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Russian risk drops talented prospects

5/21/2010
Kirill Kabanov is an elite prospect on many levels, but will likely fall past pick No. 15. Getty Images

You've read dozens of rumors in our blog and in NHL Rumor Central about enigmatic Russian winger Kirill Kabanov -- formerly of the Moncton Wildcats, formerly of the Russian U-18 team -- who is currently residing in the Calgary home of his agent, J.P. Barry.

After a tumultuous season, the talented sniper is the definition of risky pick heading into the 2010 draft.

Kabanov's surgically repaired wrist may not be fully healed. While with the Wildcats in the QMJHL, he may or may not have taken a sick day to get a few tattoos and may or may not have taken a Caribbean vacation after telling the team he was visiting family in Russia. After leaving Moncton, he may or may not have been kicked off the Russian U-18 team prior to April's World Championships for either wearing the wrong color helmet to practice or eating a peanut from a bowl in coach Mikhail Vasiliev's office.

But despite the questions about Kabanov's behavior, as far as the Russians are concerned, he may just be the safest bet in this year's draft.

Why? The answer is simple: money.

The NHL has a salary cap and limited funds for players in the minors. Russia's KHL has a seemingly endless supply of money, much of it milked from the country's oil fields, and players are rumored to be paid, literally, in bags of bills at salaries most NHL players can only dream of.

For example, Jiri Hudler left the Detroit Red Wings last season to play for the KHL's Moscow Dynamo, at a salary of $5 million, tax free. To take home that much money in the NHL, his salary would have to be upwards of $8 million. That's Sidney Crosby-caliber cash that Hudler would never get in the NHL, not when he was making about $2 million with the Wings, before taxes.

And Hudler is Czech, not Russian, so it was money and not nationalism that was the biggest draw; with the Russian players eligible for this draft, talent that the KHL would love to keep at home, there is both.

But even players who reach North American shores are open to the temptation, like Nikita Filatov, the Blue Jackets' No. 1 draft pick in 2008. He went back to his KHL team, CSKA Moscow, last November after clashing with then-Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock.

"Every player thinks they're ready to play in the NHL, but most of them are not. You send them to the minors, and that's where the struggle begins," says one Western Conference scout. "The phone rings, it's the GM of a KHL team offering $750,000 or $1 million in tax-free money, and they're only making $65,000 in the minors. They go back [to Russia], and you can't really blame them."

But despite the pull of the KHL cash, more and more Russian teens are dreaming of making a career in the NHL, and many are coming to North America to add grit to their games and better their chances of making it in the NHL. During the 2009-10 season, there were eight Russian players on OHL rosters -- including draft-eligibles Kabanov, Ivan Telegin, Alexander Burmistrov and Stanislav Galiev -- matching the number of Russians in the league in the previous five years combined. Still, when it comes to the draft, caution reigns supreme.

While drafting a player who may leave is a big fear (like Burmistrov, who helped the Barrie Colts to the OHL finals but has a KHL contract with Kazan), drafting a player that may never even set foot on North American soil is a bigger one. Take Vladimir Tarasenko, who, according to the Red Line Report, would go fourth in the draft if the decision were based on talent alone. But Tarasenko has played the last two seasons with Novosibirsk Siber of the KHL, and the risk of him remaining there will likely drop him out of the top 15. Our Gare Joyce slots him 23rd in his latest mock draft, citing a risk factor he's often dubbed "The Filatov Flu."

"You'd be scared to death to take a Russian kid in the top 15, but between 15 and 30, the risk comes down and you have a better chance of hitting a home run," says the same Western Conference scout. "Kabanov, though, is intriguing. He was one of the best players at the U-18s in Fargo last season, and if the situation was right and he was healthy and you really knew what was going on with him, he could have been a top-5 pick."

Especially if you base his ranking on skill alone. Kabanov is an opportunistic player with a great shot, natural scoring ability and the typical, high-end Russian skill-set. But when you factor in his odd behavior and the questions surrounding his release from two teams this season, he seems a gamble. There are two sides to every story, with the truth most often lying somewhere in the middle. And Kabanov knows that better than most.

Moncton GM Bill Schurman describes Kabanov as "very intelligent, charismatic and engaging," but he also says the young Russian -- he won't turn 18 until July -- is a bit of a project who'd like to be a rock star wherever he goes. Still, Kabanov and Schurman tell pretty much the same story with regard to Moncton.

Early this season, the Wildcats battled Moscow Spartak of the KHL to obtain Kabanov's release to play in North America. The appeal went all the way to the IIHF, and Moncton eventually obtained the paperwork allowing Kabanov to play. However, his wrist injury limited him to 22 games with the Wildcats, in which Kabanov had 10 goals and 23 points. During the 40 games Kabanov missed, the Wildcats hit their stride, and when Kabanov was ready to come back, the Wildcats feared upsetting the chemistry apple cart by inserting a player who still had yet to master the North American style into the lineup of a team battling for playoff survival.

Kabanov, though, expected to play. Needed to play, in fact, to improve his draft status. At the same time, the Russian Federation had requested Kabanov be allowed to play for Team Russia at the U-18 World Championships, and in an effort to get more ice time and increase visibility for scouts prior to June's draft, Kabanov and the Wildcats agreed going back to Russia was the best option. "We felt, given our situation and where he was physically and how our team was playing, he wouldn't get as much ice time as he needed if he stayed with us," says Schurman. "It was a mutual agreement. We parted with handshakes and hugs."

In Russia, though, that's not exactly how Kabanov was welcomed. He is convinced that he and Telegin, a winger with the Saginaw Spirit, were brought to Russia's U-18 training camp merely to be used as examples of what happens to Russian players who buck the Russian system and become "American bubble gum," as Kabanov's U-18 teammates and coaches dubbed him after his return. After a short time in training camp, and yes, after the now-infamous peanut incident, Kabanov and Telegin, who had both fled the KHL to play in North America, were unceremoniously cut from the Russian team.

"I'm not going to apologize for eating a peanut from a bowl on a table where everyone can take them," Kabanov said in a phone interview this week. "They promised me something. I left Moncton in the playoffs so I would have a chance to play for Russia and show what I could do before the draft. It was my last chance, and they said, 'Sorry, you're season is over.' It's not polite and I will remember this for all of my life."

Kabanov's relationship with Russian hockey has always been a little dicey. As far back as December 2008, when Kabanov was 15 and being touted as a potential No. 1 draft pick, he had this to say about the KHL in an article in the Toronto Star: "It doesn't matter how much money they offer me here. Even with more money, life is more exciting in North America. In Canada, if you play like a star, you're treated that way. The NHL is a league with 100 years of history. The KHL has a bad name. It's an imitation league. And it's full of corruption."

Now, Kabanov says he will never again play for Russia or in the KHL, and is willing to sign a contract with whatever team drafts him immediately to prove it. "Kirill isn't like the other Russian players," Barry says. "He's not going back, and because Moncton got his release, he's free. There are no contractual issues. For Kirill, Russia is a bridge that's been burned."

Now, while Kabanov will be lucky to go in the first round of the draft, he is still hoping his talent will prevail. "I play a simple Russian skill game. I'm a playmaker and I'm good on the power play," Kabanov says. "I'll be a little upset if I'm not in the first round, but it doesn't matter. I'll show them later that I should have been."

Later, when he's playing in the NHL.