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NASHVILLE — There was a Russian waiting for the Coyotes when the No. 6 pick at the 2023 NHL Draft rolled around. And they took him. The only catch? It wasn’t the Russian whom everybody was expecting.
When the Montréal Canadiens chose Austrian defenseman David Reinbacher with the fifth overall pick, talented SKA Saint Petersburg forward Matvei Michkov was available for the taking. The problem for the Coyotes was that after meeting with Michkov before the draft, they came away with the distinct impression that he wanted no part of the franchise.
So instead of taking a player that many analysts feel was a top-three talent in this draft, the Coyotes journeyed 800 miles to the southeast in Russia to select fluid skating, 6-4 Yaroslavl Lokomotiv defenseman Dmitri Simashev.
Six picks later, they chose his teammate, 6-5 forward Daniil But.
In a draft that many analysts described as dull because there were no trades, the Coyotes raised the most eyebrows. They left a generational talent sitting on the table. They paid no heed to concerns about Russian players making their way to the NHL in the midst of an ongoing war. And they took not one but two Russian players whom most analysts had ranked lower on their draft boards; one of them a defenseman in what was termed a forward-heavy draft.
Aside from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the other great concern with drafting Russian players was the lack of live viewings over the past year due to the aforementioned war and the inability of scouts to travel freely throughout that nation. Live viewings are a critical piece of the Coyotes scouting staff’s core philosophy. Something felt amiss.
As it turns out, the Coyotes found a way around that issue. GM Bill Armstrong, director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski and associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski all watched both players play live in a tournament in Belarus where only one other team was present.
They came out of that tournament blown away.
“Simashev is a physically dominant defenseman,” Armstrong said. “We call him the unicorn of the draft. They’re hard to find, guys that can move and skate like that for a big man.”
“He gets up in the neutral zone and he hunts you down. His feet for a big man, I can honestly say this, I don’t know that I’ve seen a skater of his size in the last 20 some odd years. He can close on guys quick.”
Simashev didn’t put up any kind of offensive numbers in his 18 games in the KHL, but he had decent production in the MHL (Russian juniors) when playing in a different role, particularly when he switched teams.
“In the KHL, it’s a more defensive, physical game,” Simashev, 18, said. “I am a young player and it was my first season on the KHL team. In the MHL, I’m more free, I’m offensive.”
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman called Simashev a legitimate top pairing talent whom many scouts considered the best defenseman in the draft.
“He’s not dynamic offensively, but he has good puck skills, can beat checkers one-on-one with his hands, makes a solid outlet pass and makes some plays from the offensive blue line,” Pronman wrote. “He’s smooth and solid defensively, being good on his gaps and retrievals.
“Simashev competes hard, has some physicality in his game, and showed in the first half he could play against men at a young age. There is some debate on how much offense he has, but I think he has offense, and on a lesser junior team he would have scored more. You saw in the MHL playoffs when they leaned on him, the offense came out more consistently. I see a lot of indicators of a two-way top-pair defenseman in the NHL even if I don’t think he’ll put up big point totals.”
When asked about Simashev’s upside, Plandowski punted.
“We don’t know,” he said. “He’s so young. All we did was watch the skating, we were able to watch him live, handle the puck and he’s physical so you kind of dream in color of just what can he be? What is the ceiling? That’s what excited us.”
Both Simashev and But are under contract for two more seasons and they are not allowed to compete in development camp next week due to those contractual restrictions, but both will visit Arizona soon, per team sources. Because of those contracts, there are analysts who wonder whether the two players will ever play a game in Arizona, but Armstrong and co. didn’t just scout the players, they got to know them in Belarus, they got to know their families and they met with the players again before the draft to gauge their willingness to come to Arizona.
Both players expressed a desire to play for the Coyotes in those meetings, and again when interviewed by media after their selections. When Arizona selected But at No. 12, Simashev was overjoyed at the thought of a teammate joining him.
“Being in the NHL is my dream,” he said. “This only makes it better.”
It is no secret that Armstrong likes size, particularly on the back end where he believes that longer reach alone makes for a better defender. With Simashev, the Coyotes also get a player who skates extremely well and, as Pronman noted, has good gap control and quick puck retrievals.
With But, they got an even bigger player (6-5) with lots of upside who produced at a point-per-game clip in the MHL.
“He’s very versatile,” Jankowski said. “He’s a big body, he skates, he can transport pucks, he can bring pucks into the offensive zone. At the same time, he can shoot, he can make plays.
“I think that part of him is still going to adapt. At the end of the day, as much as he likes to score goals and likes to shoot the puck, he can make plays, especially on the power play, especially in tight areas. As he grows into his body as he develops his skating, as he gets stronger and all these key attributes, we feel that there’s a high limit for him.”
Upside is how Flo Hockey analyst Chris Peters defined the Coyotes’ day.
“When you get that rare combination of size and touch and a great release like But, if he hits, he could be a superstar, but you’re projecting a ton on that,” Peters said. “He has one of the highest ceilings in the draft, period. If I were looking at guys in terms of upside, he’s among the top because he is big and he is skilled.
“What the Coyotes did today is they bet on ceiling and the ceiling for both of these players is gigantic; bigger for But than Simashev because I’m not as sure about the offensive game, but the traits that they have work in the modern NHL.”
Top photo of Dmitri Simashev via Getty Images
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