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Two Russian free agents nix NHL contract talks, and the Olympic decision is to blame

After the NHL announced players won't be sent to the 2018 Olympics, free agents who were considering heading over to the NHL in 2017-18 might have to think twice.

Beyond the obvious additions of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner to the Maple Leafs’ lineup, one of the biggest boons for Toronto this season was the off-season signing of defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. 

After consecutive standout seasons in the KHL, Zaitsev came over to the NHL on a one-year, entry-level contract, had a near 40-point campaign and, according to reports, is in talks to sign a big-money extension after his freshman season. Zaitsev became a clear top-three defender in Toronto, had the second-highest average ice time of any Maple Leafs defender and while few would call him the sole catalyst behind Toronto’s surprising post-season berth, he played no small part in the Maple Leafs getting into the playoffs.

And for that reason Toronto should be thankful the Olympics are coming next season and weren’t played this past February.

The NHL’s Olympic decision, one which won’t see the season halted to send the game’s best to South Korea for the 2018 Games, is something that will weigh on any player who could be NHL-bound in the next few months, especially those with a real chance at suiting up in the Olympics. There’s no knowing what Zaitsev would have decided facing a choice between breaking into the NHL or the opportunity to participate in his first Olympics, but you can be certain it wouldn’t be a simple, no-brainer decision. It would have made the choice to leave the KHL all the more difficult, and that could very well have meant he delayed his trip to Toronto by at least one season. 

If that sounds far-fetched, like no player in his right mind would pass up an NHL opportunity, think again. In a report Tuesday morning from the AFP, agent Shumi Babayev said that two of his clients, Maxim Shalunov and Anton Burdasov, have decided to call off talks with potential NHL suitors because of the league’s Olympic decision. 

Burdasov may not be a name often tossed around in off-season signing talks, but he’s an intriguing prospect. At 25, he’s coming off of a season in which he scored 17 goals in 35 games with Avangard Omsk, and he added another four goals and six points in 11 post-season games in the KHL. He could have had the chance to break into the NHL next season as an undrafted free agent, not unlike Artemi Panarin did two seasons prior. Would have the same level of success? Hard to say, but if he’s going to give it a shot, it appears it will have to wait until at least 2018-19.

As for Shalunov, his delayed transfer over to the NHL might sting one fan base a bit more and the Panarin comparison is all the more apt. 

A fourth-round pick, 109th overall, of the Blackhawks in 2011, Shalunov had previously been in Chicago’s system back in 2013-14. He left North America to return to the KHL in 2014-15, though, and he’s come into his own over the past two seasons. In 2015-16, Shalunov scored 18 goals and 30 points and he followed that up with 19 goals and 37 points in 49 games this past season. 

There had been reports throughout the season Shalunov was considering joining the Blackhawks by the time the post-season rolled around, but Tuesday’s news puts an end not only to the post-season speculation but to the chances Shalunov suits up in Chicago in 2017-18. Reason being is staying in the KHL — or SHL, Liiga, Swiss NLA or elsewhere — will offer players like Shalunov and Burdasov an opportunity the likes of which they have never had. 

Shalunov and Burdasov have both represented Russia internationally — Burdasov has a gold medal from the 2011 World Junior Championship, Shalunov has bronze from the U18 and U20 tournaments — but neither has been a part of the men’s team at the World Championship, nor has either suited up at the Olympics. 

With NHLers potentially unable to play, spots could open up for the likes of Shalunov and Burdasov. And even if a few NHLers, say Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, are granted leave and head to the Olympics, there are still a number of spots available for KHL talent to fill out the Russian roster in Pyeongchang. According to Babayev, earning a roster spot on the Olympic stage would be the achievement of a “life’s dream” for his two clients, so you can see why they’re deciding to stick around for at least one more year in the primarily Russian league.

And if young Russian players are considering sticking around in the KHL, how does that impact other prospects or potential under-the-radar free agents who could potentially make the jump to the NHL? Are there going to be others like Shalunov and Burdasov? Have their already been others who’ve made this decision before them?

The one thing that’s for certain is Shalunov and Burdasov aren’t alone in their desire to play in the Olympics, and one can rest assured they’re not only players who are thinking twice about inking NHL deals if it means the opportunity to play in Pyeongchang is off the table.

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