Alex Burmistrov

So, who else could jump from the KHL to NHL?

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This week, two major outlets — Sportsnet and Yahoo! — both detailed how the KHL is less of a threat to the NHL than it’s ever been.

Why? Well, in the last five months alone we’ve seen a number of prolific KHLers hop the pond: Evgeni Kuznetsov and Jori Lehtera finally joined the Caps and Blues, Leo Komarov re-joined the Leafs (followed by Petri Kontiola, who also inked in Toronto) and Jiri Sekac signed with Montreal.

It was a pretty big influx of talent, highlighted by Lehtera — the KHL’s ninth-leading scorer last year — and the reasoning behind the moves, according to Blues GM Doug Armstrong, was simple: These guys wanted to play against the best.

“I think that players all know that the NHL is the best league; it’s got the best players,” Armstrong explained to Sportsnet. “You can make good money in the KHL but if you want to compete against the best you have to be in the NHL.”

With that in mind, what other players could be on their way over to North America in the future? A few suggestions throw your way:

Alex Burmistrov

Still property of the Winnipeg Jets, Burmistrov — 21st in the KHL last year with 38 points — has been the subject of rumors claiming he’s eying a return to North America… but is being held up by the remaining time on his contract with Ak Bars Kazan.

From the Winnipeg Sun’s report at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft:

There were some rumblings that Alex Burmistrov’s name was in play, but a source said the fact it was unclear if he could get out of his KHL contract with Ak Bars Kazan is a stumbling block to a potential deal.

Still only 22 years old, Burmistrov already has a ton of NHL experience (194 games; he debuted shortly after being the eighth overall pick in 2010) and would probably slide back into an NHL lineup easily, should he choose to return. The Jets retain his North American rights but it’s safe to assume a trade might be in order after his falling out with the club (granted, a percentage of his beef stemmed from a bad relationship with ex-head coach Claude Noel.)

Sakari Salminen

A bit of a late bloomer, Salminen, 26, spent the early parts of his professional career with Assat of the SM-liiga before making the leap with KalPa in 2010-11. He saw his goal totals climb from 12 to 24 to 26 before KHL club Torpedo jumped in with a contract offer — last year, his first in the KHL, Salminen had a very productive campaign by 48 points in 54 games, sixth-most in the league.

Given all the interest in Finnish players like Kontiola, Komarov and Lehtera following the Sochi Olympics (where they won bronze), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Salminen — who replaced Valtteri Filppula on the roster for Sochi — get some interest as well.

Per Elite Prospects, Salminen is under contract with Torpedo through ’14-15.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Rumors of a Kovalchuk return to the NHL were so prevalent this summer that Randy Miller of NJ.com wrote an entire piece rebuking the rumblings:

Here’s what NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly had to say last summer after Kovalchuk retired from the Devils with 12 years and $77 million on his contract, and then went home to Russia and signed a four-year contract with the Kontinental Hockey League:

1. Unless Kovalchuk sits out a full season of professional hockey anywhere in the world, he cannot return to the NHL without consent from all 30 franchises until 2018-19.

2. If Kovalchuk sits out a full season of pro hockey, he can only return with the Devils’ consent until 2018-19.

3. Beginning in 2018-19, Kovalchuk will be 35, removed from the league’s voluntary retirement list and free to sign with any NHL team as a free agent.

In an email to the New York Post, Daly wrote Kovalchuk returning to the NHL “would require unanimous consent at any point at which the player tries to return to the League without having been out of professional hockey [anywhere in the world] for a full calendar year. Once he sits out for a full calendar year, he can only come back with the Devils’ consent.”

So, Kovalchuk playing for the 2014-15 Devils seems impossible because there is no chance all 30 teams give consent.

This one seems doubtful unless Kovalchuk is willing to come back at the start of the ’18 season. You can put it on the backburner, though!

Dustin Boyd

Of all the North American ex-NHLers currently plying their trade in Russia, Boyd has perhaps the most complete resume (220 games) and youth (27 years old) to make a comeback. He had a solid year for Barys Astana in ’13-14, scoring 38 points in 49 games, and also has a couple of quality NHL seasons on his resume — specifically, an 11-goal, 22-point effort with Calgary in 2008-09.

Boyd is under contract with Barys Astana until the end of 2015, per reports.

Oilers sign defenseman Matthew Benning, nephew of Canucks GM Jim

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 23:  Matt Benning #5 of the Northeastern Huskies skates against the Boston University Terriers during the first period of the 2015 Beanpot Tournament Championship game at TD Garden on February 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Even with Adam Larsson added to the mix, the Edmonton Oilers’ organization is short on right-handed defensemen.

It remains to be seen how long it will take for Matthew Benning to make the NHL jump, but the Oilers took a step in the right (right-handed defenseman) direction by signing him to a two-year deal on Saturday.

In case you have some jokes at the ready … yes, Benning is related to Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning. The occasionally lampooned executive is his uncle. His father Brian also enjoyed an NHL career.

*Nervous laugh*

The Edmonton Journal’s Bruce McCurdy views the move as the equivalent to landing a “free draft pick.” It might be a nice perk for Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli to land Benning being that he was a 2012 sixth-rounder of the Boston Bruins.

McCurdy indicates that Benning, 22, could rank fairly high among the Oilers’ defensive prospects right off the bat, even if scarce options play a role along with whatever the blueliner brings to the table:

This is the fourth free agent signing of an NCAA player by the Oilers this off-season, though the first involving a defenceman. Previously, highly-regarded forward Drake Caggiula had signed along with right winger Patrick Russell and netminder Nick Ellis. All four are in age 22-23 and well-positioned to make an impact on the pro ranks in the near future, even as their NHL potential is an open book. But collectively they add some meat on the bones of a franchise whose organizational depth has been questionable. 

Interestingly, McCurdy notes that the Canucks were in the running for Benning’s services.

(Waits for a few more Jim Benning jokes.)

Seems like the Northeastern University product received a decent deal, relatively speaking:

Flames management enjoys a rare luxury: a clean slate

CALGARY, CANADA - FEBRUARY 27: General manager Brad Treliving of the Calgary Flames address the media before the trade deadline prior to the team's NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at the Scotiabank Saddledome on February 27, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

During the waning days of the Jarome Iginla/Miikka Kiprusoff years, the Calgary Flames ranked as one of the worst things a sports team could be: both expensive and uninspiring.

There were a lot of bloated contracts connected to those days, but when you look at sites like Cap Friendly or General Fanager, the slate looks a lot cleaner heading into 2016-17.

OK, so maybe you could also argue that there are still a few troubling deals to get rid of.

Dennis Wideman‘s $5.25 million salary cap hit, Ladislav Smid‘s $3.5 million mark and Deryk Engelland‘s bewildering $2.917 million cap hit all expire after next season. Chances are, you have an issue with one or maybe all of those deals, so the Flames must be giddy to close in on all that extra breathing room.

And, yes, there are some deals that Flames GM Brad Treliving may regret. Just consider today’s earlier post about Troy Brouwer.

Still, the point is clear: whatever mistakes or strokes of genius that come, at least those moves will be Treliving’s to make.

Consider some of the important calls that await:

  • Such as, how will they sort out Johnny Gaudreau‘s lingering RFA situation this summer?

The easiest path might be to try to convince him to take a deal that is identical to the one Sean Monahan received, but one or both sides likely want something different.

  • Despite bringing in both Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the goaltending future beyond 2016-17 is murky for a simple enough reason: neither netminder is signed beyond that point.

Elliott is receiving a bargain $2.5 million and is currently 31. Johnson, 30, barely comes in behind him at $1.7 million. It’s highly likely that Calgary will spend more money on its goalies in 2017-18, but who might be back?

And how much will the Flames need to see from Elliott and/or Johnson before trying to hammer out extensions?

The good news for Flames management is that they’re not saddled with a goaltending decision they might not have made. The scary part is that, if it doesn’t work out, it’s on them … and could cost someone a job.

  • The Flames ultimately have the power to determine who’s a marquee player and who is a part of the supporting cast.

Gaudreau is key, but it’s unclear if he’ll sign a long deal like Monahan or opt for a “bridge” deal. In addition to Monahan, the Flames signed these players to fairly long deals: Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Brouwer and Michael Frolik.

Yes, you can quibble with Brouwer and maybe another name, but plenty of teams would be jealous of that list overall.

***

Many general managers must navigate minefields of someone else’s mistakes. There are a lot of challenges to the job beyond that, but Treliving & Co. get to make their own.

It’s a luxury that is unlikely to last, but the Flames stand as an interesting team for armchair (and real-life) executives to follow.

Yahoo’s fantasy hockey position tweaks signal end of a very specific era

WINNIPEG, MB - FEBRUARY 11: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets prepares for the faceoff in second period action in an NHL game against the Boston Bruins at the MTS Centre on February 11, 2016 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
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Few things deepen your hockey geekery quite like playing fantasy hockey.

For sports haters and the sports-oblivious, it’s probably bad enough to see grown adults wearing hockey sweaters out in public. What about when someone is obsessing (and sometimes muttering profanities) about a team that only exists to about 8-15 people?

Still, this is the Internet, where niche obsessions can go really deep. Just fall down a rabbit hole about Star Wars extended universe if you want to get a taste.

Us fantasy hockey nerdy dorks got some understandable but still sad news today: it appears to be an end of an era for Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Burns being considered eligible as both right wings and defensemen.

NHL.com trotted out a list of changes to Yahoo’s popular format on Saturday, and the tweaks generally make total sense.

It’s a bit of a bummer, though, as being eligible for a forward and defensive position provided another example of the unusual natures of both Byfuglien and Burns. Luckily, there are about 1,000 Exhibits for each, especially true oddball Burns.

(The debate regarding where either player should line up has largely died out, though.)

Another thing of interest in NHL.com’s list is the most prominent players who can be placed in all three forward spots. That could be a good thing to keep handy if you’re the last-minute preparation type:

The six tri-eligible players among NHL.com’s top 200, Joe Pavelski of the Sharks, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, Ryan O'Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres, Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Sharp of the Dallas Stars and Jussi Jokinen of the Florida Panthers, have had their eligibilities reduced. Forsberg and Jokinen, who are now only eligible at LW, took the biggest hits from that bunch.

Forwards Robby Fabbri (now C/LW), of the St. Louis Blues, and Sam Reinhart, (now C/RW) of the Sabres, are the two players who have gone from single to dual eligibility in Yahoo leagues.

Check out the full article here.

Expect steps in right direction, not leaps, from Flames’ new head coach

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head coach Glen Gulutzan of the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

If you’re looking beyond the shaky history of Jack Adams winners and going for a more objective approach, it’s not especially easy to break down the impact of a head coach.

Still, we’ve seen examples where a guy really can make a difference. Mike Sullivan is merely the latest to transform a wobbly team into a champion thanks to some deft maneuvers.

What, then, can the Calgary Flames expect from Glen Gulutzan?

Let’s break down some of the factors involved.

Better goalies, more experienced players

As Flames Nation’s Pat Steinberg notes, Gulutzan’s most immediate advantage of fired Flames head coach Bob Hartley is that Calgary made massive improvements in net.

Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson both carry promising numbers into this situation. Elliott’s work with the St. Louis Blues, in particular, strikes you as All-Star-level.

Of course, some will attribute a significant portion of Elliott’s success to being in Ken Hitchcock’s system, so it’s up to Gulutzan to provide a more nurturing atmosphere than the one Flames goalies have experienced in recent years.

Modest improvements

Steinberg delved a little deeper than Gulutzan’s two Dallas Stars teams (2011-12 and 2012-13) missing the playoffs and found that they were a middle-of-the-pack squad from a possession standpoint. Nothing spectacular there, but Gulutzan did improve the Stars from its previous station.

Upon being hired, Gulutzan pointed to experience as much as anything else when explaining how he improved.

(Which makes sense since … the Vancouver Canucks didn’t exactly set the world on fire while he was an assistant.)

Solid match for personnel

“Possession has become a popular word,” Gulutzan said after the Flames chose him. “For me, what possession is, it’s not always having the puck, because you don’t have it all the time. What we want to be is a real connected group here. When I say connected, we want to be connected in fives in all three zones. We want to defend fast, we are going to defend fast. We’re going to utilize the assets that we have here. In defending fast, you want to get the puck back fast, you want to get it out of your end.”

That quote could probably be attributed to a number of new hires. It’s plausible that you could swap out Gulutzan’s name with that of Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.

Even so, the important thing is that Gulutzan is emphasizing key elements of a modern approach. He’s saying the right things about puck possession and wanting to win the transition game.

When you look at the talent assembled in Calgary, particularly on defense, emphasizing speed almost seems obvious.

From Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano to underrated blueliner T.J. Brodie all the way to the talented guys who could use a boost (Dougie Hamilton especially, perhaps Dennis Wideman as well?), the Flames’ defense seems best suited for an attacking style.

The potential drawback is that Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson could be exposed to some extra “high-danger chances” when an attacking style backfires … but the good might outweigh the bad if Gulutzan’s system can stop the possession bleeding.

Tipping point?

The dream scenario for Calgary is that a series of manageable improvements make for a cumulative jump.

Ideally, Gulutzan’s system combines with in-house improvements to young players with a vastly improved set of goalies to transform the Flames into playoff contenders.

In the limited sample size we’ve seen of Calgary’s new head coach, he doesn’t necessarily strike you as a miracle worker. Instead, he’s lauded for the structure he provides and his ability to communicate.

That might be enough for the Flames, especially if they give Gulutzan some time to work through growing pains.