With the 2010 NHL Entry Draft quickly approaching, most teams, media outlets, and hockey fans have their attention focused on who will be the #1 overall selection in Los Angeles this June. Sure, trying to figure out whether Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler, or Tyler Seguin will be the first name called presents an interesting debate. But for those who work in the industry, the most exciting (and often most challenging) part of the Draft is finding that diamond in the rough – that late-round selection that NHL teams will look back on and wonder “how did we not see that?” Who will be this year’s Henrik Zetterberg – Detroit’s 7th Round, 210th overall, pick in 1999? Only time will tell and there certainly are a number of talented players that are sure to be passed up on the first day of selections. But I’ll throw you the name of one player who certainly seems to fit the mold – Andrey Kuchin.
If you’re a true follower of the sport, you’ve probably heard that name before. Born in Elektrougli, Russia, Kuchin grew up playing hockey in the CSKA Moscow (Red Army) Hockey School. For most of his career he has been considered to be one of, if not the most talented, Russians to come from the 1991 DOB group. Back in 2005, when Kuchin’s Red Army squad participated in the Nike/Bauer International Invite in Chicago, he was second in scoring with 10 points (7G, 3A). In 2006, he was selected for the Bauer Selects team, which competed in the Prospects Tournament in Toronto. At the tournament, Kuchin posted 14 points (9G, 5A) in 8 games, placing him second in scoring behind only current Colorado Avalanche star, Matt Duchene (17 points). While skating with that same Bauer Selects team in the 2006 Montreal Cup, Kuchin managed to score 5 goals…in a single period (and yes, you are reading that correctly). But those familiar with Andrey’s game knew that this wasn’t a fluke.
Kuchin was being pegged as a top-10 NHL Draft pick and he signed his first professional contract when he was only 15 years of age. From there, though, things got a little bumpy for the Russian phenom’s career. Although many details of what exactly happened may never fully surface, apparently there was some friction between Kuchin and the former coach of his ’91 DOB Russian National Team, Vladimir Plyuschev.
According to Kuchin’s agent, Scott Deady (who contributes regularly to SportsAgentBlog.com), if you’re looking for someone to blame, Andrey’s not the one you should be looking at. “When he was skating with the [Russian] National Team, Kuch was killing a penalty during a game. His linemate caused a turnover and Andrey had to leave his assignment to cover for him. When he got back to the bench, Plyuschev berated him for vacating his position. Later in the same game, another Russian shorthanded turnover occurred with Andrey on the ice, but this time he stayed in position as previously instructed. Apparently his coach still wasn’t satisfied so he benched Kuch. From then on, Andrey couldn’t escape constant verbal abuse from Plyuschev. He was only 15 at the time, just a kid. He didn’t need that kind of stuff. Nobody does. All he was doing was trying to follow his coach’s instructions.”
Regardless of whether or not they were warranted, rumors began to surface about Kuchin having an attitude problem. People began to think that it was Kuchin’s ego which is what led to him seeing less and less playing time and eventually, not being selected for the National team altogether. It seemed as though Kuchin had disappeared from the hockey spotlight that he once dominated, and subsequently he went undrafted in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (his first year of eligibility).
I spoke with Kuchin’s current coach and former NHLer, Steve Poapst, to see if any of these reported character issues had any truth behind them. From the sound of things, it couldn’t be farther from the case. “Andrey’s been an absolute pleasure to have around – whether it’s on the ice, on the bench, or in the locker room with his teammates. Everyone here loves him and we couldn’t be happier to have gotten him this season.”
I was also able to get a hold Kuchin’s host mother, Marina Dushkin and I asked her about his personality away from the rink. “We’ve known Andrey since he was very young. When he asked us if he could live with us during the season, we were happy to welcome him into our home. We always knew that Andrey was a good kid and spending this past year with him has been great for all of us. We consider him to be a part of our family now.”
Even former NHL star and current Chicago Wolves forward, Reid Simpson, seems to have taken a shine to Kuchin. “I skated with him over in Russia and I could tell that he had real potential. I love the kid on and off the ice [and] he has that rare talent that only a few guys have – that talent you see only in top players when you play in the NHL as I did for many years. I knew there were some issues with his National coach, but after meeting Andrey I can’t see how he could have been the problem.”
Kuchin recently switched advisors to Scott Deady of I.S.A. Hockey – a move that brought back some of the past concern regarding his personal integrity. On the surface, it seemed as though his previous advisor had played a major role in getting Kuchin out of his mess in Moscow and into the USHL. Leaving only after he got so much help might appear as though the attitude gossip might actually have some merit to it. But when I spoke with those close to the situation, it seems like once again there’s nothing behind the talk.
Kuchin himself explained the reasoning behind the sudden change. “I felt as though I was being told things that were not true. I was being told that calls were being made for me but the teams were not calling back. When I asked the teams why they were not answering the calls it turns out that they never got any. I met Scott many years ago and I knew that he was working as an agent. I asked if he would call to find out if some of the other promises were true and he said that he would. When some teams I wanted to play for did not even know that I was interested in their club, I decided that I needed to make a change. I could tell that Scott works extremely hard and I did not have any time to waste. I want to play in the NHL and I feel as though Scott is truly helping me reach that goal.”
Mr. Deady himself also gave some further insight. “Kuch came to me midway through this season and asked me to follow up on some things for him. He had never even agreed to let the previous advisor work for him – basically he was just offered some help and Andrey gave his consent. When I heard what Kuch was being promised, I could tell that something was up. After making a few calls, those beliefs were only confirmed. Kuch asked if I’d start working for him and I told him I’d be happy to. Since then, he’s been nothing short of a model client. He works hard, listens to his coaches, and he’s a terrific kid all-around. You might not be able to tell when he’s got his game face on, but the kid’s got a great sense of humor. He’s been playing very well lately and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have been progressing.”
I asked Scott where he though Kuchin would end up playing next season and it seems as though he’ll be spending another year at the Junior level. In what league and with whom he’ll be skating with, though, appears to still be up in the air. “We’re trying to keep our options open. I’ve been in contact with a number of OHL teams that really want to bring Kuch in for next season. I’ve basically told them that he’s got a great situation playing in Chicago but we’re willing to listen. Since Andrey’s a foreign player, to play in the OHL he’d have to get taken in the CHL Import Draft this June. I’ve told a few clubs that wouldn’t be a good fit that if they take him in the Draft, he’ll just stay and play next season in Chicago. We want to make sure that wherever he plays next year, he’s somewhere his game can continue to develop the way it has over the past few months. It’s nice having the USHL as a solid option because it allows us to be more selective with the CHL clubs. First, we’ll see where he gets taken in the Import Draft. At that point, I’ll sit down with Steve [Poapst] and Jon [Weibel] and we’ll try and figure out where the best place for him is, whether it be in Chicago or somewhere in Canada. We aren’t going to pull him out of Chicago unless it’s the right fit. I have a lot of respect for his [current] coaches – they understand how to develop talent and I know they just want what’s best for Andrey’s career.”
It also seems as though the NHL Draft could also play a major role in how Deady sees this playing out. “The NHL Draft is being held June 26th and 27th. The CHL Import Draft isn’t until June 29th. When Kuch gets picked up by an NHL club, which I fully anticipate happening, I’ll sit down with the team’s player development director and work with him as well.”
While the controversy in Russia might have pushed back Kuchin’s original timetable for reaching his ultimate goal of the NHL, maybe it was a blessing in disguise. In light of the obstacles he’s faced, it seems as though Kuchin was forced to take a step back and reach a new level of maturity. “I am very fortunate that Vityaz (Kuchin’s KHL Club) released me for the season. They allowed me to get my development back on track here in Chicago and I can’t thank them enough for that. After all I’ve been through, I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep moving in the right direction.”
This past season, Kuchin led his Chicago Steel squad with 56 points (20G, 36A) in 56 games played. While he may have slid off the NHL radar temporarily, it certainly seems like he’s back on the map. Maybe three or four years from now, he’ll be the one NHL scouts and GMs are scratching their heads over.