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How a 2021 NHL Draft pick helped shape the Sabres’ Russian prospect development plan

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Alexander Mogilny was the first Russian-born player to play a game for the Buffalo Sabres, and his career was a sparkling success. He was the first Russian player to become captain of an NHL team and the first Russian to play in the NHL All-Star Game. He has statistics that warrant Hall of Fame consideration and was the one who demonstrated a path for others to defect from the Soviet Union and play in the NHL.

But nothing about his transition to life in America and the NHL was simple. He ended up playing for four different NHL teams before retiring and returning to his home country.

“Alex struggled,” said Nellie Drew, who worked as legal counsel for the Sabres during that time. “I always felt like he was searching for something. There was a reason he kept jumping around the NHL. At the bottom, I think he kept looking for that Russian community that he could feel comfortable with. I think that’s why he ended up back there.”

The Sabres have been mindful of that the last two years when Kevyn Adams and his staff have re-emphasized scouting and drafting Russian-born prospects. In total, Adams has picked six Russians in the last two drafts. By drafting more than one player from Russia, the hope is the players can have that sense of community when they come to play for Buffalo’s organization.

“If you have a path of people that have done it before, people are more likely to follow,” Drew said.

The needs of a Russian prospect are inherently different from those playing in North America or even another European country. Convincing them to sign can be challenging, extending the developmental timeline. Once a player signs his entry-level contract, staff members from team services, immigration and finance are among those involved. The team has to set up a way for the player to get paid. They then need to get the player through the immigration process. That’s different for each player depending on their situation.

Aleksandr Kisakov was the team’s first test case last summer. A second-round pick in 2021, Kisakov signed his entry-level contract in the spring of 2022. Because the Russian version of the COVID vaccine wasn’t recognized in other parts of the world, Kisakov had to go to Spain to get another vaccine and quarantine before traveling to Canada. He was there for the 2022 NHL Draft but didn’t get through the immigration process in time to be in Buffalo for development camp in July. His first on-ice experience with the organization was prospects camp in September. He and Vsevlevod Komarov, who has been playing in the QMJHL, were the only two Russian players at that camp.

When they got to NHL training camp with the Sabres, newly signed defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin was there as a resource. The Sabres signed him to add some needed muscle and grit to their blue line, but he also served another purpose for the young Russians. He took them under his wing, showing them restaurants and having them over to his house. If nothing else, having another Russian-speaking player to talk to was critical for Kisakov in particular, who is still learning English.

“It’s tough,” Lyubushkin said. “You have a changed life. Before I played in KHL in Russia back home. Everyone speaks Russian. It’s a difference when you come to United States. It’s so tough because my English is terrible. I still think it’s terrible but it got better a little. Those first seasons I just learned English, got a teacher who has helped me a lot.”

Adams was especially grateful to have Lyubushkin when he and Don Granato were meeting with Kisakov about sending him down to the AHL. Lyubushkin sat in the room and was able to translate the details of the meeting.

“It was awesome. Well, I assume it was awesome. I don’t know what he told him in Russian,” Adams said with a laugh. “But I remember thinking after that meeting that’s so helpful so that we could really genuinely explain to him what we’re seeing and what we need him to do and focus on.”

In Rochester, Kisakov is the only Russian player. Adams thought about signing a Russian who could play in the AHL during free agency but couldn’t find the right fit. Amerks coach Seth Appert had only had one Russian player prior to Kisakov in his coaching career. The foundation of his approach is consistent as it would be with any other player. He knows he needs to earn a player’s trust and show that he and his staff care about them and have their best interest at heart. He met Kisakov last summer at the draft and there was no communication other than on Google Translate. Then he came down to Buffalo before training camp and he was able to communicate a little because he’d been working on his English. Once he was in Rochester, Amerks video coach and team services lead Amir Gulati showed Kisakov some apartments and made sure he was set up with a bank account.

Kisakov lives by himself but has managed to become more comfortable as the season has gone on. Amerks winger Brendan Warren has been his linemate and notices his sense of humor coming out more and more.

“He has a snarky side to him where he kind of gives you a side eye and a smile,” Warren said. “And you’re like, ‘Ok, he understood me. He knows what’s going on.’”

Kisakov’s development on the ice has been an interesting case, too. He reached out to the Sabres after last season to let them know he was interested in signing and making the move. Even though he’s young and undersized for the AHL, the Sabres’ staff thought it was a no-brainer to get him over and integrate him into the organization and get him used to life in America.

At 160 pounds, Kisakov needs to add size, so Appert, with input from Adams and Jason Karmanos, decided Kisakov wouldn’t play every single game so that he could get extra time in the weight room.

“His mind and his stick? He has to get better at those things, but he could play in a game in the NHL tonight and his mind and his stick would not be out of place,” Appert said. “But his body wouldn’t be close. So let’s attack the area that is the biggest thing he needs to get better at, which is making him stronger and more explosive. By taking away some midweek games from him, we get to lift him a lot more and train him a lot more in those areas.”

Kisakov has six goals and two assists in 48 games with the Amerks, but he also has two goals on three shootout attempts. His skill has shined in that setting. Kisakov said his teammates have made him feel welcome on and off the ice, but it’s still been tough being so far from home.

“It’s hard because my family is not here,” he said.

Kisakov’s mom has been able to visit a couple of times, but that aspect of this move has been challenging. The Sabres just signed 2022 third-round pick Viktor Neuchev to an entry-level contract, though, so Kisakov will have a fellow countryman in the locker room. Nikita Novikov, a 2021 sixth-round pick, has finished his contract with his Russian club and is eligible to sign, too. Komarov, after another year in junior, could be ready to make the jump. With each year that passes, the Sabres’ investment in Russians will make life easier for the next prospect who comes over.

“They’ve done a really good job of wrapping their arms around this guy and helping him adjust on and off the ice,” Adams said. “I do think that will help him not just individually but will send a message to the other players that we’re going to do everything we can to help them. It’s not just show up here, get on the ice and do your thing. I think a guy like Kisakov will be helpful with the other guys we’ve drafted as well.”

Each situation will be different, too. Stiven Sardarian, a 2021 third-round pick, just finished his first season at the University of New Hampshire. Before that, he played for a year in the USHL. He’s already conversational in English and has gotten used to life in the United States. In his first season in the USHL, Sabres development coach Tim Kennedy would go watch him play and take him out to dinner and their only communication was on their phones with Google Translate. Now Sardarian is eager to get to Buffalo for development camp and see his NHL dream up close.

“It can’t be overstated that there is a huge, huge transition element for these young people who come over from special situations like that to the U.S.,” Drew said. “It’s a big move for a young person.”

In each case, the personal sacrifice these players make is substantial, too.

“Put yourself in his shoes,” UNH coach Mike Souza said. “There’s other guys that have done it, but it’s just not the normal path. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Sabres.”

Adams often thinks about his own kids, who are 15, 18 and 21, right in the age group of some of these players. That puts into perspective what someone like Kisakov or Sardarian is doing moving across the world as a teenager in pursuit of a dream.

“They’re making a life commitment,” Adams said. “The decision they’re making to say, ‘I’m going over to pursue my dream and I’m going to do everything I can to be successful.’ That’s impressive to me. It says a lot about the internal drive of these guys. We drafted them because we saw the talent. The other stuff you hope you can support them with … I just have such an appreciation for the mindset and what that’s all about. For me, it’s making sure our organization, every single part of our organization, we’re doing what we can to help. We want them to be great players here because that’s what it’s all about, but we have an obligation to all of the kids we draft, but especially the ones that are moving across the world, to support them and that’s what we’re working towards.”

It’s necessary for that vision to be shared throughout the organization. Adams needs buy-in not just from the scouts but the coaches on the development staff and in Rochester. There are a lot of people who play a part in making sure players are comfortable once they’re in the organization. That’s always been Appert’s focus. Drafting a Russian player comes with the risk of not knowing when they sign. But as Appert puts it, “Once they’re here, they’re our guys.”

“From my perspective, I know it’s crazy, but I don’t look at it much different,” Appert said. “It’s different politically because the countries might not like each other politically. But we sure like Aleksandr Kisakov. He’s a good young kid. He has a good heart and he cares and he works hard. When I’m working with a player like that, I don’t care if he’s Russian, Czech, Swede, American, Canadian, if he’s a good kid that cares and is a good teammate, has a good work ethic and wants to be coached, I have all the time in the world for him and I’ll do everything I can to help make them a better hockey player.”

Michael Peca, who is an assistant with the Amerks as part of Buffalo’s player development staff, thinks the value of the team’s scouting staff is being able to sort through the uncertainty before a player is drafted. That’s where the team’s Russian scout Ruslan Pechonkin is such an asset to the development staff. His ability to communicate with players and help the staff foster relationships makes it easier when a player like Kisakov gets to America.

“A lot of them don’t want to be there or be associated with that stuff that is going on,” Peca said. “They just want a chance to live out their dreams. You can see that every day when Kisa comes to the rink. He loves being at the rink and loves the game of hockey. Our job is to try to get him to the highest level he can.”

Kisakov has become a favorite in the building. His passion for the game comes through in everything he does. He’s bought into how Appert and his staff are coaching him, too. At one point early in the season, Appert used Google Translate to deliver a message to Kisakov about why he was coaching him so hard. He thought it was such a crucial time in Kisakov’s development and he didn’t want anything lost in translation. That was part of earning Kisakov’s trust.

Appert and his staff are eager to see what type of jump Kisakov can make if he adds some strength and weight in the offseason. He already looks noticeably bigger now than he did in training camp and he just turned 20 in the fall. This season has been as instructive for Rochester’s staff as it has for Kisakov. They now know some of the challenges to expect when Neuchev arrives, and Neuchev has a built-in support system with Kisakov. That will only get stronger as each subsequent Russian player joins the organization.

“If a few of those Russians start to trickle over, it will collectively help all of them because he’s lived it and been through it,” Appert said.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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