I think I speak for the growing community of draft analysts at large when I suggest that Nikita Popugayev is a slam dunk first round pick if he finishes the season a Moose Jaw Warrior.
Unfortunately for Popugayev, and evidently his draft stock, that wasn’t in the cards. In what I would consider a surprise move for a contending side, the Warriors dealt Popugayev to the Prince George Cougars at the WHL trade deadline. At the time of the deal, Popugayev was playing on the Warriors first line and producing at over a point per game.
After the move, Popugayev’s production dipped from a gaudy 1.28 points per game to less than half that mark with the Cougars. Talk about a tale of two seasons. I’ll do my best to split the difference, as we dive into Popugayev, who checks in as the 44th ranked prospect in the Nation Network Prospect Profiles countdown.
- Age: 18-years-old, 1998-11-20
- Birthplace: Moskva, Russia
- Position: RW/LW
- Handedness: R
- Height: 6’6″
- Weight: 197 lbs
- Draft Year Team: Prince George Cougars – WHL
|NHL (CSS)||Future Considerations||HockeyProspect||McKenzie||McKeen’s
A big, lanky, offensively minded winger…a massive and skilled player who shows offensive prowess and underrated skills without the puck…gets from Point A to Point B in good time, but has some work to do on his stride…has surprising agility for a kid his size…tends to lean toward being a goal-scorer…can really rifle the puck and has an exceptional release…dangerous as he trails the play looking for open ice to get a shot off…can really jive and juke around to shake opponents, showing craftiness in his hands…has good vision of the ice and acts quickly to make plays…has an unreal reach and protects the puck with it…a predatory player without the puck and won’t back off when applying pressure…when he gains more muscle and improves his skating, he will be an absolute force.
A second WHL season helped to turn my opinion on Popugaev as the season went along. Forwards who are 6-foot-6 with a high skill level will always get careful attention from any scout. Popugaev is incredibly coordinated for a player his size. He can make dangles seem effortless and has the vision to make soft-touch plays. Popugaev uses his big body well to shield the puck when his team is on the attack, and he gets his nose dirty in the corners too. He has a big shot, but I like his game more when he’s looking to be a playmaker. I’ve heard from some scouts who think he’s a competent skater, but in my viewings, I’ve seen a player with subpar bursts out of the gate and just a mediocre top gear.
#16 Nikita Popugaev
Played well at CHL Top Prospect game. Tremendous skillset, handles puck well & has great hands
— ISS Hockey (@ISShockey) February 16, 2017
The duality of Popugayev’s season almost suits his game to a tee. There are parts of it I can’t get enough of and there are others I can’t for the life of me reconcile. The player I saw in Moose Jaw was, in my estimation, a player worth looking at in the top 20 of the draft. The one in Prince George I’d struggle with drafting in the first two rounds.
When Popugayev is on his game, he can be downright dominant. Popugayev sees the ice exceptionally well and can thread the needle to put his teammates in position to score, and often. He’s not the fastest skater — those first two steps are particularly sluggish — but Popugayev protects the puck well and uses his frame to shield it from the opposition especially well when he’s below the hash marks. Whether it’s stickwork in tight or getting off a quick shot in transition, Popugayev’s hands are never in doubt.
As with most players with Popugayev’s size, the expectation is that he should play a power game. I just haven’t seen that from Popugayev to date, and I’m not even sure he has that in him. He’s not terribly physical and doesn’t get around the ice fast enough to play a prototypical power forwards game. I see Popugayev as a playmaker, first and foremost.
I like Popugayev far better when play is static than in transition. When Popugayev has the puck on his stick and time, things happen. The way he can pick apart a defence from the perimeter is really something. It’s not that he can’t make things happen at pace. He proved he could do that with his deft setup for Nico Hischier at the Top Prospects Game.
The issues that Popugayev’s fought for most of his junior career lingered in Prince George and Moose Jaw alike. His commitment to playing a 200-foot game lacks at the best of times, and concerns abound about his commitment to fitness and improving his game.
Generally, I think someone who chooses to come to an entirely different continent to help their draft stock, as Popugayev did, is probably fairly committed to making the NHL. By that same token, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Popugayev or his coaches, so maybe the scouts know something I don’t.
When we view Popugayev’s last season through the pGPS lens, about 27% of the players in his cohort developed into full-time NHL players. Using the pGPS Career Assignment, Popugayev is tagged with a bottom-six career.
I see a player with high-end upside, but just as high a likelihood to flame out entirely. Basically, this is the boom or bust prospect of this year’s class. And that’s why Popugayev checks in at the middle of the second round of Canucks Army’s consensus rankings.