One of the things I love about international tournaments like the Olympics and World Championships is the chance to see players who have left the NHL for a career over in Europe one more time. Generally, these players are found on the rosters of also-rans; Norway has Patrick Thoresen, Latvia has Herberts Vasiljevs, and Switzerland has Hnat Dominechelli. They were NHL depth players who have abandoned the rat race and small salaries that habitually come with being an NHL fringe player in favour of big money on the other side of the Atlantic.
When a team like Russia names players from Europe to it’s Olympic roster, it’s a different story. There’s a temptation to dismiss those players as products of a bias towards Russian-based players, and it is highly likely that plays some part in the decisions made. However, things aren’t that simple, and it isn’t right to dismiss the KHL as a predator that “culls only the weak and the sick,” as former Minnesota Wild executive Tom Lynn did earlier this week. I say that because, in addition to bona fide NHL talents like Alexander Radulov, Jiri Hudler and Alexei Morozov, the KHL also keeps players who have never played professional hockey in North America.
One of those players is Danis Zaripov, a goal scorer who played one season with the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL (scoring 23 goals in 62 games) before returning to Russia to develop in their top league. Zaripov’s career took off after the 2004-05 NHL lockout, where as a member of Kazan Ak-Bars he got to play with a variety of NHL superstars including Ilya Kovalchuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Alexei Kovalev, Brad Richards and a host of other NHL talents like Nik Antropov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Alexei Zhitnik. It was a loaded team.
The leading scorer for Ak Bars came over during the lockout and opted to stay when the NHL resumed: Alexei Morozov, a supremely talented offensive player who could have an NHL job the day he decided he had any interest in one. Zaripov has played with him ever since, but after all those other NHL stars went home he came into his own as an offensive player. Below are his projected NHL numbers (using Gabriel Desjardins league translations) over the past 3-1/2 seasons.
Obviously, projections need to be taken with a grain of salt; the NHL isn’t the KHL and it’s entirely possible that Zaripov would struggle if brought over. But looking at them, it’s easy to see why the Russian team would opt to include last year’s KHL MVP on a team mostly comprised of NHL’ers.
His international experience also stands out. Zaripov has represented Russia at every IIHF World Championship since 2006, and has 27 points in 25 games played. In 2008, he was a key contributor to Russia’s gold medal-winning team, finishing one point behind Ilya Kovalchuk for the team scoring lead.
Zaripov had an impact in Russia’s first game against Latvia, matching Alexander Ovechkin‘s output with two goals. I’ll be very interested to see how successful he can be against some of the tournament’s more powerful teams.