Minnesota Wild fans all know about the organization’s deep and uber-talented prospect pool. Now with the World Junior Championships starting Dec. 26, the leaders of the hockey world have agreed. The participating countries announced their rosters this week, and six Wild prospects are representing their nations. You can call it a tryout of sorts for the Wild, a chance to make a statement on a big stage.
Marat Khusnutdinov will be representing Team Russia for the second consecutive year. In the final year of his KHL contract, the highly skilled center could conceivably impress Bill Guerin with his play at World Juniors, possibly earning himself an entry-level contract this summer. That was until news spread in the wee hours this morning that Khusnutdinov re-signed with SKA in the KHL for two more years. The agreement will keep him in Russia until SKA’s 2023-24 season.
Not again. Hasn’t the KHL put Minnesotans through enough pain? For years, Wild fans agonized as highlight after highlight showing Kirill Kaprizov dominating the KHL had them foaming at the mouth. The initial reaction to the Khusnutdinov extension was frustration and angst over the Wild having a Kaprizov 2.0 situation. However, it’s not as dire as some claim it to be. The extension makes more sense for Khusnutdinov and the Wild than you might think.
Khusnutdinov will be a full two years younger at the end of this contract than Kaprizov was when he eventually signed with the Wild. Remember, Kaprizov signed before the Canadian bubble playoffs in 2020. If Khusnutdinov signs with Minnesota after this deal, the contract is far more favorable to the Wild this time around. Kaprizov was 23 when he signed, so Minnesota could only sign him to a two-year ELC, according to the CBA. And as you may remember, it was essentially a one-year ELC. The Wild burned the first year heading into the bubble playoffs of 2019, for which the NHL ruled Kaprizov ineligible, wasting the first year of his cost-controlled ELC for nothing.
Khusnutdinov will only be 21 at the end of this KHL extension, which falls under the far more favorable CBA mandated three-year ELC. Sure, it would be nice to have Khusnutdinov in the system for the next few years, when a playmaking center on a cost-controlled contract during the worst years of the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter buyouts hits hardest. But there was no guarantee he would have developed his game into a proven NHL player by then. Khusnutdinov’s contract doesn’t affect a reasonable ETA much and still favors the Wild from a contract standpoint.
Khusnutdinov is developing into the second-round steal some speculated he would be on draft day in 2020. This season alone, the skilled center has caught the eye of the hockey prospects world with eye-popping speed and playmaking ability in the KHL.
Concern started to brew, however. Khusnutdinov played top-line minutes to start the year and produced at a high rate before SKA signed NHL castoff Nikita Gusev in October. Gusev effectively pushed Khusnutdinov down the depth chart in favor of the more proven vet. Khusnutdinov was likely more than a victim of a numbers game. The KHL has a reputation for pulling ice time shenanigans with prospects considering a jump to the NHL.
The Russian National Team pulled something similar with Kaprizov before the 2016 Worlds Championships. He was about to enter the final year of his KHL deal without an extension. Russia leaned on him by placing him on their Worlds roster that next summer, dressing him for every game, and not playing him a single shift. Kaprizov was an absolute star, so you’d better believe Russia could have easily punished Khusnutdinov in the same way.
The good news is Khusnutdinov’s new contract might be the best thing for his development right now. His extension could save him from the same embarrassment Kaprizov felt in 2016, leading to an expanded role on Russia’s WJC team later this month. It possibly means a return to more minutes on SKA in the KHL when he returns after the tournament, which is always good for young players.
There is no denying Khusnutdinov’s talent, but the KHL makes signing Russian prospects tricky. For that reason, many NHL teams try and steer clear of them so high in the draft. Wild fans had to wait a long time for Kaprizov. As painful as it was, though, it was worth it in the end. Now they have to wait two more years for Khusnutdinov. But at least this time, it makes a lot more sense for both sides.