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Maple Leafs draft pick Nikolai Chebykin is in limbo

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Could a contract with the Marlies be the answer?

Christian Bonin | TSGphoto.com

Yesterday, the Russian Hockey Federation announced their list of teams competing in the VHL this season. The Russian season begins soon, with games usually scheduled for the end of August. The KHL is the main league, and the VHL functions as a feeder league somewhat like the AHL does to the NHL.

There were new teams on the list, one in China to go with Kunlun Red Star, the KHL team, but there were also teams missing from the list. One of those was Dynamo Balashikha, the defending champion. They were the VHL affiliate of Dynamo Moscow, a team of long tenure and the former club of Leo Komarov. Dynamo Moscow is also the club team of Leafs prospect Nikolai Chebykin.

Dynamo Moscow has been embroiled in financial turmoil since a change of ownership, and there have even been police raids. Many of the KHL and junior contracted players had their contracts terminated recently.

Chebykin, drafted 182nd overall in the seventh round in 2016, has been in the Dynamo system for some time, but is now without a contract according to Elite Prospects current information and the Balashikha website.

He is about to turn 20 this summer, but isn’t ready for the KHL. He scored very well in junior hockey last year, and has clearly advanced beyond junior play. With no middle ground for him to land on, his future is uncertain.

Update: on July 14, Dynamo Moscow confirmed that Chebykin is a free agent. While the KHL club appears to be trying to form a roster, it is still not of a viable size nearly a week after this post was written.

The Hockey Writers interviewed Chebykin in Russian a few days ago, before development camp started, and he said:

“I don’t want to comment on the situation around Dynamo right now. I don’t know where I’ll spend next season,” Chebykin replied when asked about his future.

With the confirmation that there is no VHL team for him to play on, this next statement has more meaning:

He confirmed he is “ready to stay [in North America], depending on the offer, especially if I will get one.”

There is very little likelihood the Leafs will offer him an ELC. While he is still young, he has never quite demonstrated the ability to play at the highest level. This season, he needs to play on one team, in a challenging environment where he can still get ice time.

The Leafs may offer a minor league contract, and his play at the development camp may be the deciding factor. He might be on the draft pick side of the dividing line that this camp is employing, but he is competing with invitees for a shot at a minor league deal.

“I would really like to play full-time in men’s hockey next year. Yes, I scored a lot in the MHL, but that’s just junior hockey. I would have loved to score like that in the KHL.” Chebykin had a strong first part of the season, but didn’t make the WJC squad for Russia.

One thing is for sure, anyone who knows that points in junior are just that — points in junior — has a realistic view of hockey and what it takes to progress.

If Chebykin comes to Toronto to play, this won’t be his first big life change. As he details in the interview, he moved to Moscow as a child to pursue better hockey opportunities. His hometown is nothing like a big city, but he’s made the jump once, and he can do it again. It is a shame that the financial turmoil engulfing Dynamo has caught him up, but if he lands on his feet on a team where he can play his best, it might be the best thing that ever happened to him.