The Calgary Flames ended the 2018-19 season with six Swedish-born players on their National Hockey League and American Hockey League rosters. But suddenly, the Russians are catching up with the Swedes in terms of organizational prominence.
What’s going on?
The Flames have been a bit light on Russians over the past decade. The last Russian to sign with the team was Andrei Zyuzin prior to the 2006-07 season, and he was the last Russian to play a game for the team as well. In the interim the team has drafted two Russians – Rushan Rafikov in 2013 and Pavel Karnaukhov in 2015 – but neither ended up signing with the team and both are currently toiling in the Kontinental Hockey League.
But the Russian gap has begun to disappear. Last June, the Flames drafted Dmitry Zavgorodniy in the seventh round. In October, the Flames acquired Rinat Valiev from Montreal in the deal that sent Brett Kulak to the Habs. Over the past month, the team has signed Zavgorodniy, KHL goaltender Artyom Zagidulin and have been linked by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman to KHL All-Star Alexander Yelesin.
Why the rush to get more Russians?
There might not be a big rush, so to speak, but there’s probably two things going on at once.
First, the Flames are resourcing European scouting a bit more than they have in years past. In previous seasons it was a bit more ad hoc, while in the past two seasons they’ve added a pair of dedicated European scouts:
- Robert Neuhauser, who joined the team before the 2017-18 season after spending time with Pittsburgh and Arizona (where he worked with Brad Treliving and Don Maloney).
- Hakan Loob, a European hockey legend with tons of connections.
With more of a consistent presence, it makes sense that the Flames would be a bit more plugged into things. (Since Treliving became general manager, he’s similarly changed how American junior and college scouting is resourced.)
Second, signings are cyclical. There are years where college free agents are all the rage. The Flames went on a tear for a few years where they primarily signed players from the Czech Republic (playing in either the KHL or the Czech Extraliga). This spring, a lot of really interesting KHL players had their contracts expire and became available.
What do the signings mean?
Well, the Flames are likely hoping that these Russians will be good and contribute to the team’s success. But the clustering of the signings may not be a coincidence. The upside of signing them all at once is that there are now a bunch of players in the organization that speak the same language and that can lean on each other for support.
Case in point: Oscar Fantenberg got up to speed in Calgary quickly because he had some Swedes to lean on – he was welcomed to the team by four different guys that spoke the same language as him and could help him get accustomed to things. It wasn’t as much of an alien experience because there was something familiar in his life and it likely allowed him to get his off-ice life in order and focus on the on-ice aspect of it more freely.
Valiev was the only Russian under contract in the entire organization for the 2018-19 season after having another Russian with him everywhere he went the prior season. It must have been a challenge, especially for a young guy who hasn’t really been in North America for terribly long. At training camp, Valiev will be one of four Russians and it seems probable that he, Zagidulin and Yelesin all end up in Stockton together. Having a Russian trio next season in the AHL seems like a better set up for success than Valiev had this past season.