No Collusion! The Golden Knights’ Russian Invasion May Be Closer Than You Think

No Collusion! The Golden Knights’ Russian Invasion May Be Closer Than You Think

The Vegas Golden Knights haven’t had much success with Russians.  Yet.

While Vadim Shipachyov was one of the first players to sign a contract with the Knights, his NHL career lasted exactly 3 games, 1 suspension, and resulted in a total of 1 goal.  While the general public will likely never know the full truth behind the KHL superstar’s tumultuous departure from the team that would ultimately go on to win the Western Conference Championship, what we know with certainty is that there is no love lost between the aging Soviet and the Knights’ brass. Shipachyov later described his time in Vegas as a ‘bad dream.’  After Shipachyov “retired” from the NHL he had a decent KHL season (25 points in 22 games), his production didn’t approach the same gaudy numbers (76 points in 50 games) he posted before failing to translate his game to North American ice.

Some casual observers have suggested that the Shipachyov debacle may prevent the Golden Knights from signing quality Russian players in the future.   George McPhee is apparently not willing to let one failed experiment destroy his entire lab. McPhee has spent his entire management career working with high-end Russian talent, and he clearly has plans to continue.  In 1992, McPhee was hired as the vice president and director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks, who had just signed Russian legend, Pavel Bure.  McPhee was hired as the General Manager of the Washington Capitals in 1997, and would spend the next 17 years working with Russians superstars like Sergei Gonchar, Alexander Ovechkin, Semyon Varlamov, Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, Dmitri Orlov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.   Simply put, Donal Trump can only dream of the connections McPhee has to Russia.   As McPhee said in his November 9, 2017 press conference, “If there is another player out there in three months that we think will make our team better and can play here, we’re going to go after him.”  While some may think that KHL players may be gunshy about signing with Vegas, McPhee disagrees.  “I have longstanding relationships with lots of Russian players and some pretty good ones… in fact I got a text last week from an agent who represents a lot of Russian players saying ‘take a look at my list.'”

In a recent interview with the Athletic, McPhee clarified that he is comfortable with the outcome of the Shipachyov ordeal:

“We had a coach from another team who mentioned that he thought that that was one of the best moves we made initially. That we committed to that player, he came here, wasn’t committed to us, wasn’t ready to play, and ownership supported a hard decision to send a $9-million contract to the minors. But the message was clear to everyone that it doesn’t matter what your status is, if you’re to check the ego at the door and compete hard, and be a team guy, then there’s a great opportunity here. If not, we don’t have time for it.’’

It should come as no surprise, then, that McPhee spent part of his summer vacation in Russia meeting with some high-end KHL players; none more important than winger, Nikita Gusev.

Nikita Gusev
Date of Birth: July 8, 1992
Age: 26
Position: Left Wing
Height: 5’11”
Weight: 181 lbs
Shoots: Right

The Vegas Golden Knights acquired the rights to Russian Superstar Nikita Gusev during the 2017 expansion draft.  Originally drafted in 2012 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Gusev has never elected to leave Russia, despite the higher salaries and prestige– but that may change sooner than you think.

There’s not much left for Gusev to prove in the KHL.  In fact, there’s not much room left on his resume:

KHL

  • 3-time KHL All-Star Team
  • 2017 Gagarin Cup (KHL Championship)  Winner
  • 2017 World Championship Goal-Scoring Leader
  • 2018 KHL Gentleman Award
  • 2018 KHL Regular Season MVP
  • 2018 KHL Most Assists
  • 2018 2nd Most Points (one less than Ilya Kovalchuk)

2018 Olympics

  • Gold Medal
  • Best Forward
  • Most Assists
  • Most Points

As of the date of this article, Nikita Gusev is having one of the most impressive KHL campaigns in its history.  Through 14 games, Gusev has posted 5 goals and 16 assists, for 21 points.  If he maintains this pace, His 1.5 point-per-game ratio would make this the fifth most productive season in KHL history, behind only Yevgeni Malkin, Sergei Mozyakin, Alexander Radulov, and… Vadim Shipachyov (let’s ignore that last one).

 

How Soon Could Gusev Join the Golden Knights?

George McPhee confirmed that he met with Gusev and his representatives over the summer, and it appears that there is significant interest in having the talented winger join the Golden Knights sooner than later.  “We’re hoping he will [come to the NHL next year]. Had conversations. It sounds like it’s something that he’d like to do. We’ll see what next year brings.”

Note that McPhee said “next year” as opposed to “next season.”  That may suggest that Gusev could join the Knights as early as Spring 2019.  Gusev is in his final contract year with SKA-St. Petersburg.  The KHL regular season ends February 22, 2019 with the playoffs ending no later than April 25.  While it is extremely unlikely that SKA would miss the playoffs, they suffered third-round exit in last year’s chase for the Gagarin Cup.  In the unlikely event that SKA fails early in this year’s KHL playoffs, Gusev could find himself ready to play for the Knights in March.  While there has been no specific indication from the Knights or Gusev that this is likely, it wouldn’t be the first time that a foreign player joined an NHL club for a late-season push.

In March of 2018, the Nashville Predators signed Eeli Tolvanen to a late-season deal.  While Tolvanen ultimately wasn’t ready to contribute to a stacked Predators roster, he got some game action. In 2016, hulking defenseman Nikita Tryamkin signed with the Vancouver Canucks to play 13 games after his KHL season ended.  Both Tolvanen and Tryamkin were signed after the trade deadline, but because they appeared on their respective teams’ reserve lists, they were eligible to play in the playoffs.  Because Gusev remains on Vegas’ reserve list, he can join the team at any time and play until the final buzzer of the season.

Not only would a late-season contract be great for the Knights’ scoring depth, but it would also make financial sense for Gusev.  While Gusev’s current salary is not public information, Alexander Radulov was previously the highest paid player in the league at $5.75 million USD.  However, due to a little-known provision of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (typically referred to as the “NHL CBA”), if Gusev signs with Vegas before he turns 28, he will be subject to the NHL’s entry-level contract limitations.  Article 9 of the CBA says:

9.1(c) Notwithstanding the chart set forth in (b) above, a Player who at the time he was drafted was playing for a team outside North America or who meets the qualifications set forth in Article 8.4(a)(v) (a “European Player”) who signs his first SPC at ages 25-27 shall be subject to the Entry Level System for one (1) year. A European Player who signs his first SPC at age 28 or older is not subject to the Entry Level System under any circumstances.

9.2 Age of Players. As used in this Article, “age,” including “First SPC Signing Age,” means a Player’s age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC, regardless of his actual age on the date he signs such SPC.

In other words, if Gusev Signs an NHL contract before December 31, 2020, he will be limited to ELC compensation during his first contract.   That would make Gusev’s first contract max out at $925,000 plus performance bonuses (which max out at $2,850,000).   However, if Gusev were to sign a late-season contract after his KHL season ends he could burn through his ELC requirement in a few months, rendering him a Restricted Free Agent at the end of the season.  Vegas would then have the exclusive right to negotiate a long-term contract with Gusev.  Fortunately for the Golden Knights, Gusev would not be eligible to become an Unrestricted Free Agent until the summer of 2020 (pursuant to NHL CBA Article 10.1).  If Gusev returned to the KHL after a shortened season with the Knights, the Knights would lose virtually all rights to the player.

When do the Golden Knights lose Gusev’s Rights?

Contrary to popular belief, the Golden Knights will retain Gusev’s rights indefinitely as long as he remains in the KHL.  Generally, a player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) when he either completes 7 seasons in the NHL or on the first June 30th after he turns 27 (Article 10.1 of the NHL CBA).  However, there is a specific exception for “Defected Players” like Gusev.

Under CBA Article 10.2(b)(i)(B) a player is considered “defected” if he has been drafted but has never signed a contract in the NHL or a league which has a transfer agreement with the NHL.  Because the NHL and KHL (or the lower-tier Russian leagues) do not have a transfer agreement, virtually every player drafted out of Russia is considered a defected player until they sign in the NHL, and the team that owns the player’s draft rights will own them indefinitely.  Other examples of players  whose draft rights continued after they turned 27 are  Anton Krysanov (drafted 2005 by Arizona) and Sergei Gayduchenko (drafted 2007 by Florida)

In other words, Gusev’s only route to the NHL is through the Golden Knights.

Ivan Morozov
Date of Birth: May 5, 200
Age: 18
Position: Center
Height: 6’1″
Weight: 179 lbs
Shoots: Right

Drafted 61st in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Ivan Morozov is showing some incredible early success.  After posting 14 points in 12 MHL (Russia’s third-tier adult league) games. Morozov has been promoted to the VHL, where he has notched an assist in two games.   Morozov is one of only 23 18-year olds to play in the VHL this year, and only one of 10 to notch a point.  Morozov could easily turn out to be a draft steal late in the second round if he continues this rapid ascension of the Russian leagues.  Like Gusev, the Knights will retain control of Morozov until he signs.

Admittedly, I haven’t watched as much game video of Morozov as I’d like, but he certainly has his fans:

Cerebral two-way forward with a high compete level and excellent balance as he carries the puck with speed through the neutral zone. Morozov is a jack-of-all-trades pivot — his vision and playmaking make him a sound option to play along the wall on the power play; attack aggressively on the penalty kill; and take (and win) critical draws. Morozov has an excellent shot, a soft set of hands and can finish from in close. He will hang on to the puck as long as he needs to, and his agility and quickness allows him to buy the critical extra second or two he needs to complete a high-percentage play. It’s no coincidence that he’s consistently visible on every shift — Morozov is a battler with strong anticipation who uses his lower-body strength to gain inside positioning before making taking a quick first step towards the goal.” – The Draft Analyst

Undrafted Free Agents

McPhee has also shown interest in some other Russian undrafted free agents.  While the Knights will likely have competition for these players, the Golden Knights early success (and potential of playing with Gusev) may give the Knights an advantage over other teams.

Vladimir Tkachyov a.k.a. “Vladimir Tkachev”
Date of Birth Oct 05, 1993
Age: 25
Position: Center
Height: 6’0″
Weight: 207 lbs
Shoots: Left

McPhee has shown some preliminary interest in Gagarin Cup winner, Vladimir Tkachyov, whose contract with AK Bars will expire at the end of the season.  McPhee met Tkachyov over the summer.

Igor Eronko is the most reliable Russian hockey insider there is, and he reported that the meeting was positive:

Tkachyov is not the flashiest player in the world, but he is defensively responsible and could provide great depth in the Knights’ bottom-6.  Coincidentally enough, there is another player with the exact same name:

 

Vladimir Tkachyov  a.k.a. “Vladimir Tkachev”
Date of Birth Oct 05, 1995
Age 23
Position Left Wing
Height 5’10”
Weight 159 lbs

The other Tkachyov, two years younger, is small but dynamic left winger.  He has explosive skating and has previously shown interest in North America.  He attended an Oilers training camp and was offered a contract, but eligibility rules prevented him from signing.  With his contract ending this year, he could be a fine young addition to the Knights’ core.

 

Anton Burdasov
Date of Birth May 09, 1991
Age: 27
Position: Right Wing
Height: 6’2″
Weight: 234 lbs
Shoots Left

Currently tied for 15th in KHL scoring, Anton Burdasov has been reported to be looking for a chance to compete in the NHL.

At 27, Burdasov is not young by NHL standards, but he could add some scoring depth (and a little familiarity) for any other Russians that might join the Knights in the near future.

Outlook:

Despite an unfortunate first experience Russian free agents, expect the Knights to continue to push for any high-end talent that might be available.  McPhee’s history with Russian players is long and successful. Once bad signing is not likely to change that.

Check back with GoldenKnightsWatch.com for regular updates on Gusev, Morozov, and any other potential addition to the Golden Knights roster.

For more updates, follow @NHLJackManning on Twitter

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