Roughly halfway through the Kontinental Hockey League season, things are looking good… for prospective NHL off-season buyers. The majority of the “second best” league’s top scorers thus far are impending free agents and a majority of that subset play for the best team in the league and may be in search of a new challenge should they take home the league championship without much of a struggle.
When SKA Saint Petersberg added Pavel Datsyuk, Viktor Tikhonov, Sergei Plotnikov, and Alexander Khokhlachev this summer, it was assumed that they would be the team to beat in 2016-17. However, no one could have expected that 35 games in they would be 29-2-4 with a goal differential of 99 and a 30-point lead in their division. SKA appears poised to breeze to a league championship this season. Then what? Leading scorer, and a name known to NHL fans, Ilya Kovalchuk has made it known that he would consider returning to the NHL. Kovalchuk is currently second in the KHL in points (to veteran winger Sergei Mozyakin of Mettalurg Magnitogorsk) with 49. The former #1 overall pick is still only 33 years old, and could use Jaromir Jagr as a model of how a few years out of the NHL early in your career can extend your career in North America. For Kovalchuk to rejoin to the New Jersey Devils, the rest of the teams in the league would have to approve of his return from NHL retirement. While they may not want to make a competitor stronger, the decision could also open doors for Kovalchuk’s teammates to follow suit.
Kovalchuk’s linemate, and the fifth leading scorer in the KHL, is Vadim Shipachyov. The 29-year-old skilled center has been on the radar of NHL teams for years, especially after back-to-back seasons of over a point-per-game production and elite postseason performances with SKA. He’s putting on a repeat performance in 2016-17, with a league-leading 30 assists and nine goals in 28 games. Shipachyov could finally make the jump to North America if he follows friend and role model Kovalchuk. Likewise, SKA’s Evgeni Dadonov could join his teammates overseas. The 2007 third-round pick of the Florida Panthers couldn’t stick in the NHL in his first go-round, despite scoring 20 points in 55 games in parts of three seasons, but has dominated the KHL since his return to Russia. The 27-year-old winger is on pace for his best season yet, and could draw the attention of a Florida team that has had more than it’s fair share of struggles so far this season. A small, fast forward, Dadonov has the tools to excel in today’s NHL. Another player in Saint Petersberg having an unbelievable year is Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Nikita Gusev. The KHL’s third ranked scorer with 44 point in 33 games, the 24-year-old was a steal by the Bolts in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. While he’s still signed on in Russia for a couple more years, don’t be surprised to see the talented scorer join Tampa sooner rather than later and make a contender that much more dangerous.
Elsewhere around the KHL, expect NHL teams to be clamoring for the talents of 24-year-old Sergei Shumakov if the young winger decides to try his hand in North America. Undrafted into the NHL, Shumakov only knows Russian hockey, but continues to get better and better year after year. Already in 2016-17, Shumakov has matched his 33 points from all of last year in 23 less games. A gifted goal scorer who can also play a physical and gritty style, Shumakov has appeal on many levels for NHL suitors. If he continues to produce at a high level for Sibir Novosibirsk this season, expect teams to come calling this summer for the KHL’s current ninth-ranked scorer. Just below Shumakov on that list is Salavat Yulaev Ufa’s Teemu Hartikainen, who some may remember from his brief time with the Edmonton Oilers. While the big Finnish winger has always had the size, strength, and raw talent, he has developed a more complete game over his past few years in the KHL. On his way to his best season yet, the 26-year-old may decide to give the NHL another try with an Oilers team that is now much more appealing. One final intriguing prospect in the KHL’s top ten in scoring is Czech center Jan Kovar. After flying under the radar during his junior and pro days in the Czech Republic, the 26-year-old exploded onto the scene in 2013-14 with 68 points in 54 games in his first KHL season with Mettalurg Magnitogorsk. With 68 and 52 points in the past two seasons after that, and already 42 points in 35 games this season, Kovar has proven to be a reliable contributor and has rejuvinated veteran linemate Mozyakin. Although his contract is not up until 2018, that won’t stop NHL teams from inquiring into his services beforehand.
Other players of interest outside the KHL scoring race include former Boston University star defenseman and NHL journeyman Matt Gilroy, long-time Ottawa Senator Peter Regin, and, property of the Boston Bruins, defenseman Maxim Chudinov. Players like Linus Omark, Nigel Dawes, and Brandon Bochenski continue to have great careers in Europe, but have seemingly turned their backs on a return to the NHL. The real prize of the KHL outside of top scorers may be a strong class of goaltenders. Former Ducks prospect Igor Bobkov of Admiral Vladisvostok has found his way in a contract year, posting a 1.57 GAA and .949 SV% in 21 games so far. With NHL teams always on the lookout for goalie depth, especially in an off-season where the NHL Expansion Draft could unexpectedly strip some teams of their backup keepers, Bobkov could get another shot in the NHL next season. The KHL’s best goalie so far has been Traktor Chelyabinsk’s Pavel Francouz. Like fellow countryman Kovar, the Czeck goalie still has term left on his contract, but that may not matter if NHL teams come calling. The 26-year-old has a 1.22 GAA and a .958 SV% in a league built on offense and not known for defense. Those are hard numbers for North American net-needy teams to ignore. Finally, and frighteningly, the next best goalie behind Bobkov and Francouz is 20-year-old Igor Shestyorkin, also known as the heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist. A fourth-round pick of the Rangers in 2014, New York lucked into what might be the best goalie prospect not currently playing in North America. Shestyorkin has a 1.51 GAA and .942 SV% in 26 games as the starting goalie for none other than SKA Saint Petersberg. The young keeper still has some developing to do, but has the talent to be a future star and make the transition from “King Henrik” and easy one for the Rangers.
When hockey is on display on the global scale, like at the Winter Olympic Games or this past summer’s World Cup of Hockey, it’s easy to see how worldly the game really is. However, it’s just as easy to forget that during the regular season when all the focus is on players just in the NHL or in it’s feeder leagues like the AHL, NCAA, or Canadian junior leagues. However, there is hockey talent around the world, and some that will have a great impact on the NHL in the near future. It’s important to give those other leagues their due diligence as well. Your favorite team may have one of these relatively unknown players on their roster soon.
Coming soon – Across The Pond: Switzerland’s NLA