The NHL is home to the best hockey players in the world, but the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is quickly becoming a viable source for talent outside of North America. An expansion franchise like the Vegas Golden Knights must become aggressive in their scouting of the KHL to find that one player who can make a difference in becoming a quality product.
The Knights have a unique opportunity to expedite the process of building a playoff contender by signing or acquiring the rights to the top stars of the KHL. The consequences could be the start of a bidding war with the league; where the only price to be paid is having a larger bank account than the competition.
Contrasting KHL Style
Scouting KHL players is different than others because of the size of the ice surface. All North American rinks are 200 x 85 feet, while most European surfaces are 200 x 100 feet. The difference is roughly 15 feet or seven-eight feet width-wise on each end of the ice. The extra space allows players to generate speed through the neutral zone, which extends offensive possession in front of the net. Vegas must identify those prospects that can make the necessary adjustments in their own game to succeed at the NHL level. This may shrink the selection pool of players that can actually make the jump.
The biggest challenge facing European hockey stars is playing in a foreign country, so the off-ice adjustments are just as important. A majority of the athletes emigrating to the NHL speak very little to no English; so the team’s interpreter becomes the most influencing force in the process. They become the athlete’s daily companion by helping them acclimatize to their new surroundings, often assisting them with shopping for daily needs. This forces a team to be patient and allow the player to find their own comfort zone that hopefully produces positive results on the ice.
Here is a look at possible KHL stars who would be the best fit for the Vegas Knights.
Possible KHL Stars Willing to Jump Abroad
Ilya Kovalchuk, F, SKA Saint Petersburg
If spring is approaching, then the annual rite of rumors that Ilya Kovalchuk is coming back to the NHL must not be far behind. At the age of 33, Kovalchuk hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, as he’s one of the top scorers in the KHL this season. Gauging the interest of NHL teams is hard because many still have questions about his departure from the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk must provide the right answers before receiving a solid contract offer. Some have speculated that he grew tired of the NHL lifestyle and wanted to return to his home country to play hockey. However, Vegas represents Kovalchuk’s final opportunity to gain a big payday before he retires.
Evgeny Dadonov, F, SKA Saint Petersburg
Evgeny Dadonov is a bonafide world-class goal scorer that had some previous success in the NHL with the Florida Panthers (2007-13). If the Knights could lure Dadonov away from the KHL, it would be a logical short-term solution for consistent goal scoring in the lineup. The basic premise of the sport is to score one more goal than your opponent, so having a few established goal scorers on the roster solves that problem. It’s smart money to think that Dadonov will come overseas to play again in the NHL next fall.
Yegor Averin, F, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
Yegor Averin is a pure goal scorer that loves to take a wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle. Few give him credit for his outstanding stickhandling ability that sets up his teammates for perfect scoring opportunities around the net. At 26 years old, it’s time for Averin to test the NHL waters or be content with playing the rest of his professional hockey career in the KHL. No question, his skill level is ready for the challenge.
Artyom Alyayev, D, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
The Cliff Notes version of Artyom Alyayev’s scouting report is that he’s an undersized (5’8″) defensemen that has the ability to put the puck in the net from the blue line. Last season, Alyayev had the highest scoring goal percentage for a defenseman in the KHL, but most NHL teams won’t give him a tryout because of his height. An expansion team like the Knights can take a chance on an undersized, proven goal scorer like Alyayev. They can look no further than New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, who has established himself as a terrific playmaker after struggling at the start of his NHL career.
Vladimir Sobotka, C, Avangard Omsk
Vladimir Sobotka is a quality two-way center that is fierce, intense and possesses excellent passing skills around the net. Sobotka’s playmaking ability could become the Knights’ most valuable asset on the power play. If they have any interest, they must first acquire his rights from the St. Louis Blues via trade. Sobotka last played in the NHL in the 2013-14 season.
The upcoming expansion draft presents uncomfortable player decisions. Knights GM George McPhee is expected to select an inexperienced roster with a few veterans sprinkled into the mix.
There are exceptional players in the KHL that can immediately help the Knights next season. Many of them have never been given a legitimate shot to compete for an NHL roster spot. Expansion could be their opportunity to shine.
Thomas Conroy covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Hockey Writers Network He has been writing about sports since 2007, first as a contributor for Bleacher Report and Football Nation. Recently, Conroy was a co-editor for the Bolts Beat website on Fansided. To read more his work, please him on Twitter @tsconroy