For many years, the Flames did not have a single Russian-born player on their roster and very few Russian prospects in their system. Deciding to buck the trend, the club decided to look out east and sign free agent defenceman Alexander Yelesin out of the KHL to a 2 year entry level contract.
The 23-year old right shot comes with a decent amount hype surrounding him. He had plenty of suitors to chose from, but ultimately made the choice to sign in Calgary. Due to this, and the fact that he may have a faster track to the NHL than others on this list, makes him come in at the 9th spot in our prospect rankings.
How did we get here?
Yelesin was born in Yaroslavl, Russia, and has spent the majority of his junior and professional career with his hometown organization Lokomotiv. Aside from a 22 game stint with Amur Khabarovsk during the 2016-17 season, Yelesin has been in the Lokomotiv organization dating all the way back to his time as a member of their U16 and U17 seasons. He progressed through the ranks, playing for Yaroslavl’s MHL (Russian junior league) teams before finally making it with the big club after returning from Amur.
The 5’11”, 190 pound defender was never drafted, most likely due to a lack of offensive numbers at the junior level. As such, he had to work his way up and establish himself as a solid defenceman in the KHL until he was able to receive tangible interest from NHL clubs.
Stats, numbers and everything therein
As mentioned before, Yelesin is not known for his scoring abilities. Dating back to his days in the MHL, Yelesin has not scored more than a combined total of 12 points in a single season and his KHL season look considerably barren. Other than a really heavy shot, Yelesin does not provide much offence.
The big draw with Yelesin is his defensive play, who plays a very physical and punishing style. In the 2018-19 season, he led the KHL in hits with 188, which can be surprising when looking at his smaller than average frame. His strengths rely on his defensive side of the puck, as it was what go him into the KHL all-star game this past season.
On an interesting note, Yelesin received some pretty hefty signing and performance bonuses on his ELC. His performance bonus of $425,000 and signing bonus of $92,500 are the same as the ones that Flames first rounder Juuso Valimaki got on his entry level deal. This means that the Russian defender got a Schedule A bonus and max signing bonus that is usually seen in ELC signed by highly touted prospects. Whether this is was done to outbid other teams or if it is a sign of the potential the Flames see in him, it is interesting to see the level of investment the club is making into the undrafted defenceman.
Those in the know
The director of player development for the Flames, Ray Edwards mentions the opportunity that Yelesin has with the team and what kind of role that he anticipates the young defender to fill when he signed with the Flames.
I think our pro scouting guys over there felt like this was a depth signing in terms of he comes over here, has a really good camp, he can have the possibility of playing games out of camp or being a first call-cup guy in the minors. This guy’s a little bit different than [Carl-Johan] Lerby in that we feel like he might be able to help us sooner than later.
Edwards also went into detail when discussing the adjustments that Yelesin he will need to make to become a regular NHLer.
Its a different style of game and I think that is going to be his biggest transition. Incorporating our breakout game and our transition game is quite different in terms of dealing with pressure and reading plays. They do a lot of regroups, they slow it down a lot over there. We like to play fast and move the puck quick and see the option and hit it. However, this guy is a really competitive player, and in amazing shape. I think the biggest thing for him is getting used to the culture over here, the language barrier, getting comfortable and then getting acclimated to the way we play the game.
On the horizon
The Flames have a considerable amount of defensive depth on the left side in the organization, but was looking thin on the right side, especially at the AHL level. That is likely where Yelesin will start off his career with the Flames, baring a strong camp in which he blows the coaching staff away with his play.
Once he gets there however, the Flames don’t expect him to stay there for very long. It is likely that he will be the player to be first called up in the event of an injury on the right side, and being 23, its likely that the team is happy with him sitting a few games as he gets adjusted to the North American style of the game.