After mostly avoiding Russian-born players via the draft during the first 15 years of their history, the Minnesota Wild have been embarking on a sort of Russian renaissance over the last five drafts. And while Kirill Kaprizov and Alexander Khovanov are the names most commonly talked about, former general manager Paul Fenton also managed to grab a smart sniper in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft in Waterloo Blackhawks forward Vladislav Firstov.
Now entering his sophomore year at the University of Connecticut, Firstov has continued to show his teammates and opponents the offensive prowess he was known for in the Russian junior program, and thus, he finds himself at No. 15 of Hockey Wilderness’ Top 25 Under 25 list.
A top player in the Lokomotiv junior system in his hometown of Yaroslavl, Russia, Firstov was a 17th-round flyer taken by the Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League, and crossed the pond to play in the US’ top junior league for the 2018-19 season. It didn’t take long for him to get acclimated, as Firstov earned USHL All-Rookie honors thanks to a 26-goal, 32-assist season that ranked second in the league for first-year players, behind only fellow 2019 second-round selection Shane Pinto. His successful season caught the eye of NHL Central Scouting, who ranked the 6-foot-1, 181-pound winger 21st among North American skaters, and most prognosticators had Firstov pegged as a late second-round or early third-round pick. Fenton grabbed him a bit early at 42nd overall, but when a team is desperate for offense (like the Wild seemingly is every year), sometimes you’ve got to pull the trigger earlier than you’d like.
In the season since, Firstov hasn’t given any indication that he was a reach. Firstov finished his freshman year at UConn with 11 goals (good for second on the Huskies) and 12 assists. His 23 points ranked him seventh among freshman in the highly competitive Hockey East conference, and he finished only three points back of fellow 2019 Wild draft pick Matthew Boldy of Boston College. In fact, Firstov bested Boldy in goals 11-9, and did so despite playing on a UConn team that finished middle of the pack in Hockey East.
First off (or should I say, First-ov?), the boxscores show a player that has a pretty good balance between shooting and playmaking, as Firstov’s scoring numbers have been pretty even between goals and assists at every level. This is a testament not only to his shooting and passing abilities but also to the high hockey IQ he is noted to have. Most scouts love his ability to see the ice and be in the right place at the right time to not only set up his teammates, but to also receive passes in a good position from where he can generate a scoring chance.
Another stat that stood out during his freshman year at UConn was his plus/minus of plus-14, which is remarkable as the Huskies allowed the third-most goals in conference games, and let in 3.12 goals-per-game over the entire season. While plus/minus is an imperfect stat when it comes to defensive analytics, it does at least speak to Firstov’s commitment to playing hard in both the offensive and defensive zones. His active stick and great positioning allows him to break up scoring chances and disrupt the opponents’ cycle.
The 19-year-old also finished the season with three game-winning goals, tied for third nationally amongst freshman and just one behind prolific freshman scorer Alex Newhook of conference-rival Boston College - someone who he should get used to seeing, as Newhook could be seeing ice time with the Wild’s division rival Colorado Avalanche in only a couple of years.
Roll the Tape
When you start watching Firstov’s highlight clips, the main thing that stands out about a lot of his goals is just how smart the kid is. He’s got a knack for finding the right spot on the ice and the skills to finish in any number of clever ways, fooling defenders and goaltenders alike.
From the set up to the shot, well-executed snipe by Vladislav Firstov (2019). He sets up the defender as a screen on outnumbered entry. Shot is so clever, not giving away his spot with his blade + dragging the puck around the D's stick to shoot under it. 47p in 49gp in the USHL. pic.twitter.com/2WkI7Bj5j2— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) March 6, 2019
Here’s a perfect example of Firstov’s game. He gets in good position to battle for the puck, passes to his point man to keep the play alive, finds open ice and gets the return pass, and then uses his hands and vision to toe-drag to a great scoring opportunity. He rings the pipe here, but the near-goal shows all at once what Firstov can bring to the table.
But Firstov’s hockey IQ isn’t limited to his own scoring opportunities - he can use his savvy playmaking to rack up assists as well. Here, he sells out the goalie down low to find his teammate on the far side of the net, who one-times in an easy score.
Firstov’s weaknesses are few, but they’re the kind of things that really need to be strengthened before he makes the professional jump. First, his skating isn’t the strongest. He’s agile and he has a good first step that allows him to win a quick puck battle, but at the pro level he’ll have a tough time pulling away from defenders or getting on breakaways unless he improves his stride and top speed. Second, while positioning can beat physicality at the junior and college level, as he moves up the ladder, he’ll want to add some strength to his 6-foot-1 frame. UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh thinks Firstov can do that if he keeps putting in the time.
“He’s got a lot of talent but Vlad’s going to have to put the work in,” Cavanaugh said. “If he thinks he can come and say ‘This year I had 23 points, next year I’ll have 33 points,’ it doesn’t work that way. The minute you stand still, people are going by you. But I’m confident he’ll be doing the things it takes to get better.”
With Kaprizov slated to join the Wild this season and Alexander Khovanov a year or two behind him, Firstov could be the eventual left-side of an all-Russian line. OK, so that’s a little more optimistic than realistic (because let’s face it, Kaprizov and Fiala are going to be paired up for the next decade, right?), but if Firstov continues to progress in the NCAA, it’s conceivable that the Yaroslavl left winger could see his first professional action in Iowa at the end of this season or next, and share the bench (if not the ice) with his fellow Russians by 2023 or 2024.
Firstov played second-line minutes in his freshman year at UConn, and if he keeps upping his game, hitting the weight room and improving his skating over the next few seasons, a top-six forward role could eventually be an attainable goal for Firstov on the Wild as well.
And wouldn’t it be nice to see a sweet celly when Firstov is first on the scoreboard? #MNWildFirst