Ivan Barbashev: The KHL Debate

The KHL debate is one of the most heated topics of discussion surrounding Russian skaters leading up to the NHL draft – especially over the past couple seasons. This year, the debate hasn’t changed. In fact, for one prospect the idea of heading home to Russia was the focal point of his team interviews.

Russian Born NHLers

In 2013-14, there were 34 Russian-born players to play at least one game in the NHL – six of which were goalies. Of those 34, only eight players suited up in 20 games or less.

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils, NHL, KHL, Hockey
Ilya Kovalchuk only played three seasons of his 15-year deal before retiring. (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

Now, interest in the debate spiked over the past few season with players like Alexander Radulov, the Kostitsyn brothers and, most recently, Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk – considered to be one of the top tier NHL players at the time – signed a 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils prior to the 2010-11 season worth $100-million. The controversy surrounding the length of the deal became well-documented.

Following the 2012-13 shortened season, Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL – only three years into his monstrous contract. Instead, he headed home to Russia signing a four-year deal with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg.

After Kovalchuk’s decision to leave the North American league behind, questions about every Russian-born player began to surface. How long until Alexander Ovechkin returns home? Will Evgeni Malkin follow? Is Pavel Datsyuk interested in going home?

Trust among team management and their Russian players became an issue – and to an extent could still possibly cost some in terms of contract length and dollar amount. Which brings us to the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

[See related: Ivan Barbashev – The Next Ones: NHL 2014 Draft Prospect Profile]

From Russia With Love

The same season that marked the end of Kovalchuk’s NHL career, signified the beginning of Ivan Barbashev’s North American career. In 2012-13, then 17-year-old Barbashev joined the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. Now a year older, with two seasons in Canada under his belt, Barbashev is eligible for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Unfortunately, there’s one question that most teams are asking of the Moskva-native.

Moncton Wildcats, Ivan Barbashev, NHL, KHL, QMJHL, Hockey
Ivan Barbashev, of the Moncton Wildcats, says he will play in the NHL. (Photo: David Chan)

“Every team was asking me that,” said Barbashev regarding questions about him heading back to play in the KHL. But his response to these questions was simple.

“Every team can trust me. I’m going to play in the NHL,” he said in almost perfect English. “My brother plays in the KHL and he told me everything about the KHL.”

Instead, he had one message for teams interested in his services leading up to the draft.

“The KHL is not for me. I just want to play in the best league in the world.”

From Student To Teacher

Aside from the obvious questions regarding his commitment to the NHL, Barbashev talked about the importance of surrounding himself with the North American game – from joining the QMJHL all the way to learning the English language.

“At first, I was going to school until we got tired of waking up every morning at 7:45. So we started watching TV shows, movies and talking to teammates,” said the Wildcats’ forward, stating The Walking Dead as his favourite television program to watch.

The Wildcats added Vladimir Tkachev to their roster late in the season – with 20 games remaining. It was Barbashev who made the transition much easier for his fellow countryman.

“At first it was a hard time for him because his English was really, really bad,” said Barbashev. “I was translating everything for him. But I really liked playing with him. We played together at the World Juniors in Sochi and we did well there so it was nice having him here in Moncton.”

Ivan Barbashev: An NHL-calibre Forward

Now, while NHL Central Scouting has Barbashev ranked 18th among North American skaters, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the offensive juggernaut taken in the top 20.

He certainly has the skill set to play at both ends of the ice and help a team offensively. While he can certainly put the puck in the next, the young forward has to ability to set his teammates up and make players better around him.

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According to The Scouting Report, Barbashev “won’t blow you away with his size, but his compete level and grit is refreshing and bodes well for his NHL hopes. With an above average skill level across the board, Barbashev projects nicely as a surefire NHL player who should be, at worst case, a third-line type player.”

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Either way, it seems the young Russian is determined to make his dream of playing in the “best league in the world” one that comes true.

For more, follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewGForbes or his column at @Tape2TapeTHW.