Between the formation of the new Kontinental Hockey League with its deep-pocketed owners and the eroded relations between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation, many teams are becoming increasingly wary of investing high draft picks on young players from that country.
The same fears that made a top-five talent like Alexei Cherepanov freefall to No. 17 in the 2007 draft were realized this summer when budding star Alexander Radulov fled Nashville for the KHL despite having a contract with the Predators.
Despite their own issues with keeping Russian players on this side of the pond, the Caps are not going to shy away from drafting a player if Moscow or St. Petersburg shows up on his passport.
“Some teams like the Detroit Red Wings have a lot of Swedes. Some teams have a lot of Finns,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’re fortunate to have some very good Russians, and we have one that we know is going to be here for a long time.”
The player Boudreau is referring to is Alex Ovechkin, who is about to begin the first season of a 13-year, $124 million contract. Ovechkin is the linchpin for the Caps in their efforts to keep open a pipeline for Russian prospects.
“We have him, and I wouldn’t be afraid to take Russians,” Boudreau said. “If it is good enough for Alex Ovechkin, wouldn’t it be good enough for you?”
Ovechkin is one of four Russian players expected to be on the Caps’ opening night roster, and the team has three more at rookie camp this week in Arlington.
While the Caps have Ovechkin as an effective recruiting tool, their history with Russian players is far from uneventful. Alexander Semin’s decision to go home during the lockout instead of playing for Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate landed the two parties in court.
Viktor Dovgan, a 2005 seventh-round pick, spent the 2006-07 campaign with South Carolina of the ECHL and was tabbed as a potential sleeper prospect in the organization. Then instead of reporting for training camp last summer and a likely season in Hershey, he went back to Russia and spent the year with CSKA Moscow.
“I want to make one thing clear - I did not run away from Washington,” Dovgan said through an interpreter Sunday. “It was an agreement between me and the team that I would spend one year in the Super League to put on some muscle and improve my game in Moscow with CSKA, and then I would come back. That is exactly what happened. I spent one year there, and now I am back as per the agreement.”
When told about Dovgan’s remarks Monday, Caps general manager George McPhee said he knew nothing of an agreement. The organization still expects Dovgan to fulfill two more years on his three-year, entry-level contract.
Dovgan spent time working out with Ovechkin this offseason, which may have played into his decision to return to North America.
“[Dovgan] had good contract in Russia with CSKA, but he decided to play here either in Hershey or maybe with us,” Ovechkin said. “It is a dream, and if you have a chance to play, I don’t know why different players don’t want to play here.”
The Caps have had mixed success with selecting Russians in the first round. Ovechkin (2004) and Sergei Gonchar (1992) are two of the best players in team history, while Alexandre Volchkov (1996) and Alexander Kharlamov (1994) combined to play three NHL games.