Note: Long Read
With so many of the top NHL players in today’s game being Russian, it begs the question as to why haven’t the Flames haven’t even had a Russian prospect in over a decade and a half.
From the 1999-2002 drafts, the Calgary Flames used 9 out of their 42 picks (21%) to select Russian players. Of those 9, split between former GMs Al Coates (‘95-’00) and Craig Button (‘00-’03), only Oleg Saprykin (1999 1st round, 11th overall) ever played a game for the Flames, let alone in the NHL.
Saprykin, who assisted Martin Gelinas’ Stanley Cup winning goal in 2004 (if only I could type that without sarcastic bitterness), played in 187 games for the Flames over parts of 5 seasons, scoring 29 goals and 76 points. He also scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He didn’t return after the Flames ‘03-’04 Cup run, mainly due to the subsequent lockout of the 2004-05 season.
Viktor Bobrov, drafted in the 5th round, 146th overall in 2002 would be the last Russian the Flames drafted for over a decade.
The last Russian to even suit up for a single Flames game? That would be hard-shooting defenceman Andrei Zyuzin, who played 49 games in his only season as Flame in 06’-07’ (Anton Babchuk is Ukrainian).
The Cold Period
After the ‘02-’03 season, Button’s contract was not renewed, and head coach Darryl Sutter was promoted to the GM position. During his 7 year tenure as GM, Sutter never drafted a Russian player. His replacement in 2010, Jay Feaster, didn’t either, until his final draft pick before his termination in December 2013.
Rushan Rafikov, drafted in the 7th round, 187th overall of the 2013 draft, ended an 11 year drought of not a single Russian being drafted.
Why was there such a lull in drafting from a country which has ranked in the top 5 in player quality?
It could very well be that Sutter, known as a stubborn and “traditional” hockey personality, was never too keen on European players, especially Russians. Very few Europeans were brought in during his tenure, and those that were, weren’t kept for very long.
More likely, it was the rational fear of Russian loyalty that kept many draft picks from departing from their KHL teams. Despite the better pay, similar playing quality, and improved game standards that would be available in even the AHL, many Russian players chose not to leave the KHL. The loyalty many Russians display towards the KHL is rarely ever repeated by, for example, Swedish players in the SHL, or Finnish players in the SM-liiga.
Of the 8 other players the Flames drafted over that ‘99-’02 period, only Roman Rozakov (2 games in the AHL) and Dmitri Kirlenko (1 season in the WCHL (now the ECHL)) ever even made their way to North America.
Rafikov, too, has never departed Russia and is unlikely to ever do so.
A New Era
It took current GM Brad Treliving 5 drafts until he selected his first Russian.
With the 198th pick of the 2018 draft, the Flames selected Dmitry Zavgorodniy, a diminutive winger out of the QMJHL. After a very strong first preseason with Calgary and an improved second season with Rimouski, Zavgorodniy became the first member of the 2018 draft class to earn a contract, despite being a 7th round pick.
With that selection, the Flames have seen a change.
In October of 2018, the Flames traded Brett Kulak for Russian defenceman Rinat Valiev from Montreal. Valiev is only 24 years old, and just re-signed for this next season primarily as a depth option.
In March of 2019, the Flames signed now-24-year-old goaltender Artyom Zagidulin. He projects to be the Stockton Heat’s potential starter this season.
In May of 2019, the Flames signed 23 year old right-shot defenceman Alexander Yelesin. He also projects to be a depth option for the Flames this season, but with Juuso Valimaki’s devastating injury, could very well play NHL minutes this season.
This past June, the Flames used their second pick of the draft to select Ilya Nikolayev in the third round. Nikolayev, who’s signed in Russia until 2021, is an energetic center with good finish around the net. Unfortunately, due to his contract, he’s unlikely to participate in any development camps until his contract is up, and is a prime candidate for a player who never makes it across the Atlantic.
While Zavgorodniy has been in North America for a few years and speaks decent English, neither Zagidulin nor Yelesin speak any English. As a testament to their new found dedication to Russian development, the Flames brought in help.
Iya Gavrilova is a former Russian Olympic hockey player, who competed in the 2006, 2010, and 2014 Olympic games as part of the women’s squad. More recently, she suited up for the now defunct Calgary Inferno of the CWHL in 2016-17, recording 11 goals and 19 points in 18 games. She also earned a BA in economics at the U of C.
To the Flames, she’s been a valuable translator. Comfortably transitioning Yelesin and Zagidulin is key to their development, and her aid has been a huge part of that. Click here for George Johnson’s superb in depth piece on Gavrilova.
While all the players listed in this article are certainly a far cry from NHL locks, they do offer tantalizing upside. David Rittich was brought in an almost identical fashion to Zagidulin. Yelesin and Valiev are both young defensive depth which no team can have enough of. Zavgorodniy and Nikolayev are both young and skilled enough to have the time to turn into legitimate prospects.
The point being, for whatever reason, the Flames management groups of old chose to distance themselves from an entire nation of skilled hockey players. Don’t think that was costly? Jay Feaster selected 40th ranked North American skater Tyler Wotherspoon with the 56th overall selection of the 2011 draft. Selected one spot later? 17th ranked European skater Nikita Kucherov by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Regardless of whether the bias was by pure coincidence or by decrimantory design, it’s refreshing and uplifting to see such quality of care and time being put into the team’s propspects,
Bring on the Russians.
Who is your favourite Russian-born Flame of all time?
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