From Russia With Love
Does the name Ruslan Bashkirov ring a bell? Back in 2007, the Senators selected the Russian winger in the second round. He never played for the Sens, but that fit right in with their Russian-born draft picks around that time. Between 2001-2007, Ottawa drafted ten Russians. They combined to play a total of 20 games in the NHL, and seven of them didn't even play one. Six of these players never played in North America. The most exciting of these prospects was Alexei Kaigorodov. He played six games with the Sens, was demoted to the AHL, didn’t report, returned to Russia, was suspended by the team, and finally was sent to the Coyotes for Mike Comrie. It was a challenging time for the Senators in trying to draft Russians that would help their team. Aside from selecting Anton Volchenkov in 2000, the last impact Russian drafted by the team before that was Alexei Yashin in 1993 and we all know how that ended. After drafting Bashkriov, the organization would not draft another Russian for more than a decade. They had not completely soured on Russians who were already in the NHL, though.
In 2009, they signed Alexei Kovalev to a two-year contract. A year later, they inked Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal, and a year after that they traded for promising young forward Nikita Filatov. Kovalev had some good moments but was mainly a disappointment and was traded away at the 2011 trade deadline. Filatov played just nine games with the Sens before heading back to Russia. Gonchar was the most successful of the bunch. He battled through a tough first season before two solid years as a mentor to Erik Karlsson. When Karlsson was injured in 2012-13, Gonchar picked up the slack, playing 24 minutes a night and finishing second on the team in points. He did struggle with the speed of the Penguins in the playoffs, though, and with that, his time as a Senator came to an end. The next season, 2013-14, marked the first time that the Senators did not play a Russian player since their inaugural season back in 1992-93 (shout out to Petr Schastlivy and his one game played in 2001-02 for making this stat possible).
The Sens would be without a Russian in each of the next four seasons. Finally, in 2018-19, Matt Duchene was traded to Columbus and part of the return was Russian winger Vitaly Abramov. He played one game with the team towards the end of that season. Streak ended! That was followed by an offseason that made it clear that the organization had made a change in their no-Russian stance. They traded for Nikita Zaitsev and Artem Anisimov, and early in the season dealt for Vladislav Namestikov. The love for Russians has only continued this offseason. They were able to sign Artyom Zub straight out of the KHL in May. More recently, they signed one of the better free agents available, Evgenii Dadonov, to a three-year deal.
What about the draft, though? The organization had gone 12 years without drafting a Russian. In total, they made 87 straight non-Russian picks. They missed out on Nikita Kucherov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Artemi Panarin, among others. They traded their 2010 first-round pick for David Rundblad. The Blues used the pick to select Vladamir Tarasenko. Finally, the Sens joined in on the fun in 2020, drafting Egor Sokolov in the 2nd round. While he was already playing in North America in the QMJHL, he was still the first Russian selected by the team in well over a decade.
Cape Breton Eagles' Yegor Sokolov suited up for Russia at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. - Reuters
The Senators were not without reason in avoiding Russian players for several years. The KHL was throwing around money to bring Russian players back, and to keep Russian players there. The Senators also had their share of issues with players like Kaigorodov and Filatov. Those days are long in the past, though. Each of the last four Stanley Cup Champion teams have, in large part, been led by Russians - Malkin, Ovechkin, Tarasenko, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy. Young players like Svechnikov, Shestyorkin, Sergachev, Askarov, and Provorov are all players making or set to make a difference in the NHL for years to come. Ottawa’s choice to stay away from a whole region of players for so long had them miss out on too many difference-makers over the years. The decision to dive back into the Russian player pool was the correct one. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen them trade for Russians, sign Russians, and now draft a Russian. The only box left unchecked is drafting a Russian straight out of Russia, something they haven’t done since 2005.
Enter Matvei Michkov. The young Russian is already gaining hype with his dazzling offensive abilities. Only one problem: he’s not draft eligible until 2023. While it’s way too early to say he’ll go number one, he’s on his way to being picked quite high. I’m just not sure how Ottawa will be able to trade all the way up from 32 to get him. For now, let’s just be excited about Sokolov.