Photo Courtesy of the Prince George Cougars

It was an announcement from the Prince George Cougars that caught many local hockey fans off guard.

The team issued a statement Thursday afternoon that sniper Nikita Popugaev has left the team in order to return home to Moscow for personal reasons.

The Cougars gave up a bundle, including popular Justin Almeida, to acquire the Russian from the Moose Jaw Warrriors in January.

Popugaev put up 51 points in 40 games in 2016-17 with the Warriors before leaving.

Since arriving in Prince George, he has less than half of that total (25 points) in 44 games.

In addition, this season he is a team worst -13 in 13 games.

To put that in perspective, the second worst plus-minus on the Cats is Josh Curtis at -6.

Popugaev was projected as a late first round or second round pick (28th overall by Central Scouting in their final ranking among North American skaters) for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

Instead he wasn’t taken until the fourth round, 98th overall by the New Jersey Devils which may have been a bruise to his ego.

I don’t pretend to know what makes “Big Papa” click, but a reasonable question is… would he have still wanted to bolt the Cougars during the season if his performance and stats were considerably better, or at least on par with the numbers he put up with the Warriors?

On skill alone, Popugaev should have more than a paltry two goals in 13 games this season.

He is one of those rare gifted offensive players that can be worth the price of admission alone, “if” he is on.

Popugaev has a big-league shot and with his size (6’5″ and 225 pounds) and strength he can intimate, but for some reason it appeared he wasn’t one of those consistent guys that put out maximum effort each game.

If a player doesn’t have his heart into it and is homesick, there’s not much a team can do to change that.

The Cougars looked at trade options but that may not have been realistic since Popugaev indicated to the team he simply wanted to be closer to the comfort levels of family and familiar surroundings.

Perhaps one day he ends up in the KHL or maybe one day he gets a chance in the NHL; it’s difficult to predict where he might be down the road.

Many teenage players feel the pressure, especially the pressure they put on themselves.

Not all respond in the same manner.

For Popugaev, who doesn’t turn 19 until next month, maybe it is as simple as needing a re-charge in his home country.

The Cougars are obviously disappointed they did not get more for their investment but this is part of the ups and downs that come with each junior season.

Moving forward, all the Cougars do is wish him the best of luck in his future and start the process of finding another European; one that will be enthusiast, committed and dedicated to play in front of the appreciative and knowledgeable Prince George fans.



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Hartley Miller is the sports director and morning news anchor for 94.3 the Goat.
He also is the 94.3 radio color commentator for P.G. Cougars home games.
His column appears Fridays on
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