NHL-bound or bust? Russian NHL prospect movements

By Eugene Belashchenko

Declining numbers out of Russia

Before the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, for more than five years, approximately 30 Russian players were selected each year. Since 2004, there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of Russians selected in the draft. Largely, the lack of Russians being drafted has revolved around the Russian Hockey Federation’s refusal to sign the IIHF transfer agreement.

Another significant reason for the decline of the numbers of drafted Russians is the change introduced in the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA after the season-long lockout. Specifically, the NHL clubs no longer had the luxury of retaining drafted European player rights virtually indefinitely if they remained in Europe and were now only limited to two years, which is the standard for players out of the Canadian Hockey League. Many clubs, including the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings, became well known for packing the latter rounds of the draft with project young European players, hoping they would evolve into solid contributors three, four, or five years later. Now, the time limitation on European player rights will likely force NHL clubs to draft only the very best Russian players at the age of 18.

The stock of Russian players arriving in the NHL this year have strong track records. For the most part NHL clubs signed players who proved themselves in the Russian Super League, which is widely recognized as the second best league in the world.

NHL-bound

The bright young stars signed and brought over were Phoenix Coyotes prospect Enver Lisin (20) and Pittsburgh Penguins future superstar Evgeni Malkin (20). The more experienced Russian arrivals were older and earned their “stripes” over several productive seasons in the Super League. These players were Edmonton Oilers prospect Alexei Mikhnov (24), Calgary Flames prospect Andrei Taratukhin (23), Ottawa Senators prospect Alexei Kaigorodov, and Dallas Stars prospect Vadim Khomitsky (24). Twenty-three-year-old Belarus native Mikhail Grabovsky was another experienced young player who has reportedly signed with Montreal, though there has been no official announcement.

The arrival of these five Russian rookies was also accompanied by the return of several former NHLers, including former No. 3 and 5 overall selections in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft Alexander Svitov (CLB) and Stanislav Chistov (ANA). Highly-touted prospect Alexander Semin’s return to the NHL is also of note as the young prospect became well known for refusing to report to the AHL during the lockout and remaining in Russia after the lockout despite an active NHL contract with the Washington Capitals. The young forward appears to have mended his relationship with the Capitals, who reactivated the latter two years of his contract without significant financial penalties.

The list of veteran returnees includes former Czech Ottawa Senators defenseman Karel Rachunek, who will be joining the “Czech” New York Rangers, former Predator Denis Arkhipov, who signed a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the former No. 8 overall selection Nikita Alexeev, who resigned with the Tampa Bay Lightning after a one season absence.

North America – Russia is a two-way road

A number of Russians have returned back to their homeland, either waived by their clubs or unwilling to sign on to another two-way deal and instead electing to take NHL entry-level caliber salaries in Russia. Amongst those who turned down two-way offers and returned to Russia were three former first and second round selections Pavel Vorobiev (24), Denis Grebeshkov (23) and Timofei Shishkanov (23). Vorobiev enjoyed a successful season early on with the Chicago Blackhawks, but was unable to fully get back on track after a foot injury and spent the latter part of the season with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL in what resembled a cost-cutting measure by the lowly Blackhawks. Unable to come to an agreement on a new deal, Vorobiev returned to Russia and signed a one-year deal with HC Khimik.

Grebeshkov started the season in Manchester, New Hampshire with the Kings AHL affiliate Monarchs. Near the March trade deadline he was traded by the Los Angeles Kings to the New York Islanders and spent the rest of the season with the NHL club, joining the team’s AHL affiliate for the playoffs. Despite a strong performance at the NHL level and numerous accolades from the Islanders management, the NHL club reportedly offered Grebeshkov a two-way deal and the young prospect chose to instead return to Russia’s HC Lokomotiv for at least the 2006-07 season.

Former Nashville Predators prospect Shishkanov was traded to the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline and this young player was also unwilling to sign a two-way deal, preferring to instead return to Russia and skate with HC Khimik for a reportedly respectable NHL-caliber salary. Grebeshkov, Vorobiev and Shishkanov each proved themselves viable NHL prospects and we have not heard the last of them, as they will likely return to North American after the 2006-07 season, if offered the right deal or if their Russian stint does not meet expectations.

Evgeny Artukhin also chose to return to Russia, signing a deal with HC Lokomotiv after being unable to come to terms with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is unfortunate that the young player chose to return home, as he was on the cusp of earning a full time job with the Lightning after a solid 2005-06 campaign. The young forward has steadily developed in the AHL before taking his game up a notch and earning a NHL job out of training camp. The difference between his asking price and what the Lightning were offering was reportedly around $250,000. The hulking young forward’s absence leaves a hole in Tampa Bay’s lineup, as Artukhin brought a significant physical edge and surprisingly impressive speed and puckhandling skills for someone his size. The young forward’s deal in Russia is for one year and he will likely return to the NHL for the 2007-08 campaign.

Another Russian player who will likely at least start the 2006-07 season in Russia is Columbus Blue Jackets star Nikolai Zherdev (21), who has been unable to come to terms with the NHL club over his new contract. The young player enjoyed a productive season last year, finishing second on the club in scoring. He and his agent feel the money offered to him by the club was not sufficient to cover his contribution to the team and the young forward signed a one-year deal with Russian club HC Khimik. The deal is reportedly worth more than a million dollars for one season. There is still a chance, albeit quite small, that Zherdev and Columbus will reach an agreement before the start of the NHL preseason.

Konstantin Koltsov (25) and Maxim Kondratiev (23) conclude the list of NHL departures. Koltsov was unable to put together a solid NHL season and the Pittsburgh Penguins chose to waive the once highly-touted prospect. Known for his speed, Koltsov has been unable to put the puck in the net and thus suffered the consequences. In an interview with Russian media, he admitted that he did have some NHL options, but instead chose to accept an offer from HC Salavat Yulayev and return to Russia.

Kondratiev has been moving back and forth from Russia to North America and has once again returned to Russia. He spent part of the 2005-06 season with the New York Rangers and the club’s AHL affiliate before being traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Ducks promptly sent him to the AHL’s Portland Pirates, where the young player became famous for his impressive offensive productivity during the playoffs, on many occasions leading his club in points and goals. Kondratiev’s NHL future remains clouded, and he returned to Russia, signing a one-year deal with his home club HC Lada.


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