Admittedly, I raised an eyebrow when the Montreal Canadiens picked 20-year-old defenceman Bogdan Konyushkov in the fifth round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
The first thing that came to mind was that I definitely did not have enough knowledge regarding his game to make any legitimate declarations about his potential.
The second thing that dawned on me was that picking overage players has some value in the NHL, but there’s also a significant chance that it may backfire.
There are always players that fall through the cracks, but more often than not, getting ignored in multiple drafts is not a great sign.
And the third thing that occurred to me, was that I had some homework to do.
Simply put, I was ignorant of the value he brought to the table as a defenceman.
Thankfully, with the KHL season already in full swing, I had an opportunity to watch Konyushkov play a complete game Wednesday afternoon when he faced SKA Saint Petersburg, the team that is currently in charge of Philadelphia Flyers prospect Matvei Michkov’s development. More on that later.
Some Bias At Play
I’d be lying if I said I started my analysis with a clean sheet. I was well aware of some facts when it comes to his status in the KHL.
Konyushkov signed a three-year contract extension with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, which means the earliest he will join the Habs is the 2026-27 season.
He was also heralded as a great-value selection when the Canadiens selected him with the 110th overall pick by many Draft Experts that I follow closely and trust explicitly.
His coaching staff in Russia also had nothing but great things to say about his play last year, which is rather rare, since 19-year-old defencemen aren’t given many opportunities to prove their worth in the KHL.
Konyushkov scored two goals in 23 assists in 65 games during his rookie season, which, again, is a very impressive stat line when we consider the context in which he evolved, because, of course, the KHL is still one of the best leagues in the world.
That means there was some bias at play before I got the chance to properly evaluate him, though, if I may say so, I do have the habit of formulating my own opinion about players even if I’ve been given some hints as to their potential.
Right off the bat, it was clear the coaching staff trusted Konyushkov more than the typical 20-year-old defender.
He was given top pairing duties at 5v5, as well as penalty kill and powerplay shifts. He finished the game with almost 24 minutes of ice time, close to four minutes more than any of his teammates.
He was the third most-used player on the powerplay, with almost minutes on the man advantage. As for the penalty kill, he was far and away the busiest player on the ice, with over 3 minutes of PK ice time.
He took a questionable penalty early in the second period, though you could argue that his defensive partner was to blame for the incursion on the SKA scoring chance, and Konyushkov was simply attempting to mitigate the opportunities to score.
Regardless, his coach, Igor Larionov, did not use the penalty as an excuse to cut down Konyukshkov’s ice time, which is very encouraging for the Montreal Canadiens in terms of how his development is progressing.
The KHL is a lot like the NHL.
Minutes for young defencemen are hard to come by.
Mistakes can often lead to a quick demotion.
But that was not the case on Wednesday, as Torpedo increased his ice time in the second and third periods.
And it quickly paid off.
During a 5-on-3, Konyushkov was given an opportunity to shine, and boy, did he shine.
After a few low-danger scoring chances by his teammates, Konyushkov drove the play up the ice with control of the puck, setting up an easy controlled entry into the offensive zone.
He followed it up with fantastic decision-making, keeping the puck in the offensive zone on two occasions when it seemed certain that SKA was about to clear the zone.
His anticipation and vision were on full display.
Again, we must remind ourselves that this took place during a two-man advantage, but regardless, Konyushkov definitely earned his assist on Minnesota Wild prospect Vladislav Firstov’s first goal of the season.
Here's a pretty good shift for #GoHabsGo prospect Bogdan Konyushkov. Granted, It's a 5-on-3, but he drives the play, keeps the play alive on two occasions, and sets up Firstov for a PP goal.
He's wearing No.6 pic.twitter.com/S8V5pdmAof
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 6, 2023
Konyushkov’s first pass was almost always on the mark, leading to several high-danger scoring chances for his teammates. The passes were crisp, and they left SKA little to no chance to intercept the play.
He also did a good job intercepting passes, once again using his anticipation to shut down forwards while quickly transitioning the puck up the ice.
I was really impressed with #GoHabsGo prospect Bogdan Konyushkov's skill after watching him play today. His skating was well above average and he has an incredible vision. He can predict turnovers before they occur and effortlessly find his teammate on the ice. pic.twitter.com/1kdS2NDAJp
— Cédrick Blais-Turcotte (@cbturcotte17) September 6, 2023
I don’t want to compare the two, because there are still a few differences in their game, but Konyushkov quickly reminded me of the Montreal Canadiens prospect who is the most underrated player in the prospect pool: Adam Engstrom.
Konyushkov’s skating is very good, but I wouldn’t consider it elite, which means Engstrom has the edge (get it?) in that department, but they both have a penchant for using their vision to create scoring chances out of thin air.
Like Engstrom, Konyushkov has no issues making bold decisions. I know some coaches will have issues with a young defenceman who is undaunted by his lack of experience, but personally, I believe it’s a trait shared by most elite players at that age, and should be encouraged.
But it didn’t always work out.
In the third period, Konyushkov attempted a quick clear deep in his own zone, but he essentially missed the puck, which led to a high-danger chance for Saint Petersburg.
He also flubbed a puck early in the game, though I’d wager the bumpy ice had more to do with that than Konyushkov’s decision-making.
Montreal Canadiens Brass Tacks
It was just one game, but Konyushkov is clearly a player with a healthy amount of potential. He has strong offensive instincts and a high level of defensive awareness.
But when it comes to players developing in Russia, the coaching situation is almost as important as potential. In that sense, the mere fact that Konyushkov was not benched for his few mistakes is great news for the Canadiens organization.
On the other side of the coin, Flyers prospect Matvei Michkov, who was a healthy scratch in SKA’s first two games of the season, was given a grand total of 6 minutes and 11 seconds of ice time by his coach.
The majority of his shifts took place in the offensive zone, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any justification behind the limited ice time, but such is life in the KHL, especially for a young prospect who has declared his intentions to play in the NHL.
For the record, SKA was outshot 39-32, losing the game 4-3, but for the majority of the matchup they were outshot significantly, which adds confusion as to Michkov’s usage. They only closed the gap in shots in the final moments of the game, a phenomenon we can easily attribute to score effects.
It’s something that I (mistakenly) overlooked when analyzing Mitchkov’s potential. He’s one of the most talented players on the ice, and he was one of the team’s best players in the pre-season, but that didn’t seem to factor into how many opportunities he was given.
It’s a situation that has happened before. Once Alex Emelin made it clear he was heading to the NHL he was given very few chances to shine, despite showing great potential for Kazan Ak-Bars.
Thankfully, that was not the case for Konyushkov.
To make a long story short, my first impression of his play is that the Montreal Canadiens may have another late-round steal on their hands.
Konyushkov is far from perfect, but the right-handed defenceman is certainly a very interesting prospect that should not be dismissed simply because he’s older than most of the players in the team’s prospect pool.