In recent years, the KHL has made a name for itself as one of the top professional leagues in hockey. Ahead of the Swiss-A (Switzerland) the DEL (Germany) and the SM-Liiga (Finland), its mix of homegrown and overseas talent has made it an interesting discussion point for fans, and even NHL general managers (GMs) since its inception in 2008-09. Returning NHLers Evgenii Dadonov (Florida Panthers) and local stars like Nikita Gusev (New Jersey Devils) have shown the NHL that the KHL has its share of talent.
Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin is no exception. He has dabbled on and off with acquiring players from the Russian league in his tenure with the team. However, while some players have worked out in some way, its been hit or miss in general. With that being said, let’s take a look at four interesting KHL acquisitions the Canadiens have made.
Despite only spending two seasons in the NHL, Jiri Sekac saw his share of travels; four different teams tried to find the offensive spark that he had proved capable of overseas. After two seasons in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms, Sekac signed with Poprad Lev of the KHL, where he played two and a half seasons. In July 2014, the Canadiens signed Sekac to a two-year, entry-level deal. In 50 games with the team in 2014-15, Sekac recorded 16 points, earning a spot in that year’s NHL YoungStars Game. Despite this, the Canadiens opted to trade him at the 2015 trade deadline to the Anaheim Ducks, in exchange for Devante Smith-Pelly, where he recorded 7 points in 19 games.
After struggling out of the gate in 2015-16, recording 3 points in 22 games, Sekac was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in January for Ryan Garbutt. He was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes a month later. Sekac was another example of a KHL player who was unable to adjust to the NHL game and returned to that league in 2017, winning a Gagarin Cup championship with Kazan Ak-Bars in 2017-18. Currently, Sekac plays for CSKA Moscow, with 25 points in 45 games this season.
After spending eight seasons with HC Škoda Plzeň of the Czech Extraliga, Jakub Jerabek spent one season with Podolsk Vityaz of the KHL before signing an entry-level deal with the Canadiens on May 1, 2017. Known as an offensive defenseman, he demonstrated those abilities with the team’s AHL affiliate, Laval Rocket, and got off to a hot start with 11 points in 17 games and a plus-10 rating. Originally intended to be an injury fill-in for the Habs, Jerabek stayed with the team as a 7th defenseman, recording 4 points in 25 games.
With the Canadiens’ 2018 Playoff hopes dead, the team traded Jerabek to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 21 for a fifth-round pick. Despite playing only 11 games with the Caps, he got his moment with the Stanley Cup after they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in 5 games. He spent the 2018-19 season in the St. Louis Blues’ minor league system, then returned to the KHL, again with Podolsk Vityaz. In 53 games this season, Jerabek recorded 26 points.
Yes, as strange as this might sound, the Canadiens’ former defensive stalwart was signed out of the KHL. A third-round pick by the Habs in 2004, Emelin was part of the league’s inaugural season in 2008-09, playing for Kazan AK-Bars, where he spent the next three seasons. In the 2011 offseason, the Canadiens signed Emelin to a one-year, two-way deal and he became known as a hard-hitting, defensive defenseman who was able to turn the momentum with a big hit.
Emelin was part of the Canadiens’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2014 but was left unprotected in the 2017 expansion draft, where he was claimed by the Golden Knights. Less than a week later, he was traded to the Nashville Predators for a third-round pick, where he continued his strong defensive play in a 53-win 2017-18 season. After that season, however, Emelin returned to Russia where he now plays for Omsk Avangard, who made a Gargarin Cup final appearance in 2018-19.
Arguably, if not definitively, the best KHL acquisition the Canadiens have made, there was a lot of speculation about Alexander Radulov when the Canadiens signed him to a one-year deal worth $5 million on July 1, 2017. A former first-round pick by the Predators in 2004, Radulov had respectable numbers in his first two NHL seasons before his controversial departure for Russia in 2008. Despite establishing himself as one of the KHL’s top players, Radulov had left the NHL while still under contract with the Predators, and had shown discipline issues in the past. Everyone was unsure how he would fare in his return to North America.
It worked out beautifully, as Canadiens fans felt the “Radulove”. He recorded 54 points in 76 games as the Habs returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a 46-win season. After demonstrating his elite passing and stickhandling skills, there was hope that Bergevin would be able to sign him to a contract extension. Instead, Radulov signed with the Dallas Stars, putting up back-to-back 72-point seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19. This season, the 33-year-old has 34 points in 60 games.
Over the years, as KHL players have both succeeded and failed in the NHL, GMs have become smarter when it comes to signing these players. While Radulov’s one-year, $5 million deal worked out well for the Canadiens, a similar one-year, $2 million deal from the New York Islanders for Jan Kovar (remember him?) didn’t work out as smoothly. Teams now prefer to sign KHL players, in most cases, to entry-level deals, with the possibility of longer extensions if things work out. In this respect, Bergevin has done a good job of bringing over KHL talent. In another respect, however, his track record has been underwhelming.
While all of these players had their moments, he’s yet to find the Dadonov or Gusev who have shown the KHL’s potential to NHL GMs. Recently signed goalie Vasili Demchenko and forward Arsen Khisamutdinov show potential, and second round pick Alexander Romanov should become a fixture on the Habs blue-line in the near future. The Moscow native showed great promise in the 2019 and 2020 World Junior Championships, and has shown the defensive abilities of someone far his senior in his native league. Of course this all remains to be seen, as the Canadiens continue their search, for their KHL star.