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Why Michkov is the best Russian prospect since Ovechkin, Part 1

© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

“With the 7th selection of the draft, the Flyers are proud to select from St. Petersberg in the KHL, Matvei Michkov.”

Six months later and it still doesn’t feel real. But no need to pinch yourselves, Flyers fans, it’s real: Matvei Michkov is a member of the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

If you’re anything like me — a die hard Flyers fan with a burning passion for the game itself — you’ve likely seen or heard of Matvei Michkov for a few years now. The young Russian phenom has been all over social media and dazzling the hockey world since he was dominating the Russian U16 league as a 15 year old in 2019-20. As recently as September of 2022, Michkov was in the conversation (and in some circles, leading it) with Connor Bedard as the best player among a potentially historic draft class for 2023.

We are all well versed in how said draft played out.

To this point in his post-Draft year, Matvei Michkov has taken part in 30 KHL games (29 games if we are not counting the six-ish minutes he played in his one game with SKA St. Petersburg before he was loaned to Sochi HC). I have made it a personal mission to watch as many of his games as possible this year, to get a real feeling of what player he can turn into for our Flyers. From every goal, to every minor offensive threat, it has all been logged into memory. What have I learned from doing this? Well, let’s go over just what exactly Michkov brings to the table, beginning with his most well-known characteristic.

Goal-scoring prowess

When a player racks up the number of goals Matvei Michkov has in his career to date, they are often given the moniker of “sniper”. While Michkov can certainly grip it and rip it, the term “sniper” doesn’t begin to encompass what Michkov brings to the table as a scorer. Michkov can beat a goalie in any way that is available to a hockey player. One-timer, snap shot, drag and pull, backhand, short range, long range…you get it.

The arrows in the quiver he carries on the ice are boundless. A number of players have attempted and even scored a lacrosse-style goal, and generally for them, it is a career highlight. For Michkov, it’s simply another way he could try and beat an opposing goaltender:

Michkov’s greatest strength, across all of his abilities, is his deception. Michkov keeps his hands close together both in shooting and passing, making it difficult on defenders and goalies to anticipate what he will do with the puck on his stick. Combined with his footwork when receiving a pass, any anticipation by defenders or goalies becomes an exercise in futility. Michkov can manipulate time, space and opponents with the best of them; not just among his age group, but among professional hockey players period.

While he has been on a literal record breaking pace in terms of scoring for a Russian prospect (more on that later) there are some tweaks he may need to (and likely will) make as he matures in the league. For one, as a pure goal scorer, Michkov has not shot at a particularly high percentage in his KHL career. In 73 games across three separate seasons, Michkov’s career shooting percentage is 9.2 percent. Nothing to sneeze at, but certainly not what you would expect from a player who sets scoring records at every level he plays. Which begs the question: why? For one, Michkov is not beating goalies clean since he arrived to the KHL at the same rate he had been during his junior seasons and even in the VHL (the KHL equivalent to the AHL).

And why is that? One simple explanation: Michkov is a barely 19-year-old teenager who’s been playing against grown men in a professional league for those three seasons. The level of competition, particularly in goal, increases significantly at the top level, so beating goalies clean without a truly elite release and velocity is no easy task. Also, given that he’s barely 19 years old, he’s still growing and maturing, far from a “finished product” physically. As he gets older and naturally stronger, he’ll add velocity to his shot. As previously mentioned, he has already mastered the art of deception in ways few mature professional hockey players have, let alone teenagers. As he grows into his prime physically and gets involved in an NHL training program, the added strength and power will assuredly add the coveted velo to his shot.

Another potential reason is that he’s using a higher flex rating on his stick, meaning a stiffer stick, in comparison to some other NHL stars, like Nikita Kucherov.

The stiffer stick allows him to fight through stick checks more easily — which for a player his age and size can be a significant challenge against grown men in a professional league — which in turn allows him to get to those high danger areas on the ice more effectively. However, it also takes a little off his fastball, so to speak. Therefore, shots with which he is more than capable of scoring given his talent level are hitting goalies rather than squeezing through or beating them clean.

Now, if that’s basically all there is to it (there really isn’t much of significance to suggest it’s anything else), this is a relatively easy fix. He will add strength as he matures. Also, he can simply transition to a more “whippy” stick if he so chooses. Many of the great shooters in the NHL have a lower flex rating, including 2023 top pick, Connor Bedard. Regardless, I do not foresee this being a major issue in his transition to the NHL or throughout his career. As demonstrated, he’s simply too intelligent and too talented to go from a generational goal scorer to an average one at best. The greatest barrier to Michkov’s goal scoring numbers will be himself. Some seasons he may choose to score more, others he may focus more on getting his teammates involved, namely because of the evolution of his playmaking.

Playmaking and Vision

On the surface, Michkov looked all the part and then some of a pure goal scorer. He had scored more goals than he tallied assists at every level, so it would be safe to assume he’d do the same once he reached the KHL, right? Wrong. Michkov has flipped the script at the top level. Naysayers and doubters may look at his lower goal scoring totals as a sign that he won’t beat professional level goaltending consistently in his career; this would be a grave mistake on their part. The Super Computer from Sochi has simply downloaded another patch, evolving the playmaking element to his game to adapt to the tougher systems and more talented players he now faces on a nightly basis.

At the junior and even VHL level, Michkov saw himself as the most dangerous scoring threat on the ice at all times. So his primary objective every time he touched the puck was to get to an area where he could shoot and score. Last year, as an undersized 17 year old, he realized quickly that this mindset would not be nearly as effective in the KHL. So rather than try to force the issue — or worse, shrink under the pressure — Michkov unveiled the playmaking aspect of his game, an aspect that has only grown stronger in his Draft+1 year. The Flyers prospect can manipulate time and space to score goals, as we have already demonstrated, but he uses the same technique to set up his teammates as well.

Michkov can make any pass that is required of him at any moment. He can sauce it, feather it, stretch it, lay it in space for a teammate to skate into it. His reputation as a scorer makes him a threat to score from anywhere, and he uses that to his advantage, using no-looks, head fakes and pump fakes to open passing lanes.

And, as with his shooting ability, Michkov possesses passing creativity that rivals the best in the game, as demonstrated by the below clip, where he fakes a Michigan attempt and backhand lobs a pass over the back of the net to a teammate in the crease:

This apparently sudden shift from goal scoring to racking up assists is not a red flag; it is a conscious decision on the part of Michkov to continue to unlock more levels to his ever-evolving offensive arsenal. The supercomputer is analyzing the data, recognizing potential malware and downloading new software to be three steps ahead of the threat.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this breakdown of why Matvei Michkov is the best Russian prospect since Alexander Ovechkin…

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