Vegas' Mishandling of Vadim Shipachyov Was Typical NHL Logic
In his February 2015 Players’ Tribune article, Igor Larionov lamented how far hockey had come from the days of the Soviet "Red Army" teams on which he made his name. He insisted the change in style came down to results based nature of the game.
No coach wants to be fired, so they preach defensive, dump-and-chase hockey. No player wants to be scratched or sent down, so they follow instructions. Before long, creativity is wrung out of players.
“We lose a lot of Pavel Datsyuks to the closed-minded nature of the AHL and NHL,” Larionov wrote. “In Russia right now, there are four or five Datsyuks playing in the KHL who never got their chance. Sergei Mozyakin led the KHL in scoring last season and was in the scoring race for most of his 20s. But he’s 33 now and nobody in America has ever heard of him. Why? Most North American coaches don’t have the patience for his style of play.”
After three consecutive KHL seasons with over 50 points, the 30-year-old Russian signed with Vegas over the summer. After a demotion to the AHL to start the year, three NHL games, and a suspension for failure to report for a reassignment to the minors -- which may have been a miscommunication, depending on who you ask -- he’s retired and returned to Russia.
Both Shipachyov and Vegas general manager George McPhee have taken shots at each other, but what’s done is done. Barring anything crazy, North American hockey fans are never going to get more than fleeting glimpses at the center ever again.
While it’s impossible to know what happened behind closed doors, it seems like we witnessed a case of typical NHL logic.
The first mistake McPhee made was looking at results instead of performances. While the Knights have won 10 of their opening 16 games, they haven’t been blowing the doors off the NHL. Their lineup isn’t a black hole, but it’s pretty light on top-end talent once you get past James Neal.
The Knights are currently a bottom-10 possession team with a 48.11% five-on-five Corsi For percentage, according to Corsica. Their expected goals for percentage is also 50.07%, so they aren’t doing anything extraordinary when they are in possession. It's good enough to not get embarrassed, but not good enough to go anywhere right now.
But based on the record -- which had to have played a role in McPhee’s decision -- Vegas is in a good place. There was no need to bring in a skilled player who might not be “good in the room” when everything was apparently working out. It’s the classic hockey thought process of selecting a hard working third liner over an “enigmatic Russian,” even what that Russian has the potential to be a game-breaker.
But even if McPhee was following that flawed logic, sending Shipachyov packing back to Russia is also bad asset management. The entire saga was based on the premise that the center had to work on his game and adjust to North American hockey. It’s hard to properly evaluate a player, let alone allow him to improve in three NHL games. A team should be helping a player like him feel welcome, not criticize his lack of assimilation.
For a franchise that isn’t expected to do anything meaningful this season, there’s no reason not to play him even if it costs you a few points in the long run. At the best, you get the top-end skill that Shipachyov had shown in the KHL. At the worst, you give up a few points in the standings to make a more informed decision and possibly highlight him for a trade rather than losing him for nothing.
As frustrating as it is, this wasn't just a Vegas decision. We see this sort of thought process pretty frequently at the NHL level. Like Larionov said, it’s easy to side with the devil you know over the devil you don’t. But when the known commodity is a "safe" player who matter-of-factly brings very little to the lineup, there’s no downside to giving someone new a shot.
Development is undeniably important, but sometimes getting a shot -- and a legitimate shot, not a couple of token bottom-six shifts with the grinders -- is the only way to see what a player can truly bring. After all, think about how often have we seen a player get thrust into the spotlight due to injury, only to watch him thrive in the expanded role.
This move isn’t good for anyone. When Vegas hits a tough stretch of games and loses five out of six, they’ll wish they had a skilled player up front to lighten the load. Shipachyov won’t get a chance to prove himself at the NHL level. Fans won’t get to see a player with awesome offensive skills.
The worst part, though, is how predictable this decision was. Unfortunately, it’s standard NHL logic.