Following a very good 2016-2017 season in the MHL (Russian Junior Hockey League) where he recorded 22 points in 29 games played with Irbis Kazan, Alexander Khovanov started to gain steam as a top prospect in the hockey world.
A smallish center with great vision and playmaking skills, Khovanov seemed like he was on his way to being a first-round pick long before his draft season, and his upward trajectory continued as he was selected second overall in the 2017 CHL Import Draft by the Moncton Wildcats, behind only fellow countrymen and current Carolina Hurricanes star Andrei Svechnikov.
The anticipation for Khovanov’s arrival to North America and the CHL was considerable, as he was considered to be one of the very best young prospects coming out of Europe at that time. Eventually, he established himself as a can’t-miss prospect in the eyes of many junior and pro scouts.
Khovanov was expected to be one of the top players for Russia at the 2017 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, which is an annual U18 tournament taking place in the late summer — typically teams are made up of players eligible for the next NHL Draft. Unfortunately, Khovanov contracted hepatitis A while on vacation in the Dominican Republic that summer, and not only did it hold him out of the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, but it turned out to be a pretty significant setback that delayed the start to his first season in North America. His QMJHL debut didn’t come until late December.
Like any player, it was very tough for Khovanov to watch his teammates play from afar, especially in a season that had such significant implications on his future hockey career.
The long wait for Khovanov’s anticipated North American debut finally came to an end on December 28, 2017 as he suited up for his first game with the Moncton Wildcats for the first time. After a bit of a slow start offensively to his QMJHL career, Khovanov picked things up towards the end of the season and showed off the skill that made him a highly touted prospect, finishing with 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in 29 regular-season games played, along with seven points (three goals, four assists) in 12 playoff games.
#HighlightOfTheNight | Alexander Khovanov of the @monctonwildcats extended his point-streak to six games with this beauty on the power play! pic.twitter.com/siBDdtG7BC— QMJHL (@QMJHL) February 8, 2018
While it was certainly a very good start for Khovanov considering the circumstances, the production wasn’t enough for Khovanov to be selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, as he fell back into the third round, where the Minnesota Wild selected him at 86th overall.
After being selected, the main weakness that scouts and writers seemed to point out most frequently was his skating. While not horrible, and at least average, he seemed to not yet have that extra gear or pace that could make him a great NHL player, and that made scouts a bit skeptical about his future. Of course, some believe that his illness and injury issues played a role in slowing him down.
With a clean bill of health, expectations were high for Khovanov’s second season in the QMJHL. The 2018-2019 season started out similar to how it ended — strong and consistent production offensively, but his point totals weren’t as dominant as expected for a player of his caliber, with 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 64 games played (including 10 points in 10 playoffs games). Good statistics, but not great.
Nonetheless, it was a good rebound season with his health fully intact, and he showed off just how dangerous his vision and passing skills can be, especially on the power play, where he got 33 of his points last season.
His strong play payed off, as he was rewarded with a three-year, entry-level contract at a cap hit of $842,500 according to CapFriendly.
Extremely excited to sign my first NHL contract with @mnwild. Thank you to my family, friends, teammates, coaches and my agents who have believed in me and helped me get to where I am today!! pic.twitter.com/sTxcTbmeMW— Akhovanov13 (@lelik__13) March 19, 2019
Fast forward to the 2019-2020 season, though, and Khovanov has been a man amongst boys in the QMJHL, ranking first on his team in scoring and third in the QMJHL with 53 points (20 goals, 33 assists) in 26 games played, only behind top draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere (70 points) and Cedric Pare (59 points).
As a 19-year-old who turns 20 in April, it’s not all that surprising that Khovanov is thriving in the QMJHL. But he is looking far more than just a good junior player. He is finally starting to show off the high-end skill that made him the No. 2 overall pick back in the 2017 CHL Import Draft.
The playmaking ability is clearly still there. Khovanov is constantly making great plays in the offensive zone — the kinds of plays that make you think he has eyes in the back of his head, including this beautiful feed from behind the net as he circles around in the QMJHL vs. Russia Junior Super Series.
How did we get to a one goal game after 40? This buzzer beater goal, courtesy of Dmitry Zavgorodniy!— QMJHL (@QMJHL) November 5, 2019
QMJHL 3⃣-2⃣ RUS#CANvsRUS pic.twitter.com/wT4MVMewGv
Later in the same game, Khovanov had another nice assist on a goal by Dmitry Zavgorodniy. After stealing the puck away from a Canadian defender, he turns around and skates into the offensive zone. Seeing Zavgorodniy on the far side, he attempts to feather a pass through the defense over to him, but it gets blocked away by the skate of a defender. As soon as it is blocked, Khovanov knocks the puck off of the defender’s stick and kicks it up to his stick, eventually finding Zavgorodniy at the top of the crease with a perfect feed to give the Russians the lead late in the third period.
And here's your game winner from Saint John tonight!— QMJHL (@QMJHL) November 5, 2019
⌚️16:44 (third period)
RUS 4⃣-3⃣ QMJHL#CANvsRUS pic.twitter.com/JjTClIw64U
What makes this play so impressive is not only his ability to make the quick and accurate pass across the zone, but how much poise he showed in knocking the puck away from the defender and calmly getting it from his feet to his stick — something a lot of players would find difficult to do.
The ability to see the ice and make plays is what makes him great. But make no mistake, his shot is nothing to sneeze at either.
Each of the last three seasons, Khovanov’s ability and confidence to shoot the puck has gotten improved tenfold. From nine goals in 29 games in the 2017-2018 season to 25 goals in 64 games in the 2018-2019 season, his shot has shown a marked improvement. Already, he has 20 goals through his first 26 games played in 2019-20 (a 49-goal pace if he played the same amount of games as 2018-2019).
With that added confidence, Khovanov’s release has gotten quicker, which has allowed him to beat goaltenders from farther out the offensive zone, making his shot even more lethal.
Just check out these two goals he scored against Acadie-Bathurst back in November. There aren’t too many players on the Wild or in the system that can pick their spot and shoot like that, right?
4 point night (2 2 ) for @monctonwildcats Alex Khovanov (@lelik__13) in a 6-3 Win vs Acadie-Bathurst. Here’s a look at goal #13 & #14 of the season for the @mnwild prospect. He has 14 & 20 in 16 games this season. #mnwild #DefendTheDen #QMJHL #LHJMQ pic.twitter.com/ovm8HfOu55— Denis Leblanc (@DenisL_1981) November 10, 2019
Couple of by Alexander Khovanov (@lelik__13) in a 8-5 @monctonwildcats win vs @ArmadaBLB. The @mnwild prospect has 19 & 23 in 22 games. #DefendTheDen #mnwild pic.twitter.com/b4qQhP43J9— Denis Leblanc (@DenisL_1981) November 30, 2019
While Khovanov’s skating could still use some work, it has definitely improved over the last year or so. This goal he scored off the rush in a game back in November is solid evidence of this.
Nov 15, 2019 QMJHL: Sasha Khovanov second goal vs Gatineau Olympiques pic.twitter.com/G3AhdVZ1If— HockeyRU20 (@HockeyRU20) November 16, 2019
Aside from a sometimes iffy skating ability, Khovanov’s biggest weakness is his discipline. He spent 36 minutes in the box in just 29 games as a rookie in the QMJHL, followed by 94 PIMs in 64 games played last year. Khovanov is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and this season has been no exception — he has a whopping 56 penalty minutes through the first 26 games of the season. He even was suspended a game earlier this season for “biting” an opposing player, which is obviously not a smart thing to do.
Quite the altercation following the game involving a number of members of both Charlottetown and Moncton. Wildcats forward Alexander Khovanov receives a match penalty for biting during the skirmish, as per the game sheet.— Aidan Northcott (@AidanNorthcott) November 17, 2019
Obviously, if he wants to be able to hold down a spot in an NHL lineup, he will have to clean up on the unnecessary shenanigans.
Khovanov made Russia’s World Junior Championship camp roster, and barring anything unforeseen, he is expected to make the team and be one of the Russian’s top players at the tournament in the Czech Republic later this month. It will be a great chance for Wild fans to get their eyes on him and watch him play live.
Khovanov is an extremely talented hockey player with amazing vision and playmaking skills, combined with a very good shot. However, his skating still needs some work, along with his penchant for undisciplined penalties — both attributes are quite fixable.
While Khovanov is still quite raw, the skills he’s demonstrated this season and in the past indicate that the Wild could have a very good player on their hands as long as they give him the proper time to develop. At least one full season in the AHL should do him some good. Minnesota lacks center depth, and having a player like Khovanov in the system is a big help.
And who knows? Maybe he could center a line with fellow Wild prospect and KHL superstar Kirill Kaprizov in the near future.