The Kontinental Hockey League began their 2016-17 season on Monday, as CKSA Moscow faced Metallurg Magnitogorsk. If CSKA Moscow sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the club that Calgary Flames prospect (and former Calgary Hitmen forward) Pavel Karnaukhov signed with this summer.
So how did Karnaukhov do in CSKA’s season debut?
Well… He didn’t play, as he’s not listed on the club’s roster. And his absence from the opening night KHL roster makes us wonder if he didn’t make a poor move heading back to Europe during such a crucial developmental phase for a young hockey player.
Karnaukhov is a 1997 birthday, meaning he’s 19 in the eyes of the Canadian Hockey League. That’s important, because as a European player recruited via the import draft he would be what’s known as a “two-spotter” in his 20-year-old season – a player that takes up both an import spot and an over-age spot.
With the departures of forwards Jackson Houck (he’s 21) and Radel Fazleev (he signed with the Flyers), two spots in the Hitmen top-six have basically opened up and were for the taking. Given Karnaukhov’s status as an NHL-drafted player, and as a player with considerable physical gifts and a nose for the net, you would have expected him to get a lot of ice-time in 2016-17 had he stayed in the WHL. In addition, the level of play in the WHL is considered reasonably close to the North American pro game and generally helps prepare Europeans for a pro career on the smaller ice. The upside of staying in North America is fairly obviously, if you’re a player that’s eyeing a pro career on this continent. Heck, that’s one of the main reasons the CHL even has the Import Draft ever year.
If you know you’re going to get a roster spot and lots of ice-time, I can see why the KHL would be alluring. It’s a good league (arguably second to the NHL in terms of competitiveness) so you can battle against some of the best players in the world and draw a decent pay-cheque, recent Russian economic issues aside. If you had the choice between playing in North America on a junior team or playing in a high-end European league and getting paid, I can see how it would be better to be in the KHL.
However, history has shown it’s really, really tough to get regular minutes in the KHL as a young player. Another past Flames draft pick – Rushan Rafikov, a 2013 selection – has bounced around the KHL system in the Lokomotiv organization since Calgary drafted him. Heck, he has played with four different teams in three different leagues since being drafted, and he was a high-profile Russian junior who was captain of the Russian national junior team. Rafikov is a high-end Russian prospect and even he struggled to find stability and decent ice-time.
That brings us back to Karnaukhov. If he doesn’t somehow find a roster spot with CSKA Moscow (and it’s looking unlikely), he’s probably going to be headed to either Krasnaya Armiya of the junior MHL (the Russian WHL) or Zvezda Chekhov of the minor VHL (the Russian AHL). Aside from their pre-draft seasons, you rarely hear about prospects spending time in the MHL and becoming NHL prospects of note. The same goes for the VHL. Neither league holds a candle to the WHL in terms of quality of competition, so any success Karnaukhov experiences in either league probably needs to be qualified with a hearty “Yeah, but…” He’ll probably play a good amount, but against players that are not nearly as good as what he would’ve seen in the Dub.
It’s a shame, too, because as previously mentioned, the Hitmen lost a couple of good forwards over the summer. Karnaukhov probably would’ve gotten a lot of ice-time. Based on our chat with coach Mark French last season, he really liked the player and saw big things for him (at the very least at the junior level). Instead, Karnaukhov headed back home. He’s probably going to be spending the season getting about as much ice time as he would’ve in the WHL (if not less), but against much weaker competition.
And given the lack of momentum Rafikov’s career seems to have over the past few seasons, one has to wonder if this move to Russia (and the lack of a KHL roster spot to kick off this season) spells the end of Karnkaukhov’s tenure as an NHL prospect of note.