Though the news in Leaf Nation has been relatively quiet of late, there have been a few intriguing storylines making the rounds. Joel Champagne will re-enter the draft, Nik Kulemin and the Maple Leafs have hit a contract impasse, Tomas Kaberle is reportedly gathering interest from a number of teams, and a member of the Toronto media raised a few eyebrows with a blog post regarding the relationship between Dion Phaneuf and Ron Wilson.
Earlier today on a certain Toronto radio show, a grim portrait of Jonas Gustavsson’s future was painted, citing the 32 games he has appeared in so far in his career – most of those starts behind a lacklustre team – as evidence that he may never develop into the sort of goaltender the Leafs envisioned when signing him out of the Swedish Elite League.
The crux of the argument was that 32 games should be enough for Gustavsson to have shown some ability to adapt to goaltending coach Francois Allaire’s techniques, and that at 25 years of age it may be too late for him to make the necessary adjustments for NHL success.
The status and whereabouts of Russian defenseman Dmitri Vorobiev has been an ongoing question mark for Leaf Nation. The robust blue-liner was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the 5th round of the 2004 Entry Draft. Originally touted as a second round pick by scouts, Vorobiev stuck around until the 5th round largely due to weight concerns. But it’s gradually become clear that the Maple Leafs shrewdly gambled on the Togliatti native after an impressive couple of seasons with RSL side Lada. He’s now regarded as one of the best young power-play point-men in his league and he supplements his offensive skill with a solid, physical own-zone game. He’s ranked 5th in the team’s “Top Prospect List” on Hockey’s Future.com, behind Justin Pogge, Nik Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman. The lone but major problem being, however, that Vorobiev doesn’t appear to have any interest in embarking on a career overseas.
Vorobiev remains Leaf property, but seemingly in name only. The 22-year-old is contractually committed to two more seasons with Lada Togliatti having signed a four year deal prior to the 06/07 campaign; a deal which tripled his initial salary. Fortunately, the Leafs hold Vorobiev’s rights indefinitely due to the absence of a transfer agreement. There is currently no agreed-on date for when a team’s rights to players like Vorobiev will expire. According to Bill Meltzer, “the NHL and NHLPA have more or less agreed to overlook what’s written in the CBA at least until there’s a clear direction on what’s going to happen in terms of a new transfer agreement (or lack thereof).” So how are we to know just how long the Leafs will hold onto Vorobiev’s rights? Meltzer suggests any of these three scenarios could occur:
“1) The CBA is amended to include a provision for how long European draft picks’ rights can be retained
2) At the point the direction of the NHL’s transfer relationship with the KHL (and other European countries) is determined, a deadline could be set for NHL teams to sign their picks whose rights would have expired under the two-year window specified by the current CBA.
3) They could simply continue the status quo — which essentially readopts the old system in which NHL teams could hold European players’ rights more or less in perpetuity.”
The last scenario is obviously the preferred one in this case.
I should preface this blog with the caveat that fishing information out of Russia is at best tenuous and details of Vorobiev’s contract status remain ambiguous. But according to a European-based scout, the bottom line seems to be that from a personal standpoint, Vorobiev just isn’t interested in the North American game as it stands. He’s comfortably settled in with Lada, whom he’s belonged to for 7 years now. He’s steadily improving, his point totals growing as his career progresses. Vorobiev was originally described as a more of a defensive specialist who plays an awkward, but effective own-zone game. His offensive skills are now burgeoning and he has assumed a top four role on his team’s back-end. One might describe him as a more offensively-inclined Anton Volchenkov.
The only way Vorobiev could theoretically join the Leafs in the next few seasons would be to buy-out his own contract, similar to what Jonas Frogren did in order to cross the pond earlier this summer. With the way the league has come down hard on the Leafs’ actions in regards to Frogren, it wouldn’t be easy. It could probably be managed, however, if the desire was there on Vorobiev’s part. It’s not for a lack of trying on the Leafs’ end, who’ve kept in regular contact with Vorobiev and his agent.
A source heard during the World Championships that Vorobiev was thinking of extending his contract with Lada. With his role expanding and his name gaining more and more recognition, Vorobiev couldn’t be happier in his current situation. It would require a sudden 180 for Vorobiev to opt for change from his current, stable situation. He’s presently focused on helping his side Lada succeed as they transfer to the Kontinental Hockey League next season. When Vorobiev reaches the peak of his ascension over in Russia, perhaps he’ll look for a new challenge elsewhere. At which point, the Leafs may just be one of 20-odd clubs interested. A different avenue the Leafs could explore would be to offer Vorobiev a tentative contract that comes into effect upon the expiration of the defenseman’s contract with Lada, similar to the arrangement the team formed with now-Leaf Nik Kulemin. Again, the stimulus doesn’t appear to be there for Vorobiev.
The fact of the matter is that it takes relentless desire and overarching ambition for European players of Vorobiev’s ilk who must risk the possibility of lower salary (due to entry-level restrictions), demotion, and an often-tumultuous transition into a foreign setting in order to realize their NHL goal. Athletes such as Nik Kulemin, Alex Nikulin, and Nikita Filatov appear to have this drive. Many less ambitious and driven athletes would be tempted to settle for a comfortable and well-compensated home setting. And for some the NHL just isn’t the be-all end-all career objective. There is an interesting and unexpected result of league-wide parity, in that it has not only leveled the playing field amongst the rich and less-moneyed franchises domestically but also between the NHL and Europe. The NHL through its entry-level deal basically assumes that everyone wants to play here, even at the cost of a salary discount. I’m not saying that money is the one and only factor playing into the equation, but it warrants consideration and is definitely some food for thought.
Perhaps once Vorobiev reaches his prime in Russia and past the entry level age he will look for a new challenge overseas. The ship may be sailing for the ACC to be his port of arrival, and if I had to bet right now, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be on board.