Mikhnov visits the Oilers

By Guy Flaming





Just Visiting

To most Oiler followers, Alexei
Mikhnov
has become a mystery man since he was drafted by the team in the
first round of the 2000 Entry Draft held in Calgary.  A native of Kiev, Mikhnov has been playing professionally in
Russia for the past few years, most recently with Sibir, Novosibirsk in the
Super League.

 

The Oilers have been following the
development of their promising prospect, but because of the remoteness of
Novosibirsk, scouting trips have been difficult to schedule at times.  European scout Frank Musil has seen him more
often than anyone else on the team’s staff and has reported back that the 6’5”
190 lb kid they originally drafted has become a 6’5” 228 lb force to be
reckoned with. 

 

Mikhnov, a left winger, finished third on
his team in scoring with 22 points, the majority of which were goals.

 

“He’s a scoring forward for his team,”
said Russian Oiler Alexei Semenov. 
“He scored 14 goals and that’s really good for a 21-year-old guy.”

 

Semenov, one of two Russians on the
Edmonton club, played host to the visiting Mikhnov all week because he is one
of the few people around who can actually have a conversation with the
youngster.  Semenov played parts of
three seasons with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves so his English is developed enough
to allow him to also double as Mikhnov’s interpreter during a brief but
exclusive interview with Hockey’s Future. 

 

After skating alone in Sherwood Park on
Tuesday, Mikhnov watch the Oilers practice and game against Dallas on Wednesday
then practiced with the team for the first time on Thursday.

 

“I’m excited to see it because I’ve never
seen an NHL game before,” said Mikhnov before the Dallas game through his
Russian counterpart. 

 

Outside of attending the draft in
Calgary, Mikhnov has not spent any time in North America at all either playing
or watching NHL games.  The big
Ukrainian was clearly taken with the size of Rexall place, the quality of ice
and facilities available to the team.

 

“I like it here in Edmonton,” Mikhnov
stated simply, “The ice especially because it’s really fast compared to in
Russia.”

 

Back in Russia this season Mikhnov’s team
failed to make the playoffs, thus he has the free time for this quick jaunt to
North America.  The year was a difficult
one, according to the hulking winger, because of how close knit the team was.

 

“The team was really tight, it was all
for one and one for all,” he described. 
“It was too bad we didn’t make the playoffs because we were really
making a strong go of it at the end.  It
was a slow start for the first 10-20 games until we started winning and the
team went up the standings but it wasn’t good enough.”

 

One of the players on the Novosibirsk
team is another former Oiler prospect. 
Goaltender Alexandre Fomitchev was drafted by the Oilers in ninth round
back in 1997 but only played three years in the minor leagues before returning
to his homeland and subsequently being released by Edmonton.  Naturally Fomitchev has been able to tell
Mikhnov some stories from his own experiences in the organization.

 

“Fomitchev told me many good things about
Edmonton and about how friendly the people on the team and in the city were,”
said Mikhnov.  “’Fomi’ is the best
goalie in the league there and will play in the World Championships and he has
told me many good things.”

 

Mikhnov has also been invited to play for
the Russian National team for the April World Championships, a possibility for
the Ukrainian because he played in that country’s junior team program.

 

“It’s a big honor for me because every
player wants to be invited to play for the National team,” said the
21-year-old.  “I’m really looking
forward to going there and trying to do my best.”

 

But what Oiler fans really want to know
is if playing in the NHL is equally important to Mikhnov as playing in and for
Russia.

 

“It’s every hockey player’s dream to play
in the NHL,” Mikhnov began.  “It’s my
biggest dream in life so I’m going to do everything I can to make it come
true.”

 

There is a window of opportunity now for
Mikhnov to take advantage of in that he is no longer under contract with
Novosibirsk.  However, with the
impending threat of a work stoppage in the NHL, will that dissuade any
negotiations with Edmonton?

 

“I want to sign a contract and I want to
try to make the team at the training camp whether we have a lockout or whatever
but I want to come over to be here and be a part of the team,” he declared.

 

What if signing a deal with Edmonton
ended up meaning a stint in the AHL while the NHLPA and the league sorted out
their mess?

 

“That’s a tough question and he doesn’t
know the answer,” Semenov said on Mikhnov’s behalf and then added: “it’s kind
of complicated.”

 

There is the thought that Mikhnov,
although well developed for play in Russia, may not be ready to compete for a
position in the NHL yet.  How does he
feel he could fit in against the best players in the world?

 

“I think that the best thing to do is to
just go out there and play my game,” said Mikhnov.  “Just play the simple game, if I’m doing the little things right
then I wouldn’t have a problem.”

 

Mikhnov says that he’s been amazed at
home much publicity there is around the game here in North America because back
in Russia, there is little more than statistical recaps and brief summaries to
find in the newspapers.

 

“In the newspapers they have some stuff
and on TV too, but not like it is over here, just the little things like who
played and who scored.”

 

In today’s landscape of international
hockey, getting players out of Russia has become more problematic as Semenov
can speak about from his perspective.

 

“It was kind of complicated for me, not
with the team but with the Federation because the team agreed to let me go,”
said the defenseman.  “Most of the time
the problem is with the team.  If you’re
playing for the National team and you’re one of the best players then it’s
going to get complicated because the Federation is not going to just let you go
really easy.  You have to talk to the
team and get the general manager to agree because the team comes before the
Federation.”

 

In Mikhnov’s case, the team was the
problem last year when he expressed an interest in coming over to attend the
Oilers’ Top Prospect camp in June.  He
was told that he might not be welcomed back if he did go over to North America
for the week, and in the end it was threats like that which prevented the trip.

 

Now however, the biggest hurdle appears
to be financial.

 

“At
this point I think the only potential roadblock is money; he is a first
rounder.  Do we wait until a new CBA is
in place and sign him from there?” Kevin Prendergast first posed this question
to Hockey’s Future back in December. 
“He’s on the right track to be playing in the NHL soon or in the next
couple of years but again it always comes down to that same situation: What’s
it going to cost us to get him here?  I
think for his development, he’s gone far enough in the Russian league now and
it’s time for him to make the jump.” 

 

“That’s
something that Kevin Lowe and his agent (Don Meehan’s Newport Group) will talk
about as soon as the season is over.”

 

Unless the Oilers can afford to offer a
significant signing bonus, convincing Mikhnov to initial a contract that may
only pay him the $65,000 maximum in the AHL will be tough.  If there is no NHL season next year, and
most believe that there won’t be, isn’t it more likely that Mikhnov stays at
least another year in Russia where he can earn four or five times the rubles
then he can AHL cash?

 

“Some of those guys are making a lot of money over
there and they’d be taking a huge pay cut to come over to the AHL,” Oiler scout
Chris McCarthy told HF in early March. 
“Take a look at Oleg Tverdovsky for example.  He’s playing in Siberia but he’s making $3.5M U.S. tax-free.  You think he wants to come back to play in
the NHL?”

 

“That’s debatable that he can,” countered
Kevin Lowe.  “One, there might not be as
much money as everyone says there is and two, their contracts aren’t really
worth the paper they’re written on so having said that, we probably could do as
well if not better than what he can get over there.” 

 

“The question is if it’s in his own mind that he’s
ready to come over,” Lowe added.  “It
isn’t entirely out of the question that he could play in Toronto next
year.  He’s not going to sign and be a
shoe in and play for the Oilers, he’s still a project, and the problem with
some of these guys is that they’d rather stay and play in the Russian Elite
League.”

 

“He has told his agent that he’d really
like to play in the NHL, and what kid wouldn’t?” asked the GM.  “All things being equal I guess the point
was that (Mikhnov) indicated that he’d want to put the sacrifice in to get to
the NHL.”

 

Clearly Mikhnov wants to play in the NHL but is it
conceivable that a player drafted in the first round, and his agent, would not
expect the money that normally comes along with that distinction?  If his options come down to playing in the
AHL or back in Russia for next season, it would be up to the Oilers to make the
former choice a lot more attractive than the latter.

 

If the purse strings have been pulled tight enough to
cancel this summer’s prospect camp, it is hard to imagine that it would be
loosened to the point that a Mikhnov deal could be completed soon.  But as the Oiler GM is famous for saying,
maybe fans should ‘expect the unexpected’.

 

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