Earlier today (or 9:00 PM South Korea time), the Olympic Athletes from Russia blanked the United States 4-0 in their final round of group play at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang. While Ilya Kovalchuk and his two goals drew much of the media attention, it was hard to ignore the solid play of goaltender Vasili Koshechkin. So who is Vasili Koshechkin? How could the best non-NHL goalie in Russia be a complete unknown? How was a 34-year-old with a sub-2.40 GAA in nine of his ten KHL seasons never given a chance in the NHL?
It’s a common question at international events such as the Olympics: how can many national team standouts have no NHL experience whatsoever? The most common explanation is simply that they were not good enough. Even the best players from some non-traditional hockey countries were never NHL-caliber, while others developed too late to be noticed before their NHL Draft eligibility ended. However, for a great many others, they were in fact drafted, but never came overseas to play on the grandest stage. Kosheckin falls into the latter category. The OAR starter was in fact an eighth-round selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002. With a massive frame at a young age, the Bolts took a late flier on the raw prospect, only to watch him blossom into a star… in the KHL.
As much as North American fans believe that the NHL is hockey’s promised land, Europeans choosing to turn down a shot overseas altogether was actually fairly frequent. From 2000 to 2010, more than 30 European players – an entire round’s worth of prospects – were made bona fide contract offers from the teams that drafted them, but never signed an entry-level contract in the league, nor did they ever cross the Atlantic later in their careers. Those players then stay on a team’s “reserve list”, the same list used to retain the rights of young, recently-drafted players, whether they’re playing in juniors, college, or overseas. However, while many players have limits on how long their NHL rights remain exclusive, those playing in leagues like the KHL or NLA, who don’t have transfer agreements with the NHL, remain on their drafted teams’ reserve lists indefinitely until they retire from professional hockey. This is why, technically, Koshechkin would still be required to sign with the Lightning 16 years after being drafted.
Many of these players, unsurprisingly, are Russian. In addition to Koshechkin, fellow OAR teammate Sergei Mozyakin is also a well-known “never was”. A ninth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002, Mozyakin is considered to be one of the best players to never play in the NHL. A point-per-game (or better) player in 12 of the last 13 KHL seasons, Mozyakin is an offensive force to be reckoned with, even still at 36. Yet, Mozyakin never felt the need to leave Russia and remains on Columbus’ reserve list. A fellow Russian whose presence was at least felt in the NHL is Ruslan Zainullin. The 34th overall pick in 2000 by the Lightning, Zainullin’s rights were involved in several high-profile transactions, including being traded from Tampa to Phoenix as part of a package for Nikolai Khabibulin, then traded to Atlanta as part of a package for Darcy Hordichuk and picks, and finally – and most surprisingly – traded to Calgary straight-up for Marc Savard. Although clearly valued by NHL teams, Zainullin instead opted for a long (and somewhat underwhelming) career in Russia. In total, of the 30 players remaining on NHL reserve lists who never came over (over age 25), 24 were from Russia, the latest being defenseman Maxim Chudinov, drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2010. Other countries represented include two players each from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Switzerland.
Fortunately for NHL teams, the players themselves, and fans of hockey, this is a trend that seems to be dropping off dramatically. Prospects deemed worthy of drafting and signing are now almost always testing the waters of North American hockey, whether they go on to have a long NHL career or instead return home to Europe in short order. However, for a while that wasn’t the case, so when those players who sound unfamiliar pop up on the international stage, don’t consider them too bad for the NHL or instead a player who slipped through the cracks because sometimes, by their own decision, it’s neither.