One of the biggest surprises of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2017 draft was the selection of Vladislav Kara in the fourth round.
As with many young Russian players – such as fellow Leafs prospect Nikolai Chebykin in the previous draft — the minimal exposure North American hockey observers have had to junior Russian hockey makes Kara a man of mystery to most Leafs fans. He wasn’t ranked by any of the prominent scouting services, didn’t have any data listed in his hockeydb profile, and YouTube searches yielded few glimpses of what sort of player the Leafs had drafted at 124th overall.
In this interview, conducted in Kara’s native language, we tried to shed some light on his past, his style of play, and his short and long-term plans.
From Salekhard to NHL draft pick
Kara hails from Salekhard, a remote town of 40,000 in the north of Russia that crosses the Polar Circle. The 19-year-old started playing hockey there before moving to Tyumen, the biggest city in the region, when he was 13.
“Being [in Tyumen] was hard at first,” said Kara. “I didn’t know anyone. Then, I finally got to know the guys and everything started going well.”
Kara scored at an excellent rate while playing in Tyumen as a 13-14-year-old before it was time to move on to the next level. In 2014, Kara entered the Russian second junior league while competing for Draguny Mozhaysk and scored more than a point per game there. Once the MHL B season was over, he finished the year in Slovakia with four of his Mozhaysk teammates.
“Our coach in Mozhaysk was a Slovak,” explained Kara. “We didn’t get to the playoffs, so the coach talked with our director and he allowed us to play for the Trnava Gladiators. The level there was pretty average.”
Kara scored nine goals and added sixteen assists for a total of 25 points in nine games while in Slovakia, which was a marked uptick from the 48 points in 40 games he posted in the Russian second junior league (MHL B).
“It was all played at lower speed, but it was a good experience,” Kara reflected.
After his time in Slovakia, Kara moved to his current organization, Ak Bars Kazan — one of the top teams in the KHL – and started plying his trade in their junior system.
“When I was still playing in Slovakia for Trnava, the director called me,” Kara recounted. “He told me that Ak Bars wanted to offer me a try-out. So, after Slovakia, I moved to Kazan and practiced there for one month. The tryout was successful and I then joined the team.”
After spending the 2015-16 season developing his game in the MHL, Kara was passed over in the 2016 NHL draft. He spent the following year splitting his time between the VHL and MHL, hoping the second time would be the charm, and didn’t hide his elation about being drafted by the Leafs on the second day of the 2017 draft.
“It was my brother who told me about it,” said Kara, who comes from a tight-knit family that “makes our decisions together.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I was told, so I looked up on the internet and it was really true.”
Playing Style and Future Plans
When asked about his style of play, the 6’2, 187-pound Kara said that he considers himself a power forward.
“But it’s not just playing and hitting hard — throwing the body is just one part of the game,” said Kara. “Sometimes, however, you need to play with more technique… sometimes you really have to give out a good pass.”
Kara’s brother is a boxer, but Vladislav said he doesn’t necessarily share the pugilist gene.
“Frankly speaking, I almost don’t fight at all,” Kara laughed.
A player who grew up playing in the middle, Kara has spent the last four years on the wing and he will most likely remain there for the foreseeable future. “I always played as a center forward, but now it’s a few years that I’ve been playing as a winger. I think it’s good because I can now play both positions.”
Kara is now practicing with the Ak Bars Kazan main team, beginning with some off-ice sessions earlier this week, which is why he is not among the Leafs prospects attending development camp this week in Toronto.
I couldn’t believe it when I was told, so I looked up on the internet and it was really true.
– Vladislav Kara on being drafted by the Leafs
The forward doesn’t plan to rush crossing the Atlantic, preferring to develop further at home. 2017-18 is the final year of his KHL contract with Ak Bars Kazan, but his plans for when the deal expires – such as potentially making the move to North America — aren’t at the forefront of his mind at the moment.
“Frankly, all my thoughts are now linked to the fact that I want to win a spot in Ak Bars lineup for the upcoming season.”
However, Kara was clear about the fact playing in the NHL is his ultimate goal, “just like any other player.”
Kara, whose favorite player is Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, is currently trying to make the most of his practice time with Ak Bars Kazan.
“I want get something from each player because you have always something to learn from people who have more experience,” said Kara.
The Ak Bars Kazan roster features center Vladimir Tkachyov, who the Leafs were linked to back in the Spring, former LA Kings prospect Justin Azevedo, former NHL journeyman Jiri Sekac, and center Anton Lander, who just signed in Russia after six seasons with the Edmonton Oilers organization.
In addition to his intention to become a full-time KHL player, a spot on the WJC Russian team this winter is a major goal of Kara’s.
“I have a huge desire to play [at the WJC], and I also want to win the gold medal.”
Most recently, Kara played with the U20 Russian National Team at the recent Black Sea Cup, where he helped Team Russia Red win the tournament with a goal and an assist in the three tournament games. If he etches out a full-time role with Ak Bars Kazan, Kara will do his odds of punching his ticket to Buffalo – the 2018 WJC host city – a major service.
The next KHL campaign will kick off on August 21 and Kara’s hoping he’ll be on the AK Bars roster for opening day. For the future, he has no doubts about where he wants to be. Asked where he sees himself five years from now, Kara instantly replied: “In Toronto.”
If he keeps progressing at the rate he has over the latest couple of seasons, the Leafs will have reason to hope they’ve discovered the first ever NHL player from Salekhard.