The Prince George Cougars revealed Thursday afternoon that F Nikita Popugaev, who is to turn 19 on Nov. 20, has returned home to Russia “for personal reasons.”

According to the Cougars’ news release:

“The Cougars were presented with opportunities to move Popugaev elsewhere in the (WHL), but after consulting with him and his family, Popugaev decided it was in his best interests to return to Russia.”

The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Popugaev is in his third WHL season. From Moscow, he was a fourth-round selection by the New Jersey Devils in the NHL’s 2017 draft.

In 154 regular-season WHL games, he has 47 goals and 76 assists.

In 2015-16, as a freshman, he had 47 points, including 16 goals, in 70 games.

Last season, he put up 51 points, 22 of them goals, in 40 games with the Warriors when he found himself having been traded to Prince George. On Jan. 5, the Cougars gave up F Yan Khomenko, F Justin Almeida and two bantam draft picks — a second-rounder in 2018 and a fifth-rounder in 2017 — in exchange for Popugaev.

At the time, Todd Harkins, the Cougars’ general manager, said: “We’ve added a player to our lineup that can be an offensive game-changer for us. Nikita is one of the most skilled and dominant offensive players in the Western Hockey League and he’s got a tremendously bright future in the game. He makes us better in all areas and he will play a big part in our success not only this year, but next season as well.”

For whatever reason, or reasons, Popugaev didn’t really live up to those expectations in Prince George.

In 31 games with the Cougars last season, he had seven goals and 11 assists.

This season, Popugaev had two goals and five assists in seven games.

On Thursday, Harkins told Ted Clarke of the Prince George Citizen:

“I don’t know the personal reasons but he wants to go home, and I can’t keep an 18-year-old boy sitting here in Prince George and not grant his wishes. You can’t stop him from moving on and if it’s the KHL he wants to go to I can’t stop him from that either. . . .

“We feel he’s an asset if he wanted to play somewhere else, but I don’t think it’s anything particular with our league or Prince George. I don’t know if it’s family or a girlfriend or what. He said that we treated him really well and he enjoyed it here but it was his parents’ wishes as well.”

Popugaev’s departure leaves the Cougars with one import — freshman F Vladislav Mikhalchuk, who is from Minsk, Belarus. He has three goals and two assists in 11 games.

Clarke’s story is right here. He also writes about whether the Cougars might be interested in bringing back F Radovan Bondra, a 20-year-old Russian, who is with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.

The Cougars go into weekend games at 4-5-4, which has them tied for second in the B.C. Division with the Kelowna Rockets (5-5-2) and Vancouver Giants (5-5-2), nine points behind the Victoria Royals (10-4-1).

The Cougars are scheduled to meet the Giants in Langley, B.C., tonight, and then play in Kelowna on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Giants announced Thursday afternoon that F Tyler Benson has medical clearance to play against the Cougars tonight.

Steve Ewen of Postmedia tweeted that Benson skated on a line with James Malm and Brendan Semchuk at practice on Thursday. That leaves the Giants’ top line — Cliff Running, Milos Roman and Brandon Morrison — intact.

Benson, 19, hasn’t played since Jan. 2. He was returned to the Giants earlier this week by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. He had been with the Oilers while recovering from off-season surgery for a sports hernia.

Benson was a second-round pick by the Oilers in the NHL’s 2016 draft and he has signed a three-year entry-level deal with them.

The post Popugaev leaves Cougars, returns to Russia … Benson to play for Giants on Friday appeared first on Taking Note.

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