to a breakout season as a prospect the following year.
Quietly, that’s kind of what happened. Sure, Vorobyev did not go full Lindblom on the KHL and dominate every game. But he stuck with his KHL club all year long, playing in 44 games, and upped his production as well, this time tallying three goals and eight assists for 11 points. And as a reminder — Vorobyev was 19 years of age for the bulk of the season, playing against grown men in the second-best league in the world.
Due to his KHL experience, and the fact that he luckily didn’t turn 20 until January (after the tournament), Vorobyev was an obvious choice to be selected by Russia for the U20 World Junior Championship. This was where the Flyers’ prospect really shined. Finally facing his age-appropriate peers in his first international tournament since the under-18s in 2015, Vorobyev excelled, scoring ten points in seven games and leading all players in assists.
Skating on Russia’s first line alongside Kirill Kaprizov, Vorobyev was called by some “a beneficiary” of the Minnesota prospect’s stellar work. And while Kaprizov was truly transcendent in the tournament, Vorobyev’s contributions to the line’s success should not be brushed aside. It’s far more accurate to describe him as the unsung hero of the line rather than a passive observer. Vorobyev often kick-started transition rushes due to heady plays in the defensive zone, and once Russia was on the attack, he would set up shop behind the net, drawing in defenders before expertly dishing the puck to a teammate for a scoring chance. That impressive assist total wasn’t a fluke — Vorobyev legitimately was one of the better playmakers at the WJC.
Apparently satisfied with what he saw from Vorobyev in the KHL and at the World Juniors, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall diligently worked to bring the prospect over to North America once the Russian season had concluded. Finally, in late April, it was announced that Vorobyev did indeed sign his entry-level contract and would be coming west for the 2017-18 season.
This year, Vorobyev will likely spend the entire year with the Phantoms, where local fans will have their first extended look at him. But if the scouting reports and viewings of Vorobyev at the WJC can be trusted, the Flyers are bringing over a true center prospect, one who should have no trouble sticking at the position due to his defensive awareness and high-end vision with the puck.
Vorobyev doesn’t appear to be much of a goal scorer, and he almost certainly will not end up a top-line pivot even in the most optimistic of scenarios. But it’s not unreasonable to hope that he can develop into an above-average middle-six center at the NHL level, capable of driving play at even strength and setting up teammates for scoring chances. His aptitude for playing behind his opponent’s net is also a skillset in short supply right now in Philadelphia, and since current research finds that passes from that area can dramatically improve shot quality, the Flyers could certainly use a center adept in that region of the offensive zone.
A best-case scenario for Vorobyev’s ceiling would probably be something like Artem Anisimov, another big Russian center who has turned into a perfectly capable 2C on playoff teams. But even if Vorobyev simply becomes a bottom-sixer who can take some of the tough minutes load off Sean Couturier as he moves into his late-twenties, he will have been a fantastic use of a fourth round pick. This season, we’ll get to see firsthand just how close Mikhail Vorobyev is to the NHL and to reaching his eventual ceiling.
How We Voted For Vorobyev
How We Voted At No. 21
|Felix Sandstrom||Matthew Strome||Mike Vecchione||Wade Allison||Connor Bunnaman||Isaac Ratcliffe||Maksim Sushko||Noah Cates||Mike Vecchione||Mikhail Vorobyev||Pascal Laberge||Mikhail Vorobyev|
How The Community Voted For Mikhail Vorobyev
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