By Colin Edwards
It’s too early to know how Vadim Shipachyov will fare in the NHL, but the path he took to get here suggests he’ll make an impact.
After Vegas’ roster logjam forced GM George McPhee to send Shipachyov to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves to start the 2017-18 season, the 30-year-old Russian made his long-awaited NHL debut with the Golden Knights on Sunday. In his first game, Shipachyov scored the game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the Boston Bruins, with the former KHL star centering the expansion team's second line between wingers Alex Tuch and Brendan Leipsic.
After nine seasons in the KHL, Shipachyov signed a two-year, $9-million contract with the Golden Knights in May. In 50 games with SKA St. Petersburg last season, he racked up 26 goals and 76 points. Given his sustained success in the KHL – 137 goals and 412 points in 445 career games – there's little doubt Shipachyov had the talent to be in the NHL years ago. In fact, he's often referred to as the “Russian Crosby,” which is fitting considering he was eligible for the 2005 NHL draft that saw Sidney Crosby go No. 1 overall.
Over the past few years, several NHL teams have signed veteran KHLers to slot directly onto their roster. And with Russia's top pro league struggling due to an economic recession in the country, there might be more players interested in coming over to North America. Here’s a look at some notable active NHLers who, like Shipachyov, had an extended stint (or two) in the KHL before crossing the pond:
Artemi Panarin: A dazzling offensive talent who played parts of seven seasons in the KHL, Panarin joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16 and wasted no time making a contribution. As a 24-year-old rookie, he put up 30 goals and 77 points, beating out an injured Connor McDavid for the Calder Trophy. He fit in nicely on a line with Patrick Kane and the duo combined for 346 points in the two seasons Panarin spent in Chicago. After being dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer, Panarin has had no problem quickly adjusting to his new team. With eight points in six games, the shifty winger continues to prove he can produce big numbers in the NHL – whether he's playing with Kane or not.
Nikita Zaitsev: The soon-to-be 26-year-old defenseman is in his second season with the Toronto Maple Leafs after signing an entry-level contract in 2016. Zaitsev’s seven years in the KHL helped prepare him for the rigors of the NHL. In his rookie season with the Leafs, the two-way defender played big minutes and complemented offense-minded Jake Gardiner. The Leafs obviously liked what they saw, as they locked up Zaitsev to a seven-year, $31.5-million deal. That being said, he had the worst plus-minus rating on the team last season at minus-22. Nevertheless, with a year of NHL experience under his belt, Zaitsev will be leaned on this season as a top-four D-man in Toronto. He's been a big part of the Leafs' early success in 2017-18, with five points in six games and a plus-8 rating that ranks among the league leaders.
Evgeny Dadonov: He's had not one, but two stints in the KHL. Dadonov played three seasons in Russia's top league before joining the Florida Panthers in 2009-10, then returned to the KHL in 2012. After five more seasons in Russia, Dadonov has come back to the NHL to once again play for the Panthers. The 28-year-old winger tallied 30 goals last year with SKA St. Petersburg and is looking to translate his success to the NHL. With the loss of Jaromir Jagr, as well as several other off-season departures in Florida, the Panthers are hoping Dadonov can help fill the void. He's looked good early, putting up five points in five games.
Alexander Radulov: Radulov was drafted 15th overall in 2004 by the Nashville Predators and made his debut with them in 2006-07 after spending two seasons in the QMJHL. However, after only two years with the Preds, Radulov returned home to play in the KHL. Aside from rejoining Nashville late in the 2011-12 season – he suited up for nine games, plus eight more in the playoffs – Radulov played in the KHL from 2008 to 2016. Last season, he signed a one-year "show me" deal as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens, and put up 54 points in 76 games. His dominance in the KHL – 492 points in 391 games – hasn’t translated to the NHL like teams have hoped, but Dallas decided to take a chance on the 31-year-old sniper, inking him to a five-year, $31.25-million contract in the summer.
Alexei Emelin: The Nashville blueliner came to the NHL when he signed with the Habs prior to the 2011-12 season, making his NHL debut as a 25-year-old after playing three seasons in the KHL.
Alex Burmistrov: Drafted eighth overall in 2010, he didn’t reach expectations with the Atlanta Thrashers. (Then again, who did?) Burmistrov returned to Russia and played two seasons in the KHL – 2013-14 and '14-15 – before coming back to the NHL, spending the past two years with the Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes. Currently, he's looking to define himself as a member of the Vancouver Canucks.
Jori Lehtera: He spent four seasons in the KHL before joining the St. Louis Blues in 2014-15. The Finnish-born center was drafted by the Blues in 2008 but didn’t suit up for the team until he was 27 years old. After being traded as part of a package for Brayden Schenn at the NHL draft last June, Lehtera is with the Philadelphia Flyers but has yet to play a game this season.
NEXT IN LINE?
Jan Kovar: The Czech center playing in the KHL has been rumored to make the jump to the NHL. After speculation this past off-season tied Kovar to Vancouver, he decided to stay in Russia. But will the 27-year-old follow in Shipachyov’s path and be the next notable KHLer to come to North America?
Dominik Furch: Furch just might be the best goalie not in the NHL. The Czech netminder has posted a GAA under 2.00 in each of the past three KHL seasons. The NHL might have to wait, though, as Furch is under contract until 2019.
Ben Scrivens: After playing for four NHL teams – as well as three AHL clubs – from 2011 to 2016, Scrivens packed his bags and went to the KHL last season. He put up some good numbers last year (2.28 GAA, .918 save percentage) and continues to make a case for a return to the NHL with a solid start to the 2017-18 campaign. He's also a candidate to suit up for Canada at the 2018 Olympics.