Great yellow laces. Signals, it’s signals!
Every year, we see a few European players get signed to the NHL as free agents. Recently those players have included Anton Belov, who was snagged by the Edmonton Oilers; Damien Brunner, who inked a deal with the Detroit Red Wings before moving to New Jersey; Nikita Nikitin, who was traded from the St. Louis Blues to Columbus Blue Jackets during his rookie year; Raphael Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens; and New York Ranger Mats Zuccarello. These signings aren’t the conventional path to the NHL, but they aren’t a new one either.
Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Because teams give up very little cap space for an entry-level contract, European free agent signings aren’t high risk. The players could always be assigned to the minors. That said, some European stars who signed NHL contracts have failed in the bigs. Roman Cervenka, for example, returned to the KHL after just one year with the Calgary Flames.
One European player who might be sought after this year is Fedor Malykhin from Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg. At the age of 23, he’s going through a breakout year, carrying his team to a playoff spot.
The 5’11″, 200-pound center has 37 points in 44 games and has won 56.7% of his faceoffs. He plays an intense game in all situations, though he’s mostly known for his offensive talents. Malykhin has a pass-first mentality, knowing how and when to feed his teammates. He makes good decisions with limited space and is a reliable puck-carrier. His impressive play has earned him a second-line spot on the Eastern All-Stars.
Malykhin comes from Ekaterinburg, the same city as Pavel Datsyuk, where they know a thing or two about centers. Malykhin has something in common with his fellow townsman: excellent hand-eye coordination. Here is Malygin’s goal against Avangard earlier this season:
How do you leave a guy in front like that?! C’mon! Sorry, went a bit off-topic there. I’m an Avangard fan. Actually, this was a nice goal.
This is some fancy stickwork!
Malykhin didn’t rule out coming to the NHL in an interview with Alexander Rozhkov of Championat.com a few weeks ago:
Alexander Rozhkov: Who were you a fan of other than Datsyuk?
Fedor Malykhin: Wayne Gretzky has been my idol since childhood. I’ve had a lot of cassettes of him too. I also really admired the play of Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier. For me they’re the greatest hockey players ever, even now.
AR: You seem to have a lot of interest in the NHL. Do you want to try yourself across the ocean some day?
FM: Yes, I have such a goal. I hope I achieve it.
AR: You’re 23 now. Some say, it’s tough to make the NHL after 25.
FM: I think the earlier the better as well. But there are the examples to the contrary. Say, Alexander Khavanov left at the age of 28. Of course these are the exceptions, but they do exist. Anyway, it all depends on me. Will I get to the necessary level? Will I be ready? I need to keep working.
Vaysfeld has a history of letting young players try themselves in the NHL. During his tenure with Metallurg Novokuznetsk, Dmitry Orlov, Ivan Telegin, Sergei Kostenko and Sergey Bobrovsky all signed in North America without any friction from their KHL team.
Looks like it’s all set for Ken Holland to work his magic luring European players. Malykhin said in the same interview that his dream is to play on the same team as Datsyuk. But if Detroit has no interest, the Capitals could make an attempt to sign the guy, especially considering the uncertainty that surrounds their third-line center position.
Avtomobilist hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009-10 season, their first year in the league. They finished last in the conference in the last two seasons. They were expected to stay in the basement of the Eastern conference standings this time, but they have turned it around. With a new GM and coach, Leonid Vaysfeld and Anatoly Emelin, in place and ten new players (including former Caps Sami Lepisto and veteran Eric Belanger, who retired seven games into the KHL season), Avtomobilist are currently sixth in the conference standings with seven point advantage over ninth-place Avangard Omsk.