Vasiliev and the Perils of Drafting KHL Players
When it comes to drafting KHL-affiliated prospects in the NHL Draft, especially players from the former Soviet Union, there is a variety of potential hassles and pitfalls that simply don't exist with selecting players from North America or elsewhere in Europe. Apart from all the usual on-ice concerns -- navigating the learning curve that all young players encounter, while adapting to a different style of play -- there are frequently also cultural and financial barriers that do not exist to nearly the same extent with players from other leagues.
Within the KHL itself as well as in matters pertaining to the Russian national teams and international player transfers, there is frequently a lot of intrigue and double-crossing that is just part of the reality of the operation of Russian hockey and other institutions in post-communist Russia. It's hard to explain some of these things out of context. Suffice to say that, in many ways, the more things have changed in recent decades the more they've stayed the same.
The KHL desperately wants to be an "equal" league to the NHL, and their ambition is to continue expanding across Europe. For example, Russian investors acquired ownership of the home rink of traditional Finnish league power Jokerit Helsinki and the team will jump in 2014-15 from the SM-liiga to the KHL.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the oligarchs with vast sums of oil-and-gas money are the ones bankrolling the "haves" in the KHL -- and the league is also very much tied into politics and assorted unsavory characters -- yet the league in many ways runs like a bush league operation. Non-hockey people often have too much pull in hockey decisions, and corners frequently get cut areas like safety and travel (sometimes with tragic consequences).
Additionally, Russian hockey has NEVER been driven by attendance at games. It's all about who owns and/or sponsors the team. There are "have not" teams that operate on shoestring budgets that ECHL teams could relate to while the wealthiest teams operate on budgets that can compete with any NHL team for players they want. We recently saw this with Ilya Kovalchuk's "NHL retirement" and decision to sign a massive four-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg.
When it comes to bringing young players over from the KHL to North America, there can be a laundry list of hassles involved in getting players over in the first place and then getting them to stay in North America if they do not quickly make it to the NHL. It is NOT true that most young players make more in the KHL than they would on the NHL end of an entry-level contract. However, they frequently will make more in the KHL than they would on the AHL end of their two-way contract.
In some cases, Russian players who want to show their commitment to someday playing in the NHL opt to play junior hockey in Canada rather than remaining in the leagues at home. Even then, many NHL teams worry (sometimes unnecessarily, sometimes for good reason) that the player will still opt for the KHL if they are unhappy with their playing time or contract offer in North America.
Every case and every player is different. But even if the player himself wants to play in the NHL someday, the powers-that-be in the KHL may not want to let them go without first trying to dissuade the player. A lot of NHL teams would simply rather not deal with all the hassles. Many teams opt to steer clear of drafting KHL-affiliated players they otherwise would consider good NHL prospects. To get drafted, the player either has to have a clearly superior talent level that justifies the uncertainties or it has to be a low-risk situation.
During the season leading up to the 2012 NHL Draft, Russian defenseman Valeri Vasiliev was generally rated among the better European skaters eligible for selection. He fit the mold of the sort of player who, when all things are equal, tends to get drafted in either the second or third round. He had a good physical profile and desirable but raw skills. The hope with such players is that they can smooth out the rough edges over time to become NHL regulars.
In terms of a specific player comparison, Vasiliev's frame and game were likened to Montreal Canadiens' defenseman Alexei Emelin at the same age: a hard-hitting and pugnacious defensive defenseman with a desirable combination of size and mobility and raw but projectable puck skills and sometimes prone to bad decision-making and inconsistency.
When the 2012 NHL Draft rolled around, Vasiliev sank like a stone. Round after round passed without his name being called. Undoubtedly, his status was affected by a shoulder injury that limited him to 18 games at the MHL (Russian junior league) level in 2011-12. The "KHL question" also pushed him down when NHL teams had to make a decision to select him or someone else on their list.
Finally, when the seventh round and 201st overall pick came around, the Philadelphia Flyers selected Vasiliev. By that late stage of the Draft, picking him was virtually a no-risk proposition. If he never developed into an NHL-caliber player, so be it. He'd be no different than the vast majority of seventh rounders. If he did develop into a borderline NHL-caliber player but never came over to North America, all that was invested in him was that initial late-round pick.
Vasiliev had an uneven 2012-13 season. He opened the season with Spartak's junior team, receiving second-pairing ice time. Suddenly, he disappeared from the team's starting lineup for several weeks. The scuttlebutt was that he'd expressed interest in coming over to North America sooner rather than later, and the Spartak organization wasn't happy about it. At the same time Vasiliev started being scratched by Spartak, the USHL's official site transfer list mentioned him as having joined the Waterloo Black Hawks (although his name was never added to the roster on the team's own Web site, nor did the Waterloo club ever formally announce his signing).
Vasiliev never did join the USHL club. Instead, his Russian club made it worth his while to stay put for the time being. He rejoined the Spartak lineup and started to receive top-pairing minutes as a shutdown defensemen. During the latter part of the season, he was called up to the KHL, averaging 11:56 of ice time for Spartak's senior team over the final 11 games of the regular season. With the team out of playoff contention, his ice time increased substantially in the final two weeks of the KHL regular season.
From a developmental standpoint, things may have actually worked out better with Vasiliev staying in Russia. The level of competition he played against in the KHL late in the season was leaps and bounds tougher than anything he'd have seen in the USHL. The 19-year-old is in the mix for additional KHL experience in the season to come, and that would give him a chance to advance further if he gets sufficient playing time.
As far as where Vasiliev stands relative to an NHL future, that's a decision to be made in the years to come. I suspect that if he had interest in Waterloo at some point last year, he most certainly still has future interest in North American hockey. However, he still has a significant way to go in his on-ice development before he could be deemed close to being ready for an NHL contract. I'd estimate it at two seasons of solid progress from his current caliber of play, which is NOT a bad place for a 19-year-old defenseman to be.
As the Flyers saw with former second-round pick Denis Bodrov -- who bounced around KHL clubs under bizarre circumstances and eventually spent part of one unproductive season in the AHL with the Phantoms before returning to the KHL -- they will need Vasiliev's on-ice development AND his availability to align if he's ever to become a member of the Flyers. He took a few steps ahead in the development direction since his selection in last year's draft.
In the here and now, Vasiliev is coming along nicely as a teenage defenseman who is playing in Europe's best league from a talent standpoint (although the KHL games themselves are often less entertaining to watch than those in some of the other European leagues). He may be a total X-factor in the Flyers' long-term planning but considering where he was picked in last summer's draft, the organization is in a no-lose situation.
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