Around the rinks of the QMJHL, he was known simply as ‘the Russian’ and it was always with a question: "Have you seen the Russian?" or "Have you heard anything about the Russian?" or most frequently, "Do you know when the Russian is playing?"
The 2009-10 season did not go exactly as planned for Kirill Kabanov. Before the year began, he was thought to be one of the top offensive talents eligible for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but by season’s end, more and more unanswered questions continue to pile up.
Selected seventh overall by the Moncton Wildcats in the 2009 CHL Import Draft, Kabanov was expected to provide a dynamic offensive presence to a team already known for their defensive identity. Finishing third overall the previous season in the league, many of Moncton’s top players were slated to return and the team was expected to make the next step to contending for the league title. Although he was just 17 years of age, the hope was that Kabanov’s offensive wizardry would be one of the missing pieces to the puzzle.
Almost immediately, there were issues. A disagreement between the CHL and Kabanov’s home country of Russia over the young player’s rights placed him on the sidelines while his fate was brought before the IIHF for a ruling. Missing the first 10 games of the season, it wasn’t until October 10th that Kabanov finally stepped onto the ice for Moncton, quickly proving his worth by scoring the game-winning goal in his first game.
But both Kabanov and the Wildcats were far from out of the woods. After scoring five goals and 14 points in 11 games, he was back on the sidelines, this time with a wrist injury that required surgery. The initial prognosis for recovery had him sitting out until mid-February, a devastating blow for a player in his draft year, especially for one who offered so much promise.
Both the World Juniors and the CHL’s Top Prospects Game came and went as Kabanov recovered from his operation. It was rumored that despite his talent, the young Russian would not have been offered a spot on Russia‘s World Junior squad, due to the bridges he burned coming to North America. But with Kabanov sidelined, the opportunity never occurred and the Russian team went on to finish sixth, the first time out of the medals since 2004 and their most disappointing finish since placing sixth back in 1993.
As the weeks ticked by with little update on Kabanov’s condition, more rumors began to spread about him — that he wasn’t going to be back until right before the QMJHL playoffs, or during the playoffs themselves or perhaps not at all. There were whispers that the surgery wasn’t successful and would need to be redone, but on February 17th, the Wildcats announced he would be returning, right on schedule.
On the eve of Kabanov’s highly anticipated return, Kim Houston of NHL’s Central Scouting was blunt and to the point when asked what the left winger would have to do to help regain his stock as one of the top talents available in the draft.
"He’ll simply have to play good," said Houston, who went on to note that playing for Moncton could only help. The Wildcats were one of the hottest teams in the QMJHL and were expected to go on a deep playoff run. For a player like Kabanov, trying to get noticed and rebound in draft rankings, a long post season and the extra exposure that came with it could be the perfect ticket.
But that was all easier said than done. While Kabanov recuperated from his wrist injury, the Wildcats had hardly stood pat. Their goal was still a league championship and during the winter trade period with Kabanov on the shelf, they made a number of moves to improve their forward depth, bringing in veteran scorers like Nicolas Deschamps, Kelsey Tessier and Gabriel Bourque.
Upon Kabanov’s return, he found himself bumped from his previous spot on a scoring line and dropped lower in the line-up with less minutes and less special teams opportunity. But a decrease in power-play time was the least of his problems, as scouts grumbled loudly about his conditioning and fitness. Noting that a wrist injury, although limiting, should not keep him entirely from the gym, there was many a critical voice expressing disappointment that the Russian did not appear any stronger on the ice and seemed to have failed to put in the extra work required to make him a better player.
Dealing with the Wildcats, the situation wasn’t much better. Kabanov missed the team bus departing for a quick away game in Halifax and as a result was a healthy scratch. Through it all, he continued to post points, with five goals and nine points in the 11 games since his return to the ice, as Kabanov and the Wildcats headed towards the post season.
Finishing second overall in the QMJHL, the Moncton Wildcats drew divisional rival Cape Breton as a first round opponent. In Game 1 against the Screaming Eagles, Kabanov took an ill-timed penalty in the second period with the score tied at one. Returning to the bench after Cape Breton scored on the power play to take the lead, Kabanov did not see the ice again that period. After the intermission, with Moncton still down 3-2, Kabanov did not come back out to the bench for the third period. Moncton would go on to win the game 6-3 and when the Wildcats announced that Kabanov would be a healthy scratch for Game 2, it appeared that the team had had enough. That misadvised penalty early in the second period would be Kabanov’s last on-ice act as a member of the Moncton Wildcats in the 2009-10 season.
With Kabanov unhappy with his reduced role and the Wildcats not wishing to have a malcontent in the dressing room, the decision was made for Kabanov to leave the team. The official reason given was they had decided to release Kabanov to play for Team Russia at the 2010 IIHF World U18 Championship. It was thought that joining the national team would give him an opportunity to see plenty of ice time and show off his skills with the hope that he could impress scouts enough to help restore his tarnished draft stock. However, Kabanov was released at the end of March and the tournament didn’t begin until the middle of April. In any case, the Wildcats did not skip a beat, easily dispatching with Cape Breton and continuing on in their post season trek, eventually capturing their second league championship in five years.
For Kabanov, this national team opportunity was thought to be his final chance to showcase his on-ice talents. That made it that much more shocking when it was announced, days before the Under-18 tournament was scheduled to begin, that Kabanov had been dropped from the team for disciplinary problems.
Cast aside with no place to play, Kabanov’s attention shifted toward the NHL Draft Combine, where he would be able to sit down face to face with interested NHL teams and explain his side of the story. To prepare for this last ditch effort, prominent player agent J.P. Barry was brought in to help advise Kabanov.
The Draft Combine was as much of a success as it could have been, with Kabanov performing admirably. He blamed the debacle with the Under-18 team on the bridges he burned by coming to North America in the first place and re-affirmed his desire to play in the NHL. Coupled with a strong showing in the Combine’s physical testing element and it appeared that Kabanov had done everything he could to help reverse his fortunes prior to the draft.
Unfortunately, his appearance at the Draft Combine was not final act prior to the draft for Kirill Kabanov. Shortly after at the Combine came to an end, J.P. Barry opted to drop Kabanov as a client, a damning turn of events for an already embattled prospect.
With the NHL Draft quickly approaching, the questions surrounding Kabanov keep piling up. Even something simple, like where he will play next year, is unknown. Kabanov will be considered to be drafted out of the QMJHL, which means he cannot immediately make the jump to pro hockey unless it is directly into the NHL. It appears he would not be welcomed back to Russia if he opted to return to his homeland and his relationship with the Moncton Wildcats is equally in question due to the circumstances that led to his release.
In total, Kabanov appeared in 22 regular-season games and one playoff match for the Moncton Wildcats over the course of the 2009-10. Of his 23 points, 10 of them were goals, with seven coming on the power play and three game winners. For NHL teams, they are tasked with evaluating his on-ice talent based on that small sample size and there’s speculation that some teams may have not even had the chance to see him play in the QMJHL this year.
One scout who has seen him play is Chris Mooring from International Scouting Services. First watching him two years ago at the Under-17s in London, Ontario, Mooring followed the young Russian throughout his tumultuous draft year. Listed as high as fourth overall in ISS’s rankings early on in the season, Kabanov’s name has steadily slid down their board since last autumn.
Speaking only of Kabanov’s skill level, Mooring called him as talented as any player eligible for the 2010 draft.
"He’s a well-rounded offensively-skilled player. One of the better stickhandlers and one of the better skaters in the draft. His offensive upside is high, as far as the next level goes. He’s a first line kind of player skill wise. If you look at pure offensive players, he’s one of the best in the draft."
"I think he’s more of a scoring winger then he is a playmaker, but he’s got good playmaking skills as well. He sees the ice well, he can make plays at speed," continued Mooring, who was quick to point out that there are also plenty of things to work on for Kabanov. "He’s not a defensive-minded player at all, he’s all offensive, one-dimensional, very one-dimensional, I don’t even know if I saw him once come back past the other blue line."
Listed at 6’2 and 173 lbs, Kabanov will need to fill out his frame dramatically before he is able to make the jump to the NHL. Getting strong will also help his game, as Mooring explained.
"Physically, he’s not mature right now, he’s too thin. But the effort’s there. He’s maybe too combative at times. Especially earlier on, when I saw him in North America prior to this year, but I’m not even sure if he was 100 percent healthy starting out in Moncton. But when I saw him previously, he was very physical. Liked to mix it up, didn’t mind getting his nose dirty. He went into those danger zones and took the abuse and actually tried to dish it out as well."
Even when you ignore the vast side story associated with Kabanov, the effects of missing a large part of his draft year will have lasting repercussions on his development.
"He’s not someone that I think will be able to step into the league next year, he’ll have to mature both physically and defensively before that," explained Mooring. "I think Moncton would have been a good spot to help him out with the defensive side of things. I think the coaching staff would have really helped his development, but now, he’s pretty much close to a year behind in his development. So you figure that he wasn’t going to be in the league next year because of the issues he had, is he now two or three years away from coming into the league? Probably."
One of the truly unique stories leading into the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, it is anyone’s guess on where Kabanov will eventually land. His talent is hard to ignore, but neither are all question marks.