Five years from now, it isn't difficult to envision people wondering how in the world Nikolay Goldobin fell all the way to 27th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, where he was scooped up Friday by the San Jose Sharks. That's how talented a prospect Goldobin appears to be and while nothing is ever a sure thing when it comes to prospects, there's very little not to like about the Russian winger.
Let's start with this: no first-time draft-eligible CHL player scored more even-strength points than Goldobin this past season. Not 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart, not Central Scouting's No. 1-ranked prospect Sam Bennett, not top-five picks Leon Draisaitl or Michael Dal Colle. What makes that all the more impressive is that Goldobin accomplished it while playing for, far and away, the worst team in the Ontario Hockey League.
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Sarnia finished dead last in the OHL standings and scored just 211 goals all season. Goldobin notched a point on nearly 45% of those goals and 42% of Sarnia's even-strength tallies. The team's second-highest scoring forward scored 28 fewer points than Goldobin. To say Goldobin was driving the bus for Sarnia would be an understatement; he (along with fellow first-rounder defenseman Anthony DeAngelo) was also the wheels and the engine for the Sting. Goldobin was a significant component of Sarnia's attack in 2012-13 too, the season prior to his draft year, when he scored 68 points in 68 games during his first season in North America.
So how was Goldobin still on the board when the Sharks picked at 27th? The so-called "Russian factor" likely had quite a bit to do with it as NHL teams remain paranoid that Russian players will abandon North America for the KHL at their first opportunity or simply never agree to contract terms with their NHL club. If Nikolay Goldobin was instead named Nicholas Goldstein and hailed from Regina, Saskatchewan, it's very possible he would have been a top-ten pick. Beyond that, his gaudy minus-30 plus-minus rating fed into concerns about his defensive ability (and, let's be honest, widely-held stereotypes about Russian players didn't help in this area). Here's the thing about Goldobin's plus-minus, though: Sarnia was, as mentioned above, godawful. The team as a whole gave up 130 more goals than they allowed, scoring just 36% of the even-strength goals in their games.
When attempting to use goal-based plus-minus to evaluate Goldobin's defense, it's far more useful to gauge where he stood relative to his team. When Goldobin was off the ice during even-strength play, Sarnia scored just 27.6% of the goals. When he was on the ice at evens, that improved to a 46.7% goal share. That massive 19.1 percentage point improvement was the best of any CHLer drafted this weekend. Whatever Goldobin's defensive failings, they don't seem to have translated into worse on-ice results as the Sting were significantly better at outscoring their opponents with Goldobin on the ice than off it. As Joshua Ho-Sang, another elite talent who was drafted lower than his skill level probably warranted, told ESPN, "Either I play defense or I have the puck a lot 5-on-5. Either one of those is a version of defense." When Goldobin was on the ice, Sarnia had the puck a lot 5-on-5.
That's not to say there are no legitimate concerns about Goldobin. For one, he averaged an estimated 27.7 minutes of ice time per game as Sarnia largely deployed just three forward lines and two defense pairings for much of the season. That's an absurdly high total for a forward and very likely helped inflate Goldobin's production a bit. Goldobin is also an early October birthday, making him older than most of the first-time draft-eligible prospects selected this weekend, meaning he probably has less room to improve and develop than many of his peers. And despite the minus-30 being an inaccurate portrayal of his defensive value, Goldobin likely will need to remain in junior for at least another season to work on gaining strength and defensive awareness.
But those are relatively minor concerns. What's particularly encouraging about this pick is that the Sharks were willing to swing for the fences. Regardless of whether they leave town this summer, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are not getting any younger and will need to be replaced internally sometime in the near future. There's certainly no guarantee Goldobin will be capable of doing that but every indicator (especially the fact that his closest comparables in terms of era-adjusted draft year production are Corey Perry, Andrew Ladd, Jordan Eberle and Sean Monahan) points to the likelihood he'll end up making a lot of teams that passed on him look awfully silly.