The Kontinental Hockey League is well past the midway point of their season and players are beginning to look ahead to next year. The NHL off-season is still a ways away, but many KHLers are already hoping to get a chance at the highest level next year. While few European pros who would like to play in the NHL actually possess the name value or ability to do so, those with experience in the league stand a far better chance. In his latest “31 Thoughts” article, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman identified three former NHLers currently excelling overseas who have the interest and the talent to end up back in the league next season: Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Nesterov, and Victor Antipin.
Of the trio, Grigorenko stands out as truly shining this season in the KHL. The CSKA Moscow star has 34 points through 35 games, leading the team in scoring and in the top ten league-wide in per-game production. Grigorenko looks far better in his second season in the KHL than he did last year and could be catching the eye of NHL teams. The 2012 No. 12 overall pick possesses immense skill, as well as good size and physical ability. However, in stints with the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche over five seasons, he could never quite put it all together. Grigorenko was traded away by Buffalo as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade in 2015 and improved substantially during two seasons in Denver, but nevertheless bolted for his native Russia after he was not qualified by the team and became a free agent two years ago. CSKA is thankful that he did, as Grigorenko’s play has fueled the team to the top spot in the standings as of now. Grigorenko has likely matured as a player and leader since his NHL days and could be an intriguing option this summer.
Nesterov also has his fair share of NHL experience, skating as the sixth or seventh defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning for parts of three seasons before being dealt to the Montreal Canadiens ahead of the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline. Nesterov showed good two-way ability in his limited roles with the Bolts and Habs, but was also prone to poor stretches and bad mistakes. He signed with CSKA the same off-season as Grigorenko, but was able to make an immediate impact in his first season, posting 19 points in 42 games while often playing top-pair minutes. Yet, Nesterov is already about to surpass that mark this season, with 18 points through 35 games. Nesterov is within the top ten defensemen in the KHL in scoring this season and his play is also part of the reason that CSKA has allowed far fewer goals than nearly every other team in the league.
One of few blue liners with more points than Nesterov this season is Antipin, who unlike the other two is just one year removed from the NHL. However, he also has just the one season in the league to his credit and it was far from impressive. Antipin made his NHL debut last year after signing with the Buffalo Sabres. He skated in 47 games with the team, but failed to score a goal and only added ten assists. It was far from a surprise that he left Buffalo to return home this summer. A failed first NHL season won’t stop the hype over the swift skating defenseman though; Friedman reports that the speculation of an Antipin return is fueled more so by interest from NHL teams than the player’s own desire to play in the league. Antipin has 21 points in 40 games this year for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, fourth-best on the team. A balanced two-way game, especially in the offense-heavy KHL, is often a good way to impress NHL scouts and Antipin may get his second chance far sooner than he might have expected.