March 5: The mystery of where Nalimov will play has been solved. The young goaltender has signed an AHL contract with the Rockford IceHogs for the remainder of the season. He will not be eligible to play for the Blackhawks but can get into the organization and start playing in North America.
March 1: The KHL regular season is over and, for those teams fortunate enough to qualify, the Gagarin Cup playoffs are set to begin on Tuesday. Dinamo Riga is not among one of those lucky teams. In fact, the Latvian club finished dead last in the league standings by a considerable margin. For several of their impending free agents, Riga has opted not to make them wait until the KHL off-season officially begins. The team announced multiple contract terminations today. Among them was goaltender Ivan Nalimov, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect and a late addition to Dinamo in December who took over the starting role in the latter half of the season. Per Riga’s release, Nalimov was granted an early termination to “continue his career in the USA.”
What exactly this expected move to North America means for the 26-year-old Nalimov remains to be seen. Having never made the jump prior at any point since Chicago drafted him in the sixth round in 2014, Nalimov remains property of the Blackhawks – a label with an indefinite length. However, the team has previously seemed hesitant to sign the Russian netminder, despite good KHL numbers. In fact, at one point Nalimov formally requested a trade to another NHL team. Whether this was prompted by Chicago refusing to offer Nalimov a contract or whether he simply did not see a path to NHL opportunity was never clear and Nalimov later rescinded the request. This off-season, without much experience at the goalie position, it seemed as good a time as any for Chicago to sign Nalimov and it seemed that he realized this as well, waiting to re-sign in the KHL. It was only after the NHL’s return to play plans were formalized and it became clear that Nalimov was not in the Blackhawks’ plans for this season that he signed in Riga. Despite much skepticism, Chicago’s play in net as been stellar this season, led by a breakout campaign from perceived third-string Kevin Lankinen. With Lankinen, Malcolm Subban, and Collin Delia all signed through next season, the logjam in net has seemingly returned to Chicago. Is there no room for Nalimov? Or has the emergence of Lankinen opened the club’s eyes to take a chance on their European netminders?
The phrasing of Riga’s press release, as translated from Latvian, seems to indicate that there is a specific plan in place for Nalimov, one that prompted the early termination of his contract. It could be that with the window opening today to sign contracts for the 2021-22 season that the Blackhawks have an agreement to sign Nalimov to a contract beginning next year. In the meantime, he could sign an AHL contract for the remainder of this season. There is also a chance that Chicago, hopeful for a playoff berth this season, will add Nalimov on an NHL deal immediately as a depth option. Beyond their NHL trio, the club’s only other goaltender under contract, Matt Tomkins, has struggled in his young pro career and has had a woeful start to this season in the AHL. In either case, it would mean Nalimov has come to terms with the Blackhawks’ depth chart and there is no further animosity between he and the team. If this is not the case, it could be that Chicago has promised to trade Nalimov before next season and at this point he is ready to play wherever in the league (or minors) he might end up.
Assuming Nalimov is indeed ready to begin the next stage of his career in North America, there is certainly upside for whichever team signs him. That is, if you overlook this season. Playing for a poor Riga team, especially as a late addition, Nalimov struggled this year with an .877 save percentage and 3.58 GAA. However, this is a steep outlier from the rest of his KHL career. Nalimov had maintained a high level of play over his previous six seasons, playing for a number of different teams. While his frequent movement in recent years has prevented him from taking on a workhorse role, he has played just as well with limited appearances for a team as he has as their undisputed starter. KHL goaltenders have found success transitioning to the NHL in recent years and Nalimov could be the next in line.