Top KHL Free Agents in 20-21

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The 2nd best hockey league in the world just wrapped up their regular season, 60 Kontinental Hockey League games for teams in Russia, Finland, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and China.

The usual suspects sit atop the league with CSKA Moskva and SKA St. Petersburg leading the West, Ak Bars Kazan and Avangard Omsk tops in the East. That’s not what concerns North American teams though, their focus is on poaching the talent that elevates teams to the top of the KHL. Artemi Panarin is the most impactful example, finishing in the top 20 in NHL scoring each season since signing with Chicago in 2015.

In the 5 years or so since Panarin came to North America there has been plenty of other skaters to sign out of the KHL. Not all of them met expectations, or even played a game in the NHL. Still, the opportunity to land an NHL contributor for under $1 million is a massive incentive to scout the KHL. If it takes three tries to land a player like Ilya Mikheyev, NHL clubs should be willing to take three swings.

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Before the NHL season started I spent a lot of time watching KHL games and highlights, and narrowed down a list of six players under age 27 to keep an eye on. A pair of those players dropped off my watchlist entirely, and a new one cropped up in their place.

Preamble

I have been keenly interested in European Free Agents since the 2018 Olympics, I wrote about Pius Suter, Dominik Kahun, and Artyom Zub at the time and all of them have since signed ELCs. That prompted me to procure a database of players who had signed NHL contracts out six European leagues; the KHL, SHL, Liiga, NLA, Czech, and DEL. With some exceptions, these players were free to sign by any NHL club and no older than 27.

That database is now up to roughly 200 forwards and 125 defencemen, the vast majority signing after the year 2000. Across the entire age 18-26 span, it combines for over 1000 data points. I use that to establish an average and range for each age group in each league. Using that as a baseline I use it to identify the biggest outliers, in the KHL in this case, under the age of 27.

I go into some more detail on how this works in my European Free Agent primer, where I profiled some of the players on this list.

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After identifying a list of players I then watch as much video as I can, which can be easier with the more popular teams. I also consider the most common linemates of each player, average Time on Ice, special teams play, and general play style. Using all this contextual information, I then refined my list, and this is the final result.

Konstantin Okulov

This name should be familiar, he drew North American interest around this time last year as a KHL Free Agent:

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Okulov is a 6’0″ left shooting RW, who just turned 26 in February. In terms of being a top offensive player on a top KHL team he is comparable to Alexander Barabanov, who also signed in the NHL as a 26 year old. Okulov has managed to be far more productive though, without the high end edgework that Barabanov possesses. Both have incredible hands in tight, and put many KHL defencemen on the highlight reels for the wrong reasons.

Okulov makes his biggest impact when the puck is on his stick, he is a dual threat in the offensive zone. His shot is above average but not always fast enough to beat a goalie clean. His patience with the puck allows Okulov to creep in on the circles, and his vision opens up the possibility for a shot or pass. So many of his assists come on cross seam passes it’s almost like he is daring the goalie to cheat over. When they do, Okulov will gladly capitalize on the extra space short side.

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With 49 points and 18 goals in 50 KHL games this season, Okulov led CSKA in both categories. He got a big boost by playing on the top PP unit, but Okulov was on the 2nd line at 5v5 and still led production with under 16 minutes of ice time a game. CSKA’s top 9 got rotated pretty regularly and Okulov had plenty of talented linemates, but he drove a significant portion of the play from the wing.

He has been remarkably consistent at increasing his production year over year in the KHL, this is Okulov’s 5th consecutive season above the average p/g for KHL signees at his age. In that same span he scored 17 or more goals in all but one season. Even within the 20-21 season, Okulov has managed to stay healthy and maintain ~0.9 p/g regardless of what line he was on or who he played with. I’ll have some visuals at the end splitting the KHL season into three 20 game segments, Okulov’s steady production really stands out.

What NHL clubs get in Okulov is a bottom 6 scoring winger who can make a difference in limited ice time. He can play the cycle game down low and maintain offensive zone pressure, then Okulov’s shooting talent can help him convert at a rate higher than the average 3rd or 4th liner. It is not likely Okulov serves in a special teams role at the NHL level, but he still has the upside to contribute 30 points in a 3rd line role. He would be eligible for a 1 year ELC.

Damir Zhafyarov

This is one of those fringe cases where a player is extremely productive, but not a lock to play in the NHL. He’s a RW playing for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, which is in the more remote Eastern conference. Zhafyarov is listed at 5’9″ and 170 lbs, but his measurement on the KHL website of 174 cm is barely over 5’8.5″.

He plays a fast paced offensive game, transitioning the puck with haste and being a volume shooter. I wouldn’t even consider Damir a fast skater, he’s just so effective at creating chaos with his passing that it really opens things up on the rush. Zhafyarov is 2nd amongst KHL forwards with 185 shots this season, but only converting ~10% of those shots to goals. He certainly doesn’t have the shot that Okulov does, relying on puck movement down low to create offence. Conveniently the KHL tracks passes, and it’s no surprise Zhafyarov is 3rd amongst forwards in that category.

Zhafyarov is currently 26 years old, he’ll be 27 by the time his KHL contract expires. He never really produced enough to be on the NHL radar, until this season that is. Zhafyarov’s 61 points in 58 games is good for 3rd in the KHL, but his 20:46 of ice time per game is also 3rd in the league (amongst Forwards). He gets nearly 5 minutes per games more than Okulov, and that really adds up.

Zhafyarov plays on Torpedo’s top PP unit and kills penalties as well, there’s no other way he could be on the ice over 1/3rd of the time. From what I’ve seen of him Zhafyarov is a talented playmaker, he had a good showing at the 2014 WJC for Russia but it didn’t immediately translate to the pro level. He bounced around between KHL clubs before settling in with Torpedo in 18-19, and that’s where he took off. That’s also where his ice time took off, and you have to think that played a part in it.

He put up a lot of points against some weaker Eastern Conference opponents, things like this just won’t work at the NHL level:

So Zhafyarov is undersized, not an elite skater, wont get the same opportunities in the NHL, yet he’s still drawing interest. Why? The only other u27 players to eclipse 60 points in the past 5 KHL seasons are Nikita Gusev, Kirill Kaprizov, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Jan Kovar. Zhafyarov has earned the ice time, special teams responsibility, and trust of his coaches. He was just named Captain of team Russia at one of their major international tournaments, playing with Torpedo linemate Ivan Chekhovich.

Zhafyarov and Chekhovich are centered by 5’7″ Andy Miele, no stranger to the difficulties Damir may face as an undersized forward in NA. The trio complete some incendiary passing plays, weaving through defenders as they converge on the net. They often create chances in a flurry, then zip pucks out to the point when defenders collapse on the front of the net. They use every inch of the ice in the offensive zone, making a concerted effort to retain possession of the puck until a passing lane opens.

None of these things are negatives, it shows that Zhafaryov has an elite set of offensive tools. His difficulty will be finding a way to use those tools on a 3rd or 4th line in North America, where there is less time and space and his linemates are more used to a heavy, forecheck focused game. Nic Petan might be a good comparable on that front, someone better suited for a top 6 role but incapable of beating top line competition 1 on 1.

Zhafyarov will be eligible for a 1 year ELC, after which he’ll be a UFA. I wouldn’t let his KHL numbers guide NHL expectations, but the upside is certainly there and it seems like teams are willing to take a chance on him.

This guy is going to pick up a lot of NHL attention this summer, he’s been one of the top producing young KHL players over the past 3 seasons. Even as a teenager he played for Russia internationally all the way from u16 to the u20 WJC in 16-17, where he was teammates with Kirill Kaprizov and Denis Guryanov.

Alexeyev is a 5’11”, 190 lb Center who plays for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, often alongside former Leaf Yegor Korshkov. He had 36 points in 58 games this season, nearly identical to his production from last season.

To avoid being redundant I’ll once again refer back to the European Free Agent primer for an in depth description of Alexeyev. He’s an above average passer with KHL production that closely resembles Ilya Mikheyev at that age. Alexeyev wins well over 50% of draws, produces at even strength, and does so with far less ice time than Mikheyev had.

When I wrote that in December, Alexeyev was playing on the 2nd line, but after the 40 game mark his TOI plummeted to 10-12 minutes a night. It really reflects in his point production, and Alexeyev is much more impressive than his 31 points in 52 games. The team that signs Alexeyev has the potential to hit a bigger home run than Chicago did with Pius Suter, and I’m a big fan of Pius.

They play a different style of game, but Alexeyev’s point production is slightly better over the past 2 seasons than Valeri Nichushkin was in his age 21-23 KHL break. This season Alexeyev has had the benefit of above average shooters on his wings, from Korshkov to Artur Kayumov to Andre Pettersson, a big reason why he was able to lead Lokomotiv in Points with 3rd line minutes.

Korshkov is no longer a Leaf, but Toronto could still use a $925k version of Alex Kerfoot to center Nick Robertson.

In 2019 the Severstal Cherepovets underwent a youth revolution, hoping to shake the aging core that had made the KHL playoffs just once in the past 6 seasons. In 19-20 they were the 2nd youngest team in the KHL, and this season the youngest by a wide margin. Their top 5 scorers are all 25 or younger, and Alexander Petunin leads the team with 18 goals and 39 points. They managed to secure a playoff spot in 2021 as well.

Petunin is a 5’10”, 165 lb left shot winger who just turned 24 in January. Like Zhafyarov with Torpedo, he was generally Severstal’s go-to guy, leading forwards in TOI and potting goals on both the PP and PK. The top unit in Severstal is also undersized, spreading out the offensive zone to generate chances on cross ice passes. Petunin is agile and aggressive to turn over pucks, then quick to spring teammates on the rush.

His goal totals are helped along by the PP time and 20% shooting, but Petunin has been the centerpiece of Severstal’s turnaround. He would be eligible for a 1 year ELC in the NHL, but may be tempted to sign a long term extension with the rising Severstal. If that were the case it would be interesting to watch the Geraskin – Kodola – Petunin line grow.

If Petunin does sign in North America he might need to start out in the AHL to get used to the lack of time and space. I think he has the offensive tools to become an NHL bottom 6 player, but still has to work on his game without the puck to be above replacement value.

Born in Moscow, Daniil and his family moved to Toronto when he was just 16 to play hockey. He hasn’t played in the same league in two consecutive seasons since his Junior days, so I’ll start there. Miromanov originally came to Toronto to gain eligibility for the OHL draft, but went undrafted and switched paths to the QMJHL. He was a RW for his 18 year old season in the Q, racking up 22 goals and 42 points in 64 games. At some point in his 19 year old season he was moved to Defence, and notched 62 points in 68 games on the back end for Acadie-Bathurst.

He attended Chicago’s training camp as a 20 year old but didn’t earn a contract, returning to Russia instead. He sputtered out with HK Sochi after 15 games and ended up returning to the QMJHL, this time with Moncton. He finished out the season strong, flirting with a point per game. In his 21 year old season Miromanov started out in Czech before returning to North America once again for a look with the Kings ECHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. There he had 40 points in 49 games, 2nd in the ECHL for p/g amongst defencemen (min 10 GP).

Miromanov spent his age 22 season in the VHL, and led his SKA team in scoring by D. After that his rights were traded back to HK Sochi, part of the return for Chicago draft pick Andrei Altybarmakyan, showing he had some value around the KHL. As a 23 year old this season, the 6’4″ RD has 29 points in 58 games, top 10 amongst KHL D.

Obviously Miromanov is an offensive defenceman, but it is rare to see this kind of production from a player with such a huge frame. He has been able to produce in multiple leagues, and it all starts with his shot. Since he started out as a forward, Miromanov has developed a really accurate wrister with some heat on it, even if he doesn’t have the quickest release. He can also really step into a one-timer, or tee up a slapshot from the high point on the PP.

Miromanov has good straight line speed for a guy his size, overall I would say he’s a subpar skater though. His hunched over style of skating doesn’t allow him quick starts and stops, and his high center of gravity lets some smaller forwards get leverage underneath him. Watching him roam the defensive zone and retrieve pucks you can see how clunky Miromanov’s footwork is. With a dedicated skating coach he can improve some of those fundamentals, but it is always going to be a drawback.

I think Cody Franson is a decent comparison here, right down to KHL production. Miromanov is more of a modern day player with better hands and slightly less physical, but they’re both big, right handed, offensive defencemen. Miromanov will be eligible for a 1 year ELC, and he has a history of jumping the pond, but there’s no guarantee NHL teams are ready to take a swing on him. Teams tend to look for more mature, defensive D from the KHL, but Miromanov’s point production is very hard to find.

The two players that fell off my list were Nikita Soshnikov and Vladimir Tkachyov (’93). I make the distinction because there is a younger, more impressive KHL player also named Vladimir Tkachyov (’95) that will be an interesting FA in 2022. Both Soshnikov and Tkachyov turned 27 just after the season started, and began to struggle down the stretch. Soshnikov was traded from Salavat Ufa to CSKA in that time, and only produced 9 points in 24 games for them.

This is the 20-21 season split, you can see Okulov’s consistency, and the drop off in production along with Alexeyev’s ice time.

This one shows the career p/g of the forwards on this list. The dotted line represents the just concluded KHL season. Okulov and Alexeyev producing so well season after season means that NHL teams have probably been watching them for years. Petunin and Zhafyarov are both smaller wingers who took a while to break into their team’s top 6, now leading the offence and drawing North American interest. Miromanov would be alone on the D chart, but his closest historical comparable is probably Anton Babchuk.

Outside of the players covered in this list, Reid Boucher had a very strong season on his 1 year KHL deal. He led Omsk with 24 goals and 48 points. Sergei Shmelyov has been on an upward trajectory to become Sochi’s top scorer (43p), he stood out in Miromanov clips. Both Boucher and Shmelyov are 27 year old sub 6ft wingers.

On Defence, the two most promising guys on expiring KHL contracts are Brennan Menell and Oliwer Kaski, but their rights are owned by Minnesota and Carolina, respectively. Both are RHD who cleared 30 points, I could see them earning a spot on NHL rosters in 21-22. In terms of UFAs Vladislav Provolnev from Severstal is probably the most intriguing option after Miromanov.

I usually avoid talking about goalies at all costs, because of things like a 40 year old leading the KHL in save percentage. If I had to pick one guy it would be 22 year old Dmitri Shugayev, he got thrown into the fire a bit by Severstal and still managed a .911 sv%. There isn’t anyone that stands out like Alexei Melnichuk or Vasili Demchenko this year.

There was a lot of focus on the KHL in this whole project of mine, but I gathered similar profiles on players from 5 other leagues as well. There are a couple players from the SHL and Finnish Liiga that have more NHL potential than players on this list, but all the players covered here have a good chance of signing with NHL teams. If a contending team had just one SPC to give they would likely go for Okulov, a rebuilding team might prefer Alexeyev.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I’m excited to see how the KHL playoffs unwind, then where these guys end up signing. If you found this informative, you can follow me on Twitter @EarlSchwartz27 for more European FA obsession.