ST. PAUL — Once upon a time in the NHL, the Russian Revolution was all the rage.
That was especially true in the 1990s. You had the Fab Five — Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov and Slava Fetisov — transforming the Detroit Red Wings into a dynasty, playing a thrilling style of hockey we'd never seen around these parts. And who can forget former Jets 1.0 general manager Mike Smith diving head-first into foreign waters to bring the likes of Alexei Zhamnov, Evgeny Davydov, Igor Ulanov and Sergei Bautin to town.
The former Soviet Union was rapidly emerging as an international superpower, destined to take over the good ol' North American hockey game and make it their own. In 1990, 12 Russian players appeared in NHL games. In 1995, there were 56. By 2000, that number had exploded to 72. However, as history now shows, that flood of talent turned into more of a trickle as the years went on. The birth of the KHL in 2008, a 23-team loop with considerable financial resources in Russia, Belarus, China, Finland, Latvia and Kazakhstan, certainly helped stop the flow, with more and more players opting to say "Nyet" and stay closer to home.
Only 36 Russian-born players have skated in an NHL game this year. I got my first up-close look at one of the newest, and certainly most talented, on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center. Kirill Kaprizov was selected in the fifth round, 135th overall in 2015, by the Minnesota Wild. That spot had nothing to do with his considerable talent, and everything to do with the ability to get him to the State of Hockey. For five years, it looked like the Wild had simply wasted a lottery ticket on Kaprizov, who remained back home playing in the KHL.
But patience certainly paid off when they convinced him to come over last winter and he promptly took the league by storm at the age of 24. Kaprizov scored 27 times and added 24 assists in 55 games, running away with the Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the-year and giving the Wild a new franchise face to build around. They rewarded him, too, with a five year, US$45-million contract extension a few weeks back, at a tenuous time when Kaprizov's agent was threatening to have him go back to Russia if the Wild didn't open its wallet.
No doubt Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has been watching this all rather closely, and not just because Kaprizov looks to be a thorn in his club's side for years to come as a Central Division rival. No, Cheveldayoff has recently decided to go fishing in the Russian talent pool, hoping that perhaps he might land himself the next big thing.
At the draft this past summer, Cheveldayoff strayed from his typical script and used two of his four picks on Russian prospects. Nikita Chibrikov, who is playing for St. Petersburg of the KHL, was taken in the second round (50th overall). And Dmitri Rashevsky, who is playing for Moscow of the KHL, was taken in the fifth round (146th overall). To put this in perspective, Cheveldayoff had selected 67 players in the 10 previous drafts. Only two of them were Russian.
Both Chibrikov and Rashevsky are intriguing players. Chibrikov is much more raw, just 18 years old but a potential first-rounder who fell due to injury and the usual concerns about his availability. Rashevsky, at 21, is a much more polished product, and he's lighting up his league right now with 13 goals and six assists in 19 games, which has him among the leaders. His highlights have been all over social media, and it's clear there is tremendous offensive talent there.
The burning question, as always, is whether we'll ever see either of them over here?
Winnipeg has two other Russian players already in the fold goaltender Mikhail Berdin, the 23-year-old starting goaltender for the Manitoba Moose who was drafted in the sixth round in 2016. Unlike Chibrikov and Rashevsky, however, he was already in North America playing junior hockey. Same goes with Evgeny Svechnikov, who was drafted in the first round by Detroit, then signed by the Jets as a free agent this summer when the Red Wings cut him loose.
Beyond that, Jets 2.0 history with Russian players is rather checkered. They inherited a pair in 2011 from the Atlanta Thrashers in Alexander Burmistrov and Ivan Telegin. Burmistrov ultimately played 224 games over four years with Winnipeg, then had brief stints in Vancouver and Arizona before returning to the KHL. Telegin never played a game with the Jets , bolting for the KHL after one season with Winnipeg's farm team in St. John's, at the time.
Other than Berdin, Chibrikov and Rashevsky, the only other time Cheveldayoff picked a Russian player was in 2014 when they selected Pavel Kraskovsky in the sixth round. He never did sign with the Jets, and is currently in his ninth season of playing in the KHL. In other words, a wasted pick.
Other than Berdin, Chibrikov and Rashevsky, the only other time Cheveldayoff picked a Russian player was in 2014.
If not directly in the NHL, many Russian players don't want to spend time in the AHL learning the North American game, especially when their minor-league salaries are typically 90 per cent less. They can make a heck of a lot more money back home. The latest example of that is forward Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth-overall pick from 2018 who came to the Big Apple last year after two seasons in the KHL, had four points in 20 games, and was demoted out of training camp this fall to get more seasoning. His response was taking his puck and going home rather than report to AHL Hartford.
Still, you get the sense Kaprizov's rise to fame might just be ushering in a new era for NHL executives who decide the potential reward is worth the risk. That seems to be the case with Cheveldayoff and company, given their recent moves. Svechnikov is on the active roster, Berdin has future NHL goaltender written all over him and the sky seems to be the limit with Chibrikov and Rashevsky.
Mike Smith may be long gone. But if Cheveldayoff's gamble pays off, perhaps a Russian Revolution is about to make a return to River City.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.