Golden Knights' Vadim Shipachyov latest Russian to spend time developing in KHL
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights signed free-agent Russian forward Vadim Shipachyov to a two-year, $9 million contract on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo/Files)
The Russians are coming. They’re just taking their sweet old time to get here.
Twelve years after Vadim Shipachyov was passed over in the NHL Entry Draft — Sidney Crosby was the No. 1 overall pick that year — the player known as the “Russian Crosby” is finally heading over to the NHL.
Shipachyov, who finished third in scoring in the Kontinental Hockey League with 26 goals and 76 points in 50 games with St. Petersburg SKA last season, signed a two-year contract worth US$9-million with the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday. If he wanted to, he could have been playing in the NHL much earlier.
“He’s really developed into a terrific player,” Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, answering a question from Postmedia News, said in a conference call on Friday. “At some point in every player’s career around the world — it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from — they all want to play in the best league in the world. And the NHL is that league.”
That Shipachyov waited until he turned 30 years old and was fully developed as a top scorer follows a new trend with Russian players, who are only crossing the pond once it’s clear that they can jump right in and make a significant impact in the NHL.
We saw it with Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, who was 24 years old when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2015-16, as well as Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev, who as a 25-year-old led all rookies in ice time this season.
“I don’t think it will take too long for him to assimilate,” McPhee said of Shipachyov. “Years ago, we had (Igor) Larionov and (Slava) Fetisov coming over and it took them a little time, but in recent years, players like Panarin and (Alexander) Radulov and Zaitsev have come over and done very well. If Vadim can come over and play close to that level, we’d be certainly very happy.”
It’s not just Shipachyov who is coming over. The Colorado Avalanche are expected to announce the signing of 22-year-old defenceman Andrei Mironov, a fourth-round pick in 2015 who spent the past two years playing in the KHL. And 28-year-old Evgeny Dadonov, Shipachyov’s teammate in Russia, is being courted by the Golden Knights and several other teams.
“We are seeing less of the 16- and 17-year-old guys go to major junior,” said Ukrainian-born agent Dan Millstein, who represents a mostly Russian clientele, including Zaitsev, Mironov and Pavel Datsyuk. “The newer trend that I’m seeing is guys are staying over in Russia and playing professional hockey for three to five years. They’re developing in Russia and coming here to play when they’re older.”
That wasn’t the case with Nikita Tryamkin, who left the KHL to play for the Vancouver Canucks when he was 21 years old. At the time, he wasn’t fully developed as a defenceman — whether he was playing in the KHL or NHL. So it wasn’t surprising that Tryamkin struggled this season, sitting out games as a healthy scratch, logging bottom-pairing minutes and taking far too many penalties.
At the end of the season, with Tryamkin’s contract up, the third-round pick re-signed with his old team in the KHL.
“It’s disappointing we lost Nikita, because over the course of the year he made some strides,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “We’re going to qualify him this summer and we’re going to own his rights and hopefully at some point he comes back and he re-joins this team. The door hasn’t closed on him.”
Perhaps Tryamkin will come back when he is older and ready to make a significant impact. Either way, his return to Russia is hardly a sign that the KHL has become a threat to the NHL.
While Datsyuk returned to Russia last year for family reasons and Dallas first-rounder Valeri Nichushkin left the team for the KHL, it’s mostly past-their-prime veterans or bubble players who are going back. When it comes to top-end talent, the NHL is still the preferred destination.
Zaitsev signed a seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs earlier this week. Radulov, who returned to the NHL last season and scored 54 points after four years in the KHL, is expected to re-sign with the Canadiens at some point this summer. And several teams have reportedly reached out to Ilya Kovalchuk about a possible return after he spent the past four years in Russia.
“Ever since there was a financial crisis with oil and sanctions and all that stuff and the ruble was in the dumps and was one-third its value, of course more players from the KHL started to migrate to the NHL,” said player agent Mark Gandler, who represents Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Ivan Provorov. “I also think the NHL has become more accepting of European players and I don’t mean from the point of view of discrimination. It makes hockey sense, because they can’t get these types of players from North America. The demand has increased. They need good players.”
It’s not just that the NHL is attracting top-end players. It’s that the players are succeeding. It’s a snowball effect.
A player, such as Panarin, comes over and wins the rookie of the year and it convinces another player, such as Zaitsev, to come over, who then strikes it rich with a $31.5-million contract. That Russians are leading the playoffs in scoring (Evgeni Malkin), are finalists for the Hart Trophy (Sergei Bobrovsky) and amongst the leaders for the Rocket Richard Trophy (Nikita Kucherov and Vladimir Tarasenko) also helps.
“They tell their friends in Russia that if the opportunity knocks on the door, you take it. Don’t think twice about it,” said Millstein. “I can tell you right now, even Pavel Datsyuk, who moved back to Russia for a different reason, he’s telling players ‘just go do it. Things will work out for you.’
“It’s better than kicking yourself later on and saying you wish you had gone.”
While the KHL was perceived as a talent-poaching threat to the NHL when it opened operations in 2008 — according to QuantHockey.com, the number of Russians in the NHL dropped from an all-time high of 73 in 2000-01 to just 29 in 2012-13 — the cases of players leaving are becoming few and far between.
If anything, the reverse is happening. Teams are folding — four in the last three years, although three new teams joined the league — sponsorships are drying up, and because of a ruble that is now worth .58 cents on the U.S. dollar, players are no longer making the kind of money that they once were, or even receiving paycheques on time.
“That’s almost how every team is there,” former NHL defenceman James Wisniewski, who spent last season playing for Admiral Vladivostok in the KHL, told Postmedia News in February. “The big clubs are pretty good, like SKA (Saint Petersburg) or CSKA (Moscow). They pay their guys on time. But on time would be a week or two late.”
There is still the threat of players going back to the KHL. But if you are able to play in the NHL, chances are that you are in the league already — or will be once your contract ends.
Forty-two Russians were in the NHL last season, not including Klim Kostin, the top-ranked European-based prospect heading into this year’s draft. Even with the NHL not sending players to the Olympics, more appear to be on their way.
“In my opinion, the players who are in the NHL are not going to base their decision on whether to stay or not on the Olympics,” said Gandler. “Those players clearly don’t have a burning desire (to play in the Olympics), because if they did they would have stayed another year or two in Russia.”
For teams that used to think twice about drafting a Russian because they didn’t know if or when they were coming, waiting is now part of the process. Eventually, they will come. And when they do, they are NHL-ready.
“For us it’s perfect,” said Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr, who hopes to have 2015 fifth-rounder Kirill Kaprizov playing in Minnesota once his KHL contract expires in 2018. “It’s been very good for him. He has intentions of coming over once he’s NHL ready and it looks like he should be. I’m not sure that he’s not ready right now, to be honest with you.”