This blog has mostly avoided discussing the soap opera between the Vegas Golden Knights and Russian forward Vadim Shipachyov because there’s been plenty of hand-wringing elsewhere, but the story does appear to carry a certain object lesson for the NHL and how general managers run teams.
Granted, this lesson isn’t a new one and the Shipachyov saga isn’t all that unique.
But now that the dust has settled and the forward is back with SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Golden Knights have their first retired player in the books after a three-game career.
The 30-year-old signed with Vegas in May of 2017 and was the second person signed by the franchise, with Reid Duke the first.
“Vadim is a highly skilled playmaker who has had an impressive career in the Kontinental Hockey League,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said at the time. “He has won two KHL championships, has been among the league leaders in scoring the last two seasons and has enjoyed success at the international level for Team Russia. We believe he can be an impact player in the NHL.”
Shipachyov skated with SKA St. Petersburg in 2016-2017 and finished with 76 points in 50 games.
Expectations were high, relatively speaking, and Shipachyov made his NHL debut in October against the Boston Bruins. He scored a goal on Tuukka Rask and saw time in two more games before he was sent to the AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves.
Shipachyov refused to play in the AHL, which led to a suspension from the Golden Knights. The club freed him up to talk about a trade with another NHL team, but the timeline was short and contract termination was in order. After a few days of late October drama, his contract was shut down and Shipachyov became “voluntarily retired” from the NHL.
On Saturday, he signed a one-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg and should be available to play for the Russians at the upcoming Winter Olympics. And he wasn’t happy with his NHL experience, either.
“They say one thing to your face and when it comes to hockey, something else,” he said. “Russian players should think ten times before leaving for abroad. It’s different from what the clubs and agents tell you.”
Now, there’s no way that McPhee and the Golden Knights intended on Shipachyov spending time in the AHL. He was signed for $4.5 million a year to play in the NHL. Period.
But something about his play turned things around rather early in the game, which is why Vegas decided conditioning was in order rather than a full-time stint right out of the gate. The goal with the AHL decision was to keep the player active and skating while acclimatizing him to the North American game. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but egos are large when the money is significant.
“He needed to play, and we were willing to have him play in Chicago and get in that time, but he just didn’t want to do it,” McPhee said. “That’s okay. That’s not what he signed up for.”
Now, it’s tempting to give into pessimism and gloom with the suggestion that McPhee and Co. blew it when it came to Shipachyov. Some might even claim that the 10-5-1 Golden Knights are “badly mismanaged,” mainly because nobody likes to ruin a positive story more than acrimonious hockey writers.
But sometimes, things like this happen. Relationships don’t pan out. Mistakes are made, expectations aren’t met. And in the words of McPhee, “that’s okay.”
Sometimes experiments go wrong, especially when you’re an upstart expansion team trying to make the playoffs out of the gate. And honestly, who doesn’t want to see them try? If we lose our capacity for wonder and surprise because risks don’t pan out, what’s the point?