One kind of player I am always sympathetic with are the Europeans who choose to come to the CHL. It presents them with unique challenges that Canadian and Americans playing in the CHL do not face — they are adjusting to very different styles of play than the European junior leagues they’re used to, and they adjust to a new language and culture.
This isn’t something I necessarily use to mentally bump a player’s rankings, but I am typically more impressed by a European kid playing in North America excelling than I am when a Canadian player has the same level of success. Quite simply, that European had to deal with more, and put more work into overcoming challenges that his local counterpart did not have to.
Enter Pavel Mintyukov, a Russian defenseman who played for Saginaw in the OHL this year and took the league by storm.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 192 lbs
Birth date: November 25th, 2003
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 16th
- Will Scouch: 20h
- Scott Wheeler: 25th
- Elite Prospects: 7th
- Dobber Prospects: 20th
- Smaht Scouting: 26th
Pavel Mintyukov was, quite simply, one of if not THE best defenseman in the entire OHL last year. He finished third in the league among defensemen with 62 points in 65 games, and second in even strength primary points. He finished 5th among all defensemen in the league in goals with 17. He was great at producing points in all situations, but especially at even strength.
And he did this as the offensive leader for his team. No, really, Mintyukov actually led all Saginaw players in points in 62 — so it is perhaps not much of a surprise that Saginaw finished second last in the league, with the 7th worst goals for. Mintyukov was Saginaw this year, and as he went so too did the team. He was used in all situations: top pair at even strength, top PP unit staying on for most of it, and a lot on the penalty kill as well.
And it’s not just his point production. By the manually tracked data, Mintyukov was just great all around.
What’s fun is looking at how Mintyukov achieves all those points and that sterling data.
THE GOOD: OFFENSE AND TRANSITION
Will Scouch called Mintyukov a cowboy early in the year, and that’s stuck with me. He plays a very aggressive and confident style when he has the puck, and Saginaw relied on him to play with the puck a lot.
He is a brilliant skater in every way you can think of — he’s explosive, he’s fast, and he’s very agile. That helps him blow by defenders, but also maneuver around and evade them in tight quarters. He takes advantage of his mobility by constantly moving, constantly activating, and being all over the ice. He can dangle, he is shifty on his skates using constant edgework and pivots to keep defenders off balance when trying to attack him.
Elite Prospects summed it up nice and concisely:
What separates Mintyukov from Korchinski and Denton Mateychuk (whose spot in the top-10 he took) is a combination of mechanical refinement, defensive instincts, and play selection. Where Korchinski extends his possession to hunt the perfect play, Mintyukov uses the give-and-go. Where Mateychuk offloads possession, Mintyukov flashes top-of-the-class handling skills to fake out defenders before cutting inside.
He’s flashy but always with a purpose. Once activated, he consistently makes high-skill passes to teammates around the net, often creating the lanes in the process. Simply put, we view him as the best offensive defenceman in the draft class, along with projectable defence and puck-moving.
That can make him seem chaotic and out of position, but Saginaw was a bit of an unusual team in that they were very free flowing. I wouldn’t call them “positionless”, per se, but they’re as close as I’ve seen to a hockey team create a system around the total hockey concept that became in vogue a few years ago. That system has its pros and cons, and I’ll discuss the cons below, but let’s focus on how Mintyukov fit this system so well.
Mintyukov was by far their best player on the team. He used his skating and aggression to roam. If he had the puck, he would not necessarily hog it. He would pass it, but would also move afterwards to present himself as a good option to get it back in a better area, or to just help prolong the play. He would jump into rushes, if not lead them, because he had confidence there would be backup for him and because his skating would help him get back on defense if needed.
This is a good example of that. He gets the puck at the point with a defender in front of him. He makes a simple pass to an open teammate also on the point, and keeps moving deeper into the offensive zone. His defender stops to watch the pass, and that allows Mintyukov to get open with tons of space between him and the goal. The pass back to him misses, but he shoulder checks and fires a great pass to a teammate creeping in from the point for a wide open chance.
And Mintyukov absolutely had the skill where he could have an impact on the play by being involved in it. He has a good shot, he is shifty with the puck to dangle past defenders, and he would drive play to dangerous areas. He is a good passer and playmaker, he isn’t the kind of defenseman to just blast as many shots on net from the point. He is not an empty calories point producer, in other ways. In this vein, Mintyukov plays a bit like Cale Makar — just not nearly at the same level. But he is also very aggressive in being involved with the play, very much like a roamer. So if that is the kind of defenseman you like, you will like Mintyukov.
Here’s a good play that is a case in point. While short handed, he sees an opportunity brewing even before there’s a loose puck. It helps him corral it first, and then he gets some separation from the defenders, fakes out the defenseman and goalie, makes a quick pivot on his edges and finds a wide open trailer for the short handed goal in the slot.
THE FLAWS: CONSISTENT DEFENSIVE AWARENESS
While I can safely say that Mintyukov is consistently an elite offensive defenseman, I cannot say the same for his defense. After watching a few games of his, I can safely say he comes off as a better transition defender than in his own end against a cycle. On transitions, he is good at keeping a close gap and stepping up against a puck carrier to force a dump in or a turnover. He doesn’t necessarily look for a big hit but will use his size to physically stop or interrupt a player, as well as use his stick to knock pucks loose. This is a good example of what I’ve seen him do frequently (#10 in white).
But once the other team has possession in Sarnia’s end, I would describe Mintyukov’s defense as both inconsistent and also active-but-aimless at times. While there are moments when he can anticipate a play, check his man against the boards to stop him dead and get the puck loose, he also at times is passive to the point of falling asleep. His positioning can be all over the place, and while sometimes that is because he is pursuing or sticking to his man, he can also be indecisive and jump from man to man and covering no one in the end.
Take this example, again, he is #10 in white. He is a left shot but basically is playing as the right side defenseman. When the puck is at the point, he sticks tight with his man and ties up his stick — so far, so good. But once the puck goes into the corner he has one of those “XBOX Controller Disconnected” moments. He leaves his man, but doesn’t pursue the puck or the opponent who gets there first. The puck winds up in front, on the stick of the man Mintyukov just left, and he just.... stands there not really doing anything while the other team scores.
This is obviously some bad defense, but I want to stress a few things. First, I say his in-zone defense is inconsistent and not bad for a reason. Because while he can have lapses of awareness for who he should be covering, where he should be on the ice, or what he should be doing at a given moment, it is not all the time. For every brain fart above, he will also make a good defensive play. He is often more active in the defensive zone than not, moving around constantly and trying to tie up an opponent or put his stick in a passing lane.
I honestly cannot separate his own defensive ability from the team’s system of defense. They seem to try and play a pretty strict man to man coverage, where you have your guy and you follow him wherever he goes. Which means Mintyukov as a defenseman winds up all over the place. Honestly that kind of positionless, roaming, active but aimless defending in their end is something I noticed the whole team was guilty of all the time. This is the bad side of that “total hockey” concept I mentioned above. It is good for creating chaos offensively, which with the right players and skills you can capitalize on to produce offense. But defensively, especially with younger players like in the OHL, the lack of structure creates a bad kind of chaos. I’m not really a skilled enough scout to separate Mintyukov’s actual defensive ability from the structure in which his coaches have him play defense.
However, I do see flashes of ability from Mintyukov to use his skating and size to defend some situations very well. He clearly does have some ability to read a play, make the right decision, and have the skills to make good defensive plays. It’s just a matter of him doing it more consistently, and I hope he can work with better coaching (with consultation with NHL development teams) over time to get him there. The tools are there for him to be at least an adequate NHL defender, it’s a matter of him applying them properly and consistently.
Here is a good quote from Smaht Scouting about the good and bad parts of his defense:
Mintyukov suffocates space very well. He does not give puck carriers space and puts constant pressure on the puck to force turnovers or to stop rushes from entering the zone. Saginaw deploys an aggressive approach in the neutral zone where their defensemen are high near center ice to deter any stretch passes, and Mintyukov is great at breaking up any pass coming his way off an attempted zone exit. He keeps a tight gap, and while his backward mobility isn’t high end, he’s able to dictate players to spaces where he can separate them from the puck.
However, Mintyukov’s biggest individual weakness is his propensity for putting himself out of position in order to chase a big hit. In basketball we’d call it ‘circling the trap’, and in hockey it’s putting the puck where the defender used to be. Too often Mintyukov is the aggressor along the wall. He makes the first move to try to put an oncoming opponent through the glass and the opponent is able to either chip it past him and avoid the hit, or teams are smart enough to know his tendencies and an oncoming opponent will fill a rush lane exactly where Mintyukov was to receive a pass and generate an odd-man rush.
The other good sign is that Mintyukov was used as one of their main defensemen on the penalty kill, and there he often looked a lot better. I honestly think it is because the team actually plays with more structure on the penalty kill than they did at even strength.
Honestly, the more I watched Mintyukov the more I really do think his defensive issues are coming at least in part because of their weird man-to-man coverage system. Whenever Mintyukov has a clear assignment: stop a zone entry, play on the PK, follow his assigned man in the zone, he’ll do it at least alright most of the time even if the system looks weird. Where he has his lapses that I can see is when he sort of switches, leaves his man for someone else or going to a different area/zone. When he does this, he seems sort of lost and indecisive, like he is unsure if he should be doing that, and he looks lost. I swear this is because the system the team uses says “play man to man”, but his instincts from a lifetime of hockey before this was more traditional, and his brain short circuits when that clashes with this new system.
Pavel Mintyukov is definitely one of the top defensemen available in this draft. He is not quite in the upper tier, along with Simon Nemec or David Jiricek, but does seem firmly in the next tier down according to most scouts. Of the four players I am profiling in the category of “probably shouldn’t be available when the Leafs pick but I hope they are and there may be a slight chance...”, Mintyukov is the least likely to be available, I think.
Even in McKenzie’s mid-season rankings, Mintyukov was ranked 16th. He has the complete package that I think most teams would highly covet. Even if his defense is inconsistent, he still seems better defensively overall than two other defensemen in his tier: Korchinski and Mateychuk.
So why might he fall to the late first round? A combination of the Russian war against Ukraine and how some teams might feel about Russian prospects, as well as the rising hype of other prospects around him. I also didn’t hear the same amount of hype around him later in the year than I did around the mid-season mark.
This draft seems very deep for defensemen, and there have been rumours and scouting reports of some teams having all sorts of defensemen in the top 10. Mintyukov has been one of them, but it will depend on if those teams are the ones who have the picks ahead of Toronto.
Other teams reportedly love Liam Bichsel, a hulking Swiss defenseman with better defense. NHL teams love big defensemen, and they might think his offense will come and will be a better defender overall. Some teams might prefer Korchinski, who is more of a playmaking/passing defenseman than a roamer, and that might appeal to more traditional-thinking teams. Others might prefer Mateychuk, who is smaller but seven months younger and has even more points in the WHL. If enough prospects with rising draft hype get into the same tier as Mintyukov, the Russian factor and his less orthodox profile may lead him to slip a bit.
It’s not likely, but I can see him winding up being taken after 16th. He’s another player where I’m very curious where he winds up on McKenzie’s final rankings in a couple of weeks.
Would you draft Mintyukov is he is available?
Absolutely and without question.
Probably, unless someone else better falls
No, his defense and style of play won’t work in the NHL.