The last two weeks cannot have been too much fun for Mikhail Vorobyov. Not because of how he played – in fact the big Russian pivot surged up the Salavat Yulaev Ufa depth chart as the season wound down, and he acquitted himself well in the KHL playoffs – but because of the manner his side made their exit from the race for the Gagarin cup, and matters off the ice.
First, lets get to his play. Salavat were matched up against semi-local rivals AK Bars Kazan in the KHL playoff first round, and the expanded role Vorobyov saw as the regular season wound down carried over into the playoffs. In the gut-wrenching series, the Flyers prospect saw third line minutes in each game, playing 12 to 15 minutes a night often against the opposition’s top six.
He came out of the series even in plus-minus and having shown he could handle some of the best talent the KHL could throw at him. Vorobyov did not register a point, but over the five games had two decent scoring chances himself and set up a few for his linemates.
However, despite being one of the youngest regular skaters in the KHL playoffs and performing solidly in his role, Vorobyov must have been left sick to the stomach at the manner of his team’s exit. The series was close fought, neither side ever got a decisive edge in play, and as such every game was decided by a solitary goal. Unfortunately for Vorobyov and his teammates, four of the five games played finished with AK Bars one goal to the good. If that was not enough the losses themselves were harrowing.
The first game of the series set the tone. With the game tied and seconds left on the clock, Salavat were in the offensive zone having come down ice on a dangerous looking rush. But then disaster struck; star forward Kirill Kaprizov was taken out by his own man in a bizarre collision and play went the other way with Salavat down two men. The result? With less than a second left Finnish defenseman Atte Ohtamaa scored to send his side into raptures.
The second game was not quite as infuriating for Salavat. They conceded the game-winner with nine minutes left instead after a battle of a game. Vorobyov and his side then managed to eke out a 4-3 victory in the third game to keep the series interesting. And interesting it got.
Game four was another preposterous finish. The Ufa based side had trailed since the first period when they managed to score and tie the game with less than a minute left on the clock. At that point it seemed that everyone was readying themselves for another period of hockey – but ex-L.A. Kings prospect Justin Azevedo had other ideas. He helped will his team back up ice off the draw and on a goal-mouth scramble came up with the puck and deposited it into the net with only seven seconds on the clock.
Salavat have to be praised though for their fight. Having suffered two draining losses and being 3-1 down in the series they came into game five playing hard and taking the fight to AK Bars. The game went to overtime after an edgy game with power plays galore and a large number of chances for both teams. But eight minutes into the extra period, ex-Montreal Canadien Jiří Sekáč raced up ice on a 2-on-1 that turned into a partial breakaway – he waited for the goalie to bite before sliding the puck between his legs to win the game and the series. I am not sure I have witnessed many more devastating series losses this decade in any league.
Now onto the really interesting stuff. Over the last few months there have been rumblings in regards to Vorobyov.
In late January while out injured, the two-way forward gave an intriguing interview. In it he was asked where he intended to play in 2017-18. He refused to answer, and the interviewer stated that people who should be ‘in the know’ thought the talented center had already decided to head across the pond at the end of his contract. Vorobyov replied simply that he had a contract with Salavat until April the 30th.
He did however reveal that his aim was to eventually play in the NHL and test himself against the best, that the Flyers kept in regular contact and he liked how much attention they paid to him and his development. The Ufa native also stated that teammate Ivan Fedotov had came back from Flyers prospect camp with glowing reviews.
In another interview reported by a Russian Flyers fan site at around the same time, Vorobyov stated he had not decided his plans for the next season, and that after the season he may well talk with the Flyers brass and see what their idea for his development was going forward. An aside – in the same interview the young Russian showed his true Flyers colors, when he revealed that during the WJC he had offered to fight an American player after they continually slashed linemate Kaprizov. The American player reportedly laughed in apparent refusal and skated away.
During the playoffs, rumors came out of Russia that Vorobyov’s agent was possibly already negotiating with the Flyers, and that Vorobyov’s dream was the NHL – and in turn he believed the AHL was an easier way of reaching his goal than the KHL.
After the playoffs concluded, Phantoms writer Tony Androckitis reported the contents of this article, and just the next day Salavat GM Leonid Vaisfeld made a statement to the press in which he stated Vorobyov was under contract until April the 30th, and that the whole team was away on vacation until April the 13th – and in turn nothing would be known until then.
The expanded comments by Vaisfeld were interesting to say the least. He stated that Vorobyov could only go to North America before April 30th if they allowed him to, and that they wanted him to stay in Russia another two seasons and would be offering him a new contract. Furthermore he stated that he did not know Vorobyov’s priorities, and that after a month away everyone could reconvene with “cool heads” to discuss the future.
Everything now points towards Vorobyov moving to North America sooner than many expected, though when this will be is anyone’s guess. From his GM’s comments mid-April would be the earliest, if the club let him, but that is doubtful. He could simply wait for his contract to expire, sign an ELC and join the Phantoms in early May, at which point the playoffs will be in full-swing and the second round about to get underway. Or he could simply have a relaxing summer and move over to Pennsylvania come next season.
We will likely know more about this situation in a few weeks. Stay tuned
KHL: 44gp, 3g, 8a, 11pts, 18PIM, +0
KHL Play-offs: 5gp, 0g, 0a, 0p, 4PIM, +0
WJC: 7gp, 0g, 10a, 10p, 4PIM +6
Alessandro Seren Rosso: For turning me onto the article in which the Salavat GM spoke about Vorobyov.
Tony Androckitis: For the back-and-forward about the situation and seemingly prompting Leonid Vasifeld’s statement!