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Winding and/or regimented: Why it’s surprising Kirill Kabanov’s story isn’t the norm

October 12, 2011

UPDATE: And it’s been made official, or has it? Kirill Kabanov has signed a tryout agreement with Farjestad of the Swedish Elitserien. Despite winning the league championship, the team has struggled to win any games this season. Kirill to the rescue? It would also see though that he’s been traded to Shawinigan of the QMJHL. They will also be hosting the 2012 Mastercard Memorial Cup and will be in need of a playoff performer, which Kabanov fits the bill for. In a likelihood, both stories could be accurate. He could be signed in the Elitserien, and his Q rights could have simultaneously been traded. After all, if he does go to Sweden, who knows what could happen. Farjestad could miss the playoffs, and maybe Shawinigan would take Kabanov back for the spring? Is that possible? Who knows! Anything is possible with Mister Kabanov!

Today we learned that Kirill Kabanov and his agent are considering having him play in the Elitserien in Sweden this coming season. Bounced from the Islanders just before the regular season began to his new junior team, the Armada of the QMJHL, Kabanov has yet to report them. I myself was wondering just a few days ago what his status was as I checked the Armada’s un-Google-able (and not in the Santorum way, in the meta-tags haven’t been added way) website and found he hadn’t played in that weekend’s games.

Now we know–he may call Sweden home this year, not a suburb of Montreal.

Kabanov’s long and winding hockey tale need not be rehashed here and now. I like him a lot as a character, as a player, as a person. I think he’s fantastic for hockey and his humanity utterly charming. If all indications are spot on, he has a real chance to break the Islanders’ roster next year. But how he got there, the injuries, the controlling father, the spat over peanuts with the Russian national coach, the issue of borrowing cars with agents and all that, well, frankly, the public manner in which he’s had to deal with these problems and the very fact more players don’t endure them is surprising.

Everything about hockey from the age of 14 or so onward is so very regimented, clear cut. Whether you’re a Canadian, American, Swede, Russian or Czech, there is a national program, tiered-teams, national teams, appropriate leagues. There is a ladder, there is a pathway. 99% seem to follow this ladder accordingly. And it exists for good reason: stability and certainty improve development and progress for individuals and for the collective. You’re Jonathan Toews at 15 and don’t want to play in the WHL? Go to Shattuck St Mary’s then UND, and hit up the World Juniors while you’re at it. Oh, you’re David Krejci and you’re too good for the Czech Extraliga? Head to Gatineau of the QMJHL, where you were drafted in the import draft. Play there for two years, and then head to the Bruins’ system and AHL team in Providence.

There is a proscribed course. It keeps players focused, keeps the next step within reach and allows coaching and management to chart progress. It is highly valuable and for the 230 or so players drafted each June, most of them benefit tremendously from this order.

Others, like Kabanov, fly all over the place. The Elitserien seemes like an excellent place for him to further his skill and mature more. Is his ultimate goal to play in North America? Yes, and he claims as much. But is he beyond playing in junior, now, at 19? Yes. He’s too skilled, too cosmopolitan. Sweden offers a perfect setting. He wouldn’t become entangled in the KHL, and wouldn’t languish with the Armada. Seeing his play in one of the exhibition games against Calgary, Kabanov had spurts of swagger and poise. Other times, he simply look lost and was beat to a play and in a play time after time. He looked, well, he looked lazy out there. He has all the skill in the world: he just needs to get there.

Hockey players are like any other person: they develop in a non-linear pattern, in fits and starts. We can’t expect them all to be the same. It’s just the programming designed for them is linear, and most stick more or less to that path. Hiccups in growth, physical, mental, and regressions, well, they’re all part of growing up. Linus Omark packed his bags for Dynamo Moscow when he knew he’d be dispatched to the minors if he stayed in North America. Jiri Hudler headed to the KHL for a reset too. Players are entitled and should be expected to pursue courses of hockey that don’t meet a standard CHL/NCAA to AHL to NHL route. Much of this has to do with the fact these are non-North American players. Surely, their histories of travel and willingness to live and play in foreign lands should be admired and lauded. They demonstrate more flexibility and perseverance than most of their same-aged peers in that respect.

In the end, all Kabanov wants to do is become a better player. Playing in the Elitserien is a clever and productive means of achieving that goal. Kudos to him, his family, and his agent, too, for coming up with it.

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