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The Flames should explore their options with Rushan Rafikov

Nearly eight years ago, the Calgary Flames selected Russian defenseman Rushan Rafikov with the 187th pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

The 6’2″, 196-pound left-shot rearguard made his way up through Russia’s lower-tier leagues before eventually becoming a full-time KHL player with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the 2016-17 season.

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Rafikov, the KHL player, was developing at a steady rate. Rafikov, the Flames prospect, was a “man of mystery.” Those were the exact words Flames general manager Brad Treliving used to describe Rafikov in a 2019 interview with The Athletic:

“He was sorta the man of mystery,” said Treliving, when asked about Rafikov’s status. “It started off with ‘I need another year back there’, then ‘OK, I’m going to go back for another year.’ But then there wasn’t a lot of engagement in terms of wanting to come over. Then when we’d go over and watch him, his development had stagnated.”

Indeed, when Treliving made those comments, Rafikov was coming off a third consecutive KHL season where he had averaged less than 17 minutes per game and put up relatively pedestrian offensive numbers.

Even without factoring in his evasiveness, Rafikov hadn’t done much to garner interest from the Flames. He never even made it to Calgary for any of the club’s summer development camps.

The Flames chose to sign a different Lokomotiv defenseman in the 2019 off-season, opting to bring Alexander Yelesin—who averaged 35 seconds a night more than Rafikov in 2018-19—over to North America on a two-year deal. Yelesin and Rafikov are both currently 25, but Rafikov is nine months older and will turn 26 in May.

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Yelesin has proven to be a decent AHL defenseman in the Flames’ organization but is unlikely to be retained past this season. Meanwhile, something funny has happened with Rafikov: he’s improved.

In 2020-21, Rafikov tied for 18th among all KHL defensemen with 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) in 58 games. He averaged 17:55 per game but was increasingly relied upon as the season progressed, ultimately averaging 20:12 in Lokomotiv’s 11 playoff games and ranking second among the team’s defensemen with 30.6 shifts per game.

Rafikov was on the ice for 46 Lokomotiv even-strength goals in 2020-21. Only six defensemen in the entire league—including NHL alumni Brennan Menell, Viktor Loov, Chris Wideman, Philip Larsen, and Alexei Marchenko—were present on the ice for more goals scored by their respective teams.

Lokomotiv only surrendered 29 goals all season with Rafikov on the ice. Rafikov’s plus-17 on-ice goals differential was relatively impressive—18th-best in the KHL and fifth-best on Lokomotiv—even on his strong team, which finished the season as the fourth seed in the KHL’s Western Conference.

Rafikov was one of the KHL’s premier shot-generating defensemen in the 2020-21 season. He led all Lokomotiv skaters and ranked 12th among all KHL rearguards with 136 shots in 58 games.

In November 2020, on the heels of the 2019-20 season where he finished 31st among KHL defensemen with 20 points in 52 games, McKeen’s Magazine profiled Rafikov (paywall required) as the Flames’ 15th-best prospect. McKeen’s author Ryan Wagman elaborated, in part:

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His KHL contract has only one year left to run, and even if he finally comes over to play in North America – as some suspect is in the cards – he will not feature on these lists anymore, as the 25 year old is on the verge of aging out of eligibility. Rafikov has a good-sized frame but doesn’t play a big man’s game. Instead he simply gets the puck moving in the right direction, which is more a function of smart passing than great wheels, as he is no more than an average skater. A feature on both special teams’ units for his KHL side, Rafikov has a good slap shot and has a knack for finding a shooting lane to get the puck on the net. Outside of his contract, there is little that would prevent him from finding a home as a decent #5 on an NHL blueline.

As Wagman mentioned, Rafikov’s contract concluded after Lokomotiv’s loss to CSKA Moscow in the second round of the 2021 KHL playoffs. He is now a free agent.

The Flames retain exclusive control over Rafikov’s NHL rights in perpetuity. He remains on their reserve list to this day and is considered a “defective player,” with Darren Haynes elaborating more in his Athletic article linked above:

[Rafikov] remains Flames property and with no agreement between the NHL and the Russian Federation, there’s no expiry when it comes to how long Russian players remain property of the NHL club, who drafted or traded for their rights. Called defective status, they just remain on that list for as long as they continue to play in Russia and with no downside to just leaving them there.

If Rafikov were to decide to pursue a career in North America, he would only have the option to sign with the Flames. Owing to his unsigned, defective status, the Flames retain sole permission to negotiate with Rafikov.

If another team has noticed and has interest in Rafikov—which, given his production as a 25-year-old KHL defenseman, isn’t far-fetched at all—the Flames would have the ability to trade his rights to that team and potentially recoup another asset.

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There is precedent for deals involving prospects of this status: In 2017, the Lightning traded Nikita Gusev, a similarly unsigned Russian draft pick, to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of a trade with Expansion Draft ramifications.

Rafikov might be able to make the most of a decent-sized opportunity in Calgary. With Yelesin, Nikita Nesterov, Michael Stone, Alex Petrovic, Rob Hamilton, and Zac Leslie all unlikely to return to the organization next season, the Flames will be in need of defensive depth at all levels.

In a more macro sense, Mark Giordano is about to enter the final year of his contract. Noah Hanifin and Juuso Valimaki will likely play larger roles for Calgary in the future and the team will need as many options as they can find to potentially pick up some of the slack on the left side in the NHL.

Rafikov’s KHL production makes him a player worth exploring for the Flames, particularly considering their exclusive contractual rights over his potential entry into the NHL.

Given his improvement in the KHL and his contract status, Rushan Rafikov might have suddenly become a relevant prospect for the Flames eight years after Jay Feaster selected him in the seventh round of the 2013 Draft.

Whether he signs with the Flames, ends up being traded to another team, or re-ups in Russia, Rafikov’s story will be one to follow over the coming weeks.