As one of the premier scorers in the KHL this past season, and an offensive center with NHL aspirations, Vadim Shipachyov had the chance to pick his next destination. He could have gone to an NHL club on the cusp of competing for the Stanley Cup. He could have decided that a growing team that could offer him surefire top-six minutes and the chance to build something was the best fit. Or maybe he saw great opportunity with a team hungry to add some scoring, one that was willing to pay him top dollar in hopes his KHL numbers would translate to North America’s top league.
But instead of the guarantee of success or the draw of top-flight linemates, Shipachyov chose the unknown.
Thursday evening, the Golden Knights announced Shipachyov inked a two-year, $9-million deal with the club, and the signing meant Vegas beat out other, more established teams for the services of one of the most intriguing KHL imports that was available to be had this off-season. It means Shipachyov signed on to become the second player in Golden Knights history, joining Reid Duke, who’s not even certain to be in the NHL next season. And it means that Golden Knights GM George McPhee isn’t messing around. He targeted a top free agent and got his man.
No one knows what exactly was said or promised to Shipachyov, but there’s plenty of reason why the deal makes sense for the 30-year-old. McPhee acknowledged the projections that Shipachyov will be able to come in as an impact player in the NHL and the fact of the matter is he’ll get a better opportunity to do that in Vegas than anywhere else. That could have been one of the big selling points for the Golden Knights. If Shipachyov had gone to an established club, chances are he would have had to fight for minutes or battle to keep his spot in the lineup. That’s unlikely to be the case in Vegas, where top-flight scorers will be few and far between no matter how strong the expansion draft stands to be. Shipachyov should, at the very least, get every chance to succeed in the top six.
Having success at the top of the lineup would be as big for Shipachyov as it is for the Golden Knights, too. Being given minutes and the opportunity to produce means Shipachyov can put up big numbers if he finds his offensive game in a hurry at the NHL level. If he were to have a 50-point season in 2017-18 and replicate it in 2018-19, he would be heading for free agency with the chance to score an even bigger deal. And, at that point, he’ll have all the power once again. If he likes it in Vegas, signing with the Golden Knights shouldn’t be an issue, especially as an expansion team is unlikely to find itself in cap trouble within the next two or three years. If he decides to walk, 100-plus points over two seasons could land him a nice payday in free agency.
Sure, we may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves given he’s yet to suit up in the NHL, but the area of least concern about Shipachyov is his offensive ability. Yes, the KHL as a whole has a different skill level than the NHL, but Shipachyov has displayed a knack for the net in every competition he’s participated in over the past three seasons. From 2014-15 to 2016-17, Shipachyov scored 55 goals and 169 points in 153 games with SKA St. Petersburg. In addition, Shipachyov chipped in 10 goals and 27 points in 20 games with Russia across the past two World Championships, proof that he’s not exactly shrinking when facing some of the world’s best competition.
It’s not as if other KHL imports haven’t had a similar impact in recent years, either. Artemi Panarin stands out most, with his 61 goals and 151 points in 162 games over the past two seasons, and Alexander Radulov’s play in Montreal this past season is evidence that a player of Shipachyov’s age can come over and make waves. Radulov averaged more than 18 minutes a night for the Canadiens, scoring 18 goals and 54 points in 76 games. It was his first season in the NHL since a 17-game stint with the Nashville Predators in 2011-12. Shipachyov projects to have similar ability, and given that he’ll likely be skating with the best Vegas has to offer and earn top power play minutes, he could be in line for a big year.
The importance of landing Shipachyov goes beyond his point totals, however. Anyone who has followed the happenings surrounding the NHL’s soon-to-be 31st franchise is aware that the expansion draft rules are set to give the Golden Knights arguably the most competitive expansion roster the league has ever seen. With the wide array of talent the league boasts and the number of players who will be exposed, Vegas has the opportunity to build quite the roster ahead of its first season. There’s potential to add some legitimate top-six talent through the expansion draft and potentially land a rearguard with top-pairing skill. That’s not to mention the opportunity to land a few diamonds in the rough. The Golden Knights could pluck some hidden gems who currently dot NHL rosters, especially as some will have to be left exposed in favor of the sure-things the league’s 30 teams will be protecting.
The one thing the expansion draft is unlikely to afford the Golden Knights, though, is a surefire top-six center. Players who can fill that role are hard to come by and, in all likelihood, the best McPhee could have done was take a shot on another team’s depth pivot in hopes a breakout season was in the offing or wait until the off-season to look at which free agents were available. That could have meant trying to land, and missing out on, any number of centers who could have skated on the top line. But instead of playing the waiting game or being patient, McPhee made a move to improve his team before there was even a team to really improve. With Shipachyov on the market and nothing to lose, McPhee pushed his chips in the middle and went all-in on a player with top-line potential.
That’s why it’s easy to love this signing by McPhee. Even if Shipachyov maxes out as a swift-skating, steady-producing second-line pivot, that’s a big chip for the Golden Knights to have right now and a player they can potentially add around in expansion. Instead of building lines out of the castoffs of other clubs, McPhee can look for players who he believes will fit alongside Shipachyov. Heck, maybe the signing even helps Vegas land Evgeny Dadonov, too. He’s another KHL import with great potential who, many believe, is set to land in the NHL next season. Getting two top-flight forwards from the KHL club that just won a league title would be quite the coup for the Golden Knights.
But more than anything, the signing of Shipachyov shows a determination by Vegas to bring in players who can help the team compete now, even if it does comes with some risks. How Vegas fares in its inaugural season is yet to be seen, but going out and landing Shipachyov is a sign the Golden Knights won’t be satisfied with participation alone.
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