As KHL season #10 gets underway, let’s take a look back at some of the great players we’ve enjoyed up to now. Like all these lists, it’s an entirely subjective view of guys who lit up the league.
Part one looks at some of the top Russian players. Mostly, it focuses on those guys who took their first steps in senior hockey with KHL teams and went on to achieve big things at home and overseas. However, the allure of Alexei Morozov – perhaps the definitive star of the early years of the league – was impossible to ignore: he’s the player who breaks the pattern of talented youth.
It may seem odd to pick a player with fewer than 50 career appearances in the KHL. But Andrei Vasilevsky is a bit different. Not many goalies begin their pro careers with a debut shut-out. Even fewer manage it against a team on its way to back-to-back championship wins. Vasilevsky, at the tender age of 18, did just that on Jan. 8, 2013 when he made 25 saves to thwart Dynamo Moscow.
From that point on, his future ascendancy was clear. Continuing to impress in the MHL, he stepped up to regular KHL action the following year and looked more than competent across 28 games for Salavat Yulaev as he won the Rookie of the Year award. That earned him a call-up to Russia’s World Championship roster as understudy to Sergei Bobrovsky. His debut at that level came against team USA; an inspired performance and 39 saves backstopped Russia to a 6-1 win on the way to gold in Minsk. Tampa Bay Lightning fans saw plenty to excite them about their team’s draft prospect.
That was the end of Vasilevsky’s career in the KHL. That summer he headed to Florida where he has established himself as the Lightning’s #1 goalie. He also helped Russia to bronze in last season’s World Championship, where he was named the top goaltender of the tournament, and was selected for the World Cup of Hockey.
Two Gagarin Cups, two All-Star call-ups. Not bad for a player still just 24 years of age. Antipin has achieved more than many can manage in whole career, and has many years ahead of him to add further achievements to his resume.
A product of the Metallurg school in Magnitogorsk, Antipin made an assured KHL debut in the 2012-13 season. With 50 games for Magnitka, and an All-Star call-up to go with them, he looked like a player to watch. But few could have imagined how quickly he would blossom. The following season he looked like a veteran in Mike Keenan’s Gagarin Cup-winning defense. Next came international recognition and a role in the Russian team that took silver in Prague in 2015. Back in Magnitogorsk, another Gagarin Cup followed 12 months later – this time Antipin also led the way in post-season blocked shots. Another run to the Gagarin Cup final in 2017 proved to be his KHL swansong – Antipin beings the coming season at Buffalo Sabres as he seeks to crack the NHL.
A product of the Krylya Sovietov youth system, Moscow-born Zaitsev went off to Siberia to learn his trade in the KHL. He was drafted by Sibir in the league’s first youth draft, and spent four seasons in Novosibirsk. During that time, he helped the club improve from a ranking among the also-rans of the East to a position as regular a playoff contender. He also, in 2010, helped Russia to gold at the World Juniors on a roster that also included his some-time Sibir team-mate Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Artemy Panarin.
In 2013, established as a leader at Sibir and part of team Russia’s plans, Zaitsev had options to go to the NHL. Instead, he chose to bide his time and joined CSKA. Returning to Moscow boosted his progress: he gained playoff experience and helped the Army Men to top the regular season table twice. By the time Toronto came calling, Zaitsev was a far more polished prospect, and an impressive first season with the Leafs highlighted his sporting intelligence without leaving him exposed to the more physical element of the North American game.
When the KHL got started, Morozov was arguably its biggest star. Considering Jaromir Jagr, a bona fide hockey legend, was also in the league, that was no mean feat. But Morozov, the dashing captain of Ak Bars and Russia, bore the mark of a champion. His goals were instrumental in ending Russia’s long wait for World Championship gold; he repeated the trick twice to bring Ak Bars the first two Gagarin Cup titles, grabbing the cup-clinching goal in 2009.
Morozov’s face fronted advertising campaigns and smiled down from billboards – and not just in Kazan. For a time, in partnership with Danis Zaripov, there were few more alarming sights for defenses. His prowess was sufficient to leave many North American pundits speculating on whether the Penguins might have blundered in not doing more to persuade him to return to Pittsburgh after the 2004-05 lock-out gave him a first taste of life in Kazan.
A memorable career came to an end in 2014, finishing with a solitary season at CSKA. Now retired from playing, he is managing director of the MHL.
During the early years of the KHL, the league’s first president, Alexander Medvedev, suggested that few Russian players would make successful careers across the Atlantic without playing at least 100 games back home. He illustrated his point with reference to the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin in recent years.
Today, Kuznetsov could be added to that list. Playing alongside Ovi in Washington, he’s blossomed into a serious scoring force in the NHL. But it all started in Chelyabinsk, with more than 200 games across five seasons for Traktor. He was just 18 when he broke into Traktor’s KHL roster, and went on to play in three World Juniors for Russia. He matured quickly, playing a key role in his home-town team’s run to the Gagarin Cup final in 2013 and setting a league record for scoring by a junior player in the same year. Even after that, he resisted the lure of North America for another season, finally taking up his option in Washington when it was clear that Traktor would not make the 2014 playoffs.
That gave Kuznetsov, now 25, the kind of hockey education that has made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
When SKA won the Gagarin Cup in 2015, Panarin was at the heart of the team. Although he was only 23 years old, he’d already outgrown his first senior club, Vityaz, and had a taste of bigger things at Ak Bars before moving to St. Petersburg. There, on an electrifying line with Shipachyov and Dadonov, he matured into a devastating attacking force as the Army Men powered to the big prize.
That Gagarin Cup campaign was a breakout season … and then some. Going for more than a point a game in regular season, he kept on scoring into the playoffs: 20 games, five goals, 15 assists. Without a pause, he carried on to the World Championship and scored 10 points in 10 games as Russia claimed silver in the Czech Republic. A star was born.
That form took Panarin to Detroit, where he posted 70+ points in two consecutive seasons before being traded to Columbus this summer.