Patience pays for Voynov and Kings
Rookie defenseman Slava Voynov faced a long, challenging road to the NHL
KHL options and culture shock are why fewer Russians are drafted by NHL teams
Voynov's emergence made it possible for the Kings to trade for Jeff Carter
It started out as yet another winter of discontent in New Hampshire for Slava Voynov, who last October unhappily began his fourth season as a pro hockey player in North America. Drafted 32nd overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2008, the Russian defenseman knew he'd likely have to spend some dues-paying time in Manchester before he got his shot in the NHL. But four years? Nyet.
There were whispers that Voynov wanted out of the Kings' organization, that he was tired of life in the American Hockey League (AHL). There were implicit suggestions that he could easily go back to Russia if he wanted to and make a million-dollar salary in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). But all of that unhappiness and temptation is now behind him.
Voynov, 22, is skating in sunny LA for a team that is about to make its first Western Conference Final appearance since 1993. He's playing a regular shift with defensive partner Willie Mitchell, and he's playing well. Through the Kings' first nine postseason matches, Voynov has one goal -- a key marker in a 3-1 Game 1 victory over St. Louis in the Western semifinals -- and was plus-2 for coach Darryl Sutter.
A native of Chelyabinsk, the home of such Russian NHL stars as Sergei Gonchar and Sergei Makarov, Voynov is also the player who made it possible for Kings GM Dean Lombardi to acquire forward Jeff Carter from Columbus four days before the trade deadline last February.
"I wouldn't have been able to make that deal for Carter, moving a defenseman like Jack Johnson, without this kid allowing me to do that," Lombardi says. "As much as we needed Carter, I wasn't going to leave my back end exposed, and I had in the back of my mind that this kid was ready."
Lombardi thought Voynov could play in the NHL after witnessing him in action with the Kings earlier in the season. Voynov had been called up from AHL Manchester to fill in for the injured Drew Doughty and was plus-2 in his NHL debut on Oct. 18, a 5-0 win over the Blues. On Oct. 27, he scored his first NHL points -- three, including two goals -- in a 5-3 Kings win at Dallas. But when Doughty soon returned, it was back to Manchester for Voynov. Lombardi, though, had encouraging words for the youngster:
"What we told him when I sent him down the last time (when Doughty came back), was 'you're ready'," the GM says. "But we had to create a roster spot, and he had to keep doing what he was doing and stay ready."
Voynov's English is poor and he was not available to speak to SI.com for this story, but he idolized the great NHL defenseman Ray Bourque as a kid and started playing pro hockey at the age of 16, starting with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL. Lombardi says there was heavy pressure on Voynov to stay in Russia and the KHL. But the Kings GM and his scouts discovered that Voynov really wanted a career in the NHL instead, and they told him that he'd be a high draft pick by Los Angeles on one condition:
"Before his draft, we talked to him and his agent and we said, 'OK, if we take you, you have to come to North America," Lombardi says, adding that Voynov's first destination was unclear because Quebec owned his junior rights. "When he came into camp, we clearly felt he was ready for the American League. And that is a very hard league to play in, particularly for a defenseman. It's more scrambly and it's physical, and he [was] an 18-year-old. As the junior rules worked, he did not have to be assigned to his junior team because he was drafted out of Russia."
Fortunately, Voynov's exemption spared the Kings from making the kind of thorny decision that Canadian forward Brayden Schenn, their first-round (fifth overall) draft pick presented in 2009: "You always run into that with these guys that age," Lombardi explains. "It's a bad choice. You either have to put him in the NHL, where he might not be good enough, or you've got to put him back in junior, where he's gone way beyond [the skill level], but you can't put him in the American League. And it was just easy for people to forget that when (Voynov) went there he was just 18. That's unheard of."
Still, the temptation to go back to Russia was always there. Not only would the money have been way better than the $70,000 or so that Voynov was making in Manchester, his father -- now deceased -- became very ill.
"He just did what he could for his family," Lombardi says. "He helped his father out as best he could, while trying to play hockey in Manchester. It showed a lot of character. It is clearly different than in the past, in that (Russian players) can make a lot of money [back home]. To me, that's the biggest change, that there is an option for a lot of money. So, but then the option becomes, do you want to stay and play that type of hockey and fly those types of planes? (In September 2011, a jet carrying the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed, killing all but one of the 45 people aboard.) When they are after those kids at a younger age, they can offer them more money than we can pay."
After Jack Johnson was traded to Columbus, Voynov could finally relax a little as far as his residential security went, but his play didn't suffer from any complacency. He finished the regular season with eight goals, 20 points and a plus-12 rating in 54 games for the Kings. By some expert accounts, he was the best rookie defenseman in the NHL. But there was still the considerable hurdle of the culture change from Russia to North America. It's why more of the league's GMs may be shying away from drafting Russians as often as they once did. Since the last NHL lockout, in 2004-05, teams have selected 59 players from former Soviet Republics -- just 10 fewer than in 2001 and '02 combined.
"Once a kid decides to come here, it's still a long acclimation process." Lombardi says. "You know, you've still got the language, you've still got the branching out to your teammates -- and you always stress to them not to just hang out together, to also hang out with the Canadians and the Americans and become part of the team."
Says Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson: "I think they usually like to have another guy from their country around, to talk to and things like that. It's hard I'm sure, coming over here and trying to get used to not only a new league and style of hockey, but a totally new language."
Lombardi can rightly be considered a pioneer among NHL GMs when it comes to importing Russians. In his early days in the San Jose Sharks' front office, he took many trips to former Soviet Union and convinced players such as Sergei Makarov, Viktor Kozlov, Sandis Ozolinsh, Andrei Nazarov and Andrei Zyuzin to come to the NHL.
"I rode a pickup truck in the backwoods of Siberia, going over to see Nazarov. So I've paid my dues over there," Lombardi says. "I remember I broke down on the friggin' highway once, in the pitch black. I'll never forget it. Then a cab came by that had a busted radiator. It got us into town, but the town was actually one of the areas where they built nuclear bombs. Going in there, we were followed the whole time. But it was a great experience. Getting to know those families and kids there, and their hopes and dreams, was real rewarding."
About Voynov's unhappiness at the start of the season, Lombardi says, "Yeah, he got frustrated, but that's no different than any other young player. And once they go through it, they say the same thing every time, it's unbelievable. They say, 'Oh, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.' We're all like that I guess, when it's something we don't want to do, whether it's hockey or school or whatever. After that, it's usually 'Well, I guess they were right.'"
If Voynov's impressive play and the Kings' surprising playoff run continues for another two rounds, the rookie will begin his summer of content, one that includes cozying up to a big silver Cup of great renown. That should make passing on all that KHL gold feel even more worthwhile.
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