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We learned at the 2023 NHL Draft that the Coyotes will go to great lengths to put eyes on draft-eligible prospects. Development coach Kurtis Foster and director of European pro scouting and development Brett Stewart weren’t about to be outdone when it came to laying eyes on first-round picks Dmitri Simashev and Daniil But.
The two flew to Kazakhstan last week to watch a KHL game between Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Barys Astana in the Kazakh capital of Astana; a beautiful and modern city fueled by the influx of billions of petro dollars.
Stewart had the travel advantage because he lives in Oslo, Norway, a city that he labels “the best place to live in Europe.”
Foster picked up more frequent flyer miles because he lives in Toronto area, but this was familiar turf for him because he played the tail end of his career in the KHL, playing one season each for Medveščak Zagreb and Slovan Bratislava.
They got a treat when But turned in a dominant performance with two goals in a 6-0 Lokomotiv victory. But they also missed the chance to watch Simashev when the Lokomotiv coaching staff opted to give him the night off.
“It was a disappointment because in the two games before, he had played very well,” Foster said. “In Minsk, he played over 20 minutes, played into overtime, played on the penalty kill. And then against St. Petersburg SKA I think he played 15 or 16 minutes.
“He let me know that he wasn’t going to play, but the coaches were happy with his play. It’s just the process of being a young guy in a league where they have lots of guys on the roster so it was his turn to sit. It’s disappointing when that happens, but the benefit of having two guys on the team is we still got to go watch Daniil and he had a big game that night so it worked out well.”
The Coyotes shocked many analysts (not all of them) at the draft by taking Simashev at No. 6 (while passing on Matvei Michkov) and But at No. 12. Both are under contract for two seasons (through 2024-25) with Lokomotiv which makes for a difficult-to-track development path in a nation at odds with the United States over the war in Ukraine.
Like the NHL, the KHL is not a developmental league so younger players often find themselves playing limited minutes in limited roles, while sometimes shuttling back and forth between the KHL and the lower MHL. Those realities are compounded when playing for Lokomotiv, a Gagarin Cup contender that is usually loaded with veteran players.
As of Wednesday, Lokomotiv was second in the KHL’s Western Conference with 29 points, one point behind HC Spartak Moscow and two points behind Metallurg Magnitogorsk for the overall KHL lead with two games in hand on both teams.
The Coyotes understand all of this, but they still see value in players competing in what many analysts believe is the second-best league in the world.
“One of the benefits that Dmitri has that is kind of sheer luck on our side is that his defense coach in Lokomotiv is Dmitri Yushkevich, who played in the NHL for a long time,” Foster said. “He knows North America. He knows the way you have to play in the NHL and he played a very good, strong defensive game his whole career.
“There’s times where Dmitri has to sit out. There’s times where he might not play as much, depending on who they play, but to have somebody like that who’s working with him consistently, I take that as a bonus.”
Foster said the development staff watches every game that Simashev and But play via video. The video company that they use emails all of the players’ shifts by the next day.
“It’s pretty amazing what he does defensively in the KHL, showing the confidence that he does at such a young age,” said Foster, who is 6 feet 5. “The first thing that jumps off the video for me is obviously his size. He’s between 6-5 and 6-6.
“I don’t look too many people in the eye and I felt like I was looking up a little bit at him when I first met him. The way he moves with his pivots and his forward stride and his backward skating and his angling — all the components that come into skating — it’s very impressive, what he can do at his size.”
Foster typically scouts defensemen, but he and Stewart were intrigued when watching But, who played two games in the MHL earlier this season, but has logged 12 in the KHL.
“It was my first time watching him in person so I watched a little bit of video before I went just to kind of have an idea of what he was like as a player,” Foster said. “He’s huge, like 6 foot 7 or 6 foot 8, yet he can skate; he can move. You can see right away that his ability to play with the puck is very high-end.
“You start trying to think about what he could be in the NHL at that size and with the ability to move, and with the hands and the playmaking ability he has at that size. He’s been compared to Tage Thompson. I don’t know Tage very well, but I watched the game between Tampa and Buffalo and you really can see that they’re very similar in the way they look on the ice. It just excites you when you get a kid that big who can move and play with the puck like he does.”
But benefitted from a big role in Kazakhstan.
“He had a great game,” Foster said. “He played on the first line with two of Lokomotiv’s top players. He played on the power play at the net front, using his size. He’s got confidence with the puck where he can make those small-area plays to continue possession or he can make those little plays around the net to find a guy in a tight pocket and he does a really good job of extending plays by using his size in those tight areas. There were even a couple of times where he laid the body and used his size to continue the forecheck and the offensive zone time.”
The Coyotes won’t have many opportunities to see the two play live. They may not even get another chance this season. With Kunlun Red Star’s move from Beijing to Moscow two seasons ago, and with Finnish team Jokerit’s decision to pull out of the KHL in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the KHL now spans just three nations: Russia, Russian ally Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Even though Simashev didn’t play in Kazakhstan, Foster believes the trip was worth it.
“Just for him to know that we’re there I think is big for the relationship we’re trying to build with the players in our organization,” he said. “I think it shows our commitment and to me, these guys make it worth it because they’re both really good kids.
“All the kids that I deal with on the D side are great kids. They do a good job in the scouting department of finding and really digging into those things. It makes my life easier when they’re good kids because they get back to you, they’re good at having conversations and these two both speak English. They both want to get better so it makes our job a lot easier.”
The only part of this particular leg of Foster’s job that was not easy was the travel.
“On the way home, I went from Astana to Istanbul, Turkey, which was about five and a half hours,” he said. “I had about two hours between flights so I basically ran to my next flight. On my next flight, I went from Istanbul to JFK in New York and that was about 10 and a half hours.
“I had about a two-hour layover there and then another two-hour flight north to Toronto. It’s a 10-hour time change with just over 18 hours of flight so it’s basically over a full day of travel, if you take it all into account.”
That didn’t stop Foster from his primary duty. He was behind the bench for his 12-year-old son Jackson’s game the next day, and he’ll be helping out with his 10-year-old son Charlie’s practices, too.
“I have this ability I’ve always had since I played where I sleep very well on moving vehicles, whether it’s planes, buses, trains or cars, so I did get a good amount of sleep, which definitely helped,” he said. “But you know, I’m not home a ton to watch my two boys play so I’m never gonna give up an opportunity. I just had to suck it up.
“I have a little daughter, too. Her name is Halle and she’s 6 but she’s a dancer and a gymnast. I love watching her but I can’t help on either of those things so I get to just sit back and enjoy it.”
Top photo of Astana, Kazakhstan via Getty Images
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