By Allan Muir
Just eight Russian prospects were selected at the 2013 NHL Draft. Not because that hockey-mad country has stopped churning out NHL-caliber talent. Because of the Russian Factor.
And Alex Burmistrov just reminded everyone that it's a very real thing.
The disgruntled winger made good on a threat to return to Russia, signing today with Ak Bars Kazan of the Kontinental Hockey League. The 21-year-old center was a restricted free agent and perfectly within his rights to head home.
"Through our conversations and correspondence with Alex and his agent, it became apparent Alex had a desire to continue his development as a young player in the KHL," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said in a statement released this morning through the team's website. "He remains a very talented player within the Jets organization and we will continue to monitor his progress and development going forward."
Burmistrov will remain property of the Jets while he plays overseas, but that doesn't make his defection any easier to swallow. He never tallied more than 28 points in the NHL, but he was regarded as a quick and crafty offensive player with elite hockey sense and a physical edge that belied his slender build.
Those qualities should have made him easier to trade when he made it clear that he was unhappy in Winnipeg and wanted a fresh start elsewhere.
Interestingly, his agent, Mark Gandler, was quoted in that same piece as saying that "Alex is not going to sign in the KHL."
Gandlert either threw that out there in a failed bid to expedite a deal, or he wildly misread his client's intentions. A few teams kicked the tires, but no one was willing to take the risk.
So now Burmistrov is out of the picture and Cheveldayoff is in a pickle because he didn't disarm this grenade before it blew up in his hands. For an organization that talks about a commitment to development, it sure has done a lousy job with Burmistrov.
Forget his rookie season in Atlanta, and even his first year in Winnipeg. Here's a kid who needed to play, but his ice time suffered as key minutes were given to 33-year-old veteran Olli Jokinen. And why's that? Because Claude Noel's job as coach depended on wins, and he trusted the veteran more than the kid to get him those W's.
Understandable. Most coaches in his spot would do the same. But the point is he shouldn't have been in that position. And it's on Cheveldayoff that the situation was allowed to linger the way it did.
Now he's left with a couple of lousy choices: Deal Burmistrov's rights now while his value is at its lowest, or wait around until his new deal is up in 2015 and hope to convince him to come back long enough to be dealt. Or maybe check back with him when coach Claude Noel, with whom Burmistrov had a fractured relationship, has been replaced behind the bench.
Not much meat in those gym mats, is there? It's ridiculous that it's come to this for the eighth overall pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2010 draft. A player who, before being drafted said he would never play in the KHL, that it was "a league for old men." But his defection emphasizes why that threat is always looming when a team drafts a Russian player, no matter what they say. And no one should be surprised when it plays out like this.