By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
The Philadelphia Flyers organization is notorious for not pursuing Russian born players, with long-standing rumors of late owner Ed Snider putting a ban on drafting them. While things have changed recently, only 19 Russians have played at least one game for the Flyers, and 26 have been drafted by the team.
The tides seem like they have shifted though. The Flyers have drafted a Russian born player in the first round for two consecutive years in 2015 (Ivan Provorov) and 2016 (German Rubtsov), but that streak came to an end this past draft with Nolan Patrick.
With the Russian-based KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) turning into a breeding ground for young NHL stars, the Flyers have tried and failed for two years to integrate a talented Russian player into the lineup. With players like Artemi Panarin, Nikita Zaitsev, and Nikita Soshnikov signing as undrafted free agents, while guys like Alex Radulov have come back to the NHL and rumors of Ilya Kovalchuk possibly making a return, have the Flyers hurt their chances of signing future stars by misusing past players?
Is it possible the Flyers are becoming “that team” in regards to KHL players knowing that if they sign in Philly they will spend half the season in the press box? I think there is a very good chance that might happen.
Now, there is a big difference from playing in the KHL and NHL, from rink size to the language barrier, it takes some players more time than others to adjust to the differences. Almost every player, whether they are coming from the CHL, AHL, Western Europe or Russia say the main difference is the speed of the game. Mistakes are bound to happen, and growing pains are just part of the process. That’s what seems to be the Flyers biggest issue, not giving players a chance, especially with former defenseman Evgeny Medvedev.
Medvedev, a superstar in the KHL, signed a one-year deal with the Flyers for the 2015-16 season. Coming to the NHL after eight seasons with Ak Bars Kazan, where he won two Gagarin Cups and made three KHL all-star appearances, he was clearly a great option to boost the Flyers d-core. While Medvedev did impress on occasion, It was clear he was not fully adjusted to the North American style, often trying to make plays that just didn’t work in the NHL. That led to coach Dave Hakstol souring on him, as he dressed for only 45 games and registered just 12 points. Sitting in Hakstol’s favor of Nick Schultz, Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto, Medvedev chose not to re-sign with the organization.
Last summer, young Russian forward and four-year KHL vet Roman Lyubimov signed a one-year ELC with The Flyers for the 2016-17 season. He received the same treatment Medvedev did, sitting in the press box in favor of guys like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris Vandevelde. Lyubimov played 47 games (I was surprised he played that many) and managed a measly six points averaging around seven minutes of ice time per game.
The Flyers have budding superstar Provorov on the roster, and highly touted prospect Rubtsov in their prospect pool, but would that be enough to entice Russian stars in the future?
My guess is their reputation isn’t fully ruined yet, but it certainly doesn’t look good. Put yourself in that situation, if you’re a Russian player and have to decide between Philly and a team like Washington or Toronto, I’d pick the place where I’d have the best chance to play, that not being Philadelphia.
Even if the Flyers hurt their reputation, however, it’s not impossible to fix it. The Flyers just need to get it right. The only solution is to simply let the player play. Instead of punishing a player for their mistakes, let them play through them.
Medvedev was a bit of a loose cannon, but he wasn’t awful. If he got more ice time (and the team around him was better) his tenure may have gone a lot better. Lyubimov was much of the same, he showed a lot of potential, but between his momentum being severed by long stints in the press box, and being shackled between Bellemare and Vandevelde, he had no chance to succeed.
Both are out of the picture now, but the Flyers did bring in undrafted 19-year-old Ivan Kosorenkov, a Russia native, to development camp. By all accounts he impressed at camp and should earn his invite to training camp in September. Even if he earns a contract, he still has one more year of junior hockey left, so he wouldn’t be thrown into the line of fire right away.
Fourth liners are a dime a dozen, so if all the organization was looking for was a fourth liner, don’t go signing a solid young player knowing full well they don’t have a chance to make their mark.
Hakstol is to blame for the mishandling of the roster, not just Luybimov and Medvedev, but everyone. While I’ll save that rant for a different article, I can’t overlook the fact that Hakstol played a major role in the downfall of Medvedev and Lyubimov.
Next time the Flyers have their sights set on a talented Russian player, bring him in and give him a real role. Do I think Lyubimov had world-class potential? No, but he could have seen bigger minutes on the second or third line. He didn’t even have a chance to prove himself.
The next time the franchise sees a talented Russian player, just give him a chance. The bridges leading from Russia to Philadelphia are burning bright and the only way to put them out is to bring in a star and, well, let them be a star. Limiting a player’s ability, no matter where they are from isn’t the way to operate.
The KHL is producing more and more NHL stars, and the Flyers need to jump on the train, But the question remains, is it too late?
Image Credit: Alchetron.com