The Russians Are Coming Part 1: Igor Knyazev

By Eugene Belashchenko

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The Russians are coming:

Now that the 2001-02 Russian
Super League and Upper League seasons have come to a close, the post season dust
of transfers and roster cuts is starting to settle.  Some players find out their
services are no longer needed with their current clubs, while others leave their
teams on their own initiative.  There are also a select few who, at the end of
their contract with their Russian team, are eyeing intently across the ocean
towards North America thinking – “Am I strong enough?”  For many it will be a
short visit to North America for the training camp and back to Russia.  Some
have already been there and returned to Russia after their unsuccessful first,
second or just another one of many attempts to make it in the NHL.  For several,
it will be their first trip to North America and first impressions go a long
way.   Not just first impressions the team’s management and coaches have of the
player, but also the impressions the player has of North America.  Here are a
few of the more notable players who will make their way to North America from
Russia and likely make a notable impact. 


Igor Knyazev – Carolina

Igor Knyazev treated the 2001
NHL Entry Draft as one of the key events of his up and coming career.  Wearing a
tuxedo and a broad smile, he stood at the podium after being announced as the 14th
overall pick and Carolina Hurricanes’ top draft choice.  The glamour of the
draft subsided and gave way to the practical riggers of Carolina’s rookie camp. 
Igor arrived at the camp with unclear intentions. –  In an earlier interview
with a Russian Newspaper Soviet Sport, he stated his wish to remain in Russia
with Spartak Moscow for at least another season, but his actions spoke otherwise
as rumors began to surface that the Hurricanes expected Knyazev to remain in
North America for their training camp not to showcase his skills, but to
seriously compete for a roster spot – something that Igor vehemently denied in
interviews before and after the preseason training camp.


Igor’s true intentions
for the 2001-02 season will never be known, because he injured his back in the
beginning of the training camp and spent the preseason in a rigorous
rehabilitation program.  While Igor was healing his back, the Super League
season began and Spartak Moscow was forced to start without its top
defenseman.   Prior to the season, the tensions between Igor and Spartak
Moscow’s management grew, as the latter began to suspect Igor’s intentions were
to remain in the United States.   The tension broke through when Spartak’s
president Mayorov put Igor in the same group as the controversial Alexander
Svitov, who secretly signed a contract with Tampa Bay Lightning without
informing Avangard Omsk’s management and further added that Igor was not
guarantied a spot in Spartak’s lineup if he returns to his Super League team.


Igor returned to Moscow several
weeks into the regular season and made an immediate impact with his physical
play earning a fighting major in his first game back with Spartak.  At the time,
Spartak Moscow stood in third place in the Super League standing and appeared to
have a strong defensive corps.  What the team lacked was an offensive punch
beyond the top two lines.  Attempting to resolve their offensive vows and
address the developing rift with their star defenseman, Spartak’s management
worked out a deal with then struggling Ak Bars Kazan that sent Igor to Kazan, on
a loan basis, for the remainder of the season.   In return, Ak Bars sent to
Moscow Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Konstantin Koltsov who struggled badly
during the first couple of months of the season.   The “loan” of Igor to Ak Bars
for Konstantin Koltsov was by all indications a straight up trade, since both
players were widely expected to leave for the NHL during the upcoming season,
making their Super League rights for the upcoming 2002-03 season irrelevant. 
The coach who acquired Knyazev was none other then the head coach of the Russian
’83 National Team, Vladimir Plyuschev, who knew Igor’s capabilities well. 


In December Igor brought his
best game to the U20 World Junior Championships, where the Russian National Team
was determined to make up for their forgettable performance during the 2001 U20
WJC.   Igor provided a physical presence on the team’s blue line and led all
Russian defensemen in goals with two.   Igor’s impressive performance did not go
unnoticed and he was named to the tournament’s first all star team.  


When all the smoke cleared, Ak
Bars Kazan came out clear winners in the trade. Igor Knyazev was a mainstay on
their second defensive pairing while Konstantin Koltsov toiled on Spartak’s
fourth line.  Ak Bars went on to rebound from it’s terrible start and advanced
to the second round before bowing out of the playoffs, while Spartak Moscow
finished in a disappointing 10th place and missed the playoffs by 12
points after leading the league during the first third of the season.    


Upon the conclusion of the
2001-02 season, Igor Knyazev’s actions made his intentions for the 2002-03
season very clear.  He booked a ticket to North Carolina and began practicing
with the ‘Canes which were competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  He has also
taken up English lessons with a tutor from a local college.   Carolina’s
management officially expects Igor to spend the 2002-03 season in the AHL,
adjusting to the North American style of hockey.  The team’s cautious stance is
reasonable, considering Igor’s injury the previous summer and his turbulent
previous season.  Also, the last thing Carolina wants to do is put unbearable
pressure on the team’s budding star.  


– Eugene