Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ruslan Bashkirov and a wave of young Russians dressed to impress

Okay, maybe the Ottawa Senators have had a hard time with Russian players. Alexei Yashin being the pinnacle of those troubles. There have been good times, though, even when it comes to the up-and-down relationship Senators fans have with Yashin himself--occasionally a clutch goal, some fancy moves, he looked good when he wasn't distracted by his next paycheque or his geriatric wife. After Yashin in the disappointment category comes once-highly-touted prospect Alexei Kaigorodov; slated to be our second-line centre at the start of the 2006 -07 season, he couldn't cut it in the professional North American game so he went home and complained to the Russian media about the Senators' front office. If you're looking for a way to burn bridges, ask Kaigorodov. Then there's Petr Schastlivy, another project player who never quite panned out as team management hoped.

There were good times, though. Igor Kravchuk was a decent defenseman for the Sens, despite some untimely giveaways and often inconsistent play. The man played 238 games in a Sens jersey, giving some veteran presence while the team was struggling to find an identity. Then there's Oleg Saprykin; past success indicates it might be better not to question the actions of Bryan Murray, but I don't agree with him that Sappy has no place on this team. Even if it is for $1-1.5M a season. He bought into the Sens system and provided some much-needed speed and creativity on an often-struggling fourth line. He looked good with Dean McAmmond and Chris Schubert, and I would have liked to see him play a full season with the Sens. Finally, Anton Volchenkov is undoubtedly the all-around best Russian this relatively young Senators team has employed--shot blocking, occasional goal-scoring, punishing physical play; he's awesome.

The future looks moderately bright on the Russian front, however, and if the NHL can somehow get the Russian Ice Hockey Federation to agree to a player-transfer agreement, it'll get even brighter. I'm looking at a player like 2007 second-round pick Ruslan Bashkirov. Watching this young man play in the (not-so-) Super Series between Russia and Canada has made me excited. The fact that he's already playing in North America (with the Quebec Remparts of the QJMHL) gets me almost as excited as his play in the tournament. After goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Alexander Vasyunov, I'd venture to say that Bashkirov was Russia's best player in Game 5 of the tournament, and I'll be expecting more in the coming games. He had a decent edge in game five, and even when his team was down by a few goals he seemed to be playing hard and making things happen. Here's to hoping he'll give North America a shot at some point.

Another young Russian is Alexander Nikulin. The 2004 fourth-round pick signed a two-year, entry-level contract on June 1, and has expressed a willingness--as opposed to some other Russian prospects (*cough*Kaigorodov*cough*)--to serve his time in the minor league instead of insisting on an immediate roster spot on the big team. As quoted on RussianProspects.com: "I will be patient and will work very hard. My contract is signed for two years. I believe that in the beginning I will have to play on the farm team. I will gain experience, learn the language. But I am ready for this." So, you know, that's a plus.

Then there's right-winger Ilya Zubov, drafted by Ottawa in the fourth round of the 2005 entry draft. He's just signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the club on August 9, and is reportedly coming to North America to participate in the Sens training camp. It's unknown whether he'll make the big Senators, but I wouldn't count on it. Here's hoping that, even if he doesn't, he'll report to Binghamton instead of returning to HC CSKA in Russia.
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