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The New York Islanders' Crazy History with Russians, Part I: The Mike Milbury Years

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Long a volatile market where NHL teams have gambled to land the occasional star, the New York Islanders have gambled in Russia...and lost.

You have to go back a ways for a Russian draft pick who panned out with the Isles.
You have to go back a ways for a Russian draft pick who panned out with the Isles.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The news of Kirill Petrov deciding to go back to Russia was disheartening for Islanders fans, but nothing new for the team's history with such players. From 2000 to 2010 the Islanders drafted at least one Russian-league player eight times. None of those players made any sort of impact in the NHL. Not only that, but only a single one of those Russian draftees ever played a game in the NHL.

It didn't help that half of those drafts were GM'ed by Mike Milbury, who has a running history of disdain for European hockey players. Mad Mike's draft record included not just Russians, but a surprisingly large number of Europeans who were never destined for North America.

Garth Snow, while keeping a lower profile about the region, has taken a few gambles on Russian players too. While Snow's gambles have also failed to pay off, they all have their own little story. But we'll get to those in Part II...

Vladimir Gorbunov

2000 Draft Round 4 Pick #105 Overall

The Islanders acquired this draft pick as part of the Kevin Weekes trade that also got the Islanders the 5th overall pick. Gorbunov, a right wing, had been impressive playing in the former Russia2 and Russia3 leagues (comparable to the AHL/ECHL) as a teenager for CSKA Moscow. He had 14 points (9 G, 5 A) in 9 games in Russia3 and 18 points (11 G, 7 A) in 40 games played in Russia2.

The following season he spent 34 games in Russia2, posting 12 goals and 13 assists in just 34 games. Unfortunately, to this day this is his second-highest point total in a season as a pro and one of only two seasons in which he was over 20 points. Gorbunov was promoted to the Russian Super League for the next two seasons and struggled before being released by CSKA Moscow following the 2003-04 season.

The Islanders official site has a bio for him still posted with more information about him. Gorbunov did play six seasons in the KHL, totaling 86 points in 247 games. He has not played since 13-14, and is most likely retired from pro hockey.

Dmitri Upper

2000 Draft Round 5 Pick #136

Unlike Gorbunov, Dmitri had a bit more of a history playing in pro leagues when the Islanders took a chance on him. The center was already 21 years old, playing 3 seasons of Russia2 hockey (113 GP, 35 G, 36 A) and having already finished a season in the Russian Super League (14 G, 6 A, 36 GP). The Kazakhstan native had also represented his home country 3 times in under 20 world junior tournaments and two world championship appearances for them.

Upper made appearances at the Islanders 2000 and 2001 training camps, including getting a two-way offer following his 2000 camp. He decided to return to Russia and the team essentially gave up on him after 2002.

Since then he's put together a solid career in the Russian Super League and it's successor, the Kontinteal Hockey League. He's represented Kazhakstan multiple times, usually as an alternate captain, including the 2006 Olympic Games. Upper's also been a regular on the Barys Astana, serving as a captain and alternate captain in the last few seasons.

He had his worst season as a pro last year, and has yet to play a game this season due to injury. He's had a solid career in Russia, a quick look at his scouting report for the draft makes him seem like Kirill Petrov may have been in the same mold of player:

He plays a physical, gritty hockey. He is stable on his skates. Sometimes he appears a bit sluggish, but then surprises the defense with great maneuvering and puck handling into the offensive zone. He is doesn’t possess explosive acceleration, but has an above average top speed. He does not hesitate to go through traffic. He does need to work on his puck handling.

Dmitri Altaryov

2000 Draft Round 9 Pick #264 Overall

In the 9th round this year, only a handful of players even made it to the NHL. None of them even played over 80 games in the league. Altaryov was 19 when he was drafted and had just finished his second season in Russia2 for Dizel Penza, getting 10 G and 7 A in 44 games.

The following two seasons he was promoted to the Russian Super League and played with Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo, even playing a few games with Dmitri Upper. Following the 01-02 season he would never play in the RSL again, other then a short 5 game stint Norvgood, bouncing around between Russia2 and Russia3.

In 2010-11 he made it back to the KHL playing for Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk and Metallurg Magnitogorsk for the following two seasons. He was largely used as a fourth line grinder who could add in the occasional goal or assist. He is still playing today for the Supreme Hockey League, which is largely a feeder league for the KHL.

Roman Kukhtinov

2001 Draft Round 9 Pick #280 Overall

The Islanders 2001 draft is infamously bad. Andy Chiodo was the only player to make the NHL from the draft.

(We'll give you a moment to let that sink in, or to relive the pain and seek therapy, as you see fit.)

Kukhtinov might have been the worst pick, if not for seemingly every other draftee leaving hockey not long after being drafted. When the Islanders drafted him he was coming off his best point season in the Russian Super League for Metallurg Novokuznetsk, finishing 4th on the team in points.

However the 6'1 defenseman was already 24 when he was drafted. He was also an established player at the top level in Russia, with three full seasons and parts of others. He would play a few more seasons in the Russian Super League and the KHL, putting together a steady career. His last season in the KHL was 2009-10, and then he played one season in the Russia3 league before retiring.

There is one interesting bit of history on Kukhtinov. The Islanders acquired the 9th rounder they used on him from the Penguins for Dan Trebil. Trebil was traded two weeks later by the Penguins for former Islander and current Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin.

Alexei Stonkus

2002 Draft Round 6 Pick #169 Overall

A small, fast, puck-moving offensive defensemen, Alexei sounds more like one of Snow's draftees then Milbury's. Stonkus probably got most of his exposure playing on Russia's under 20 team in 02 with Ovechkin. Unfortunately in September 2003 he sustained a serious neck injury which required a long recovery.

Stronkus did eventually return to professional hockey, but mostly bounced around Russia2 and Russia3 playing less then 10 games in most of his stints. He even had a stint in the Belarus and Belarus2 league during 05-06. He hasn't played professional hockey since 07-08.

Dmitri Chernykh

2003 Draft Round 2 Pick #48 Overall

Dmitri was the son of Alexander Chernykh, a former draft pick in the 10th round by the New Jersey Devils in 1983. At the time of his drafting he already had 2 full seasons playing for Khimik Voskresensk in Russia3 and Russia2. What really stood out was his performance at the under 18 world juniors, in which he had 4 goals and 1 assist in 6 games.

Chernykh was actually rated higher by NHL central scouting than the Islanders first round pick that year, Robert Nilsson. Unfortunately Chermykh pouted and made a bit of a scene when he talked to the media after being drafted. Following his drafting he made the Russian Super League for CSKA Moscow. He managed just 4 points in 27 games.

The next few seasons he spent in Russia2, Russia3 and even the Belarus league. Following his stint for Khimik-SKA Novopolotsk, he spent 06-07 playing in North America in the ECHL for the Dayton Bombers. At the time the Bombers were an affiliate of the Bluejackets. Chernykh's 9 points in 37 games was the worst point total for a skater on the team with more then 25 games.

Since his return to Russia, he's largely played for Russia2 and it's successor the VHL. In 09-10 he played for Lada Togliatti in the KHL for 46 games with 1 goal and 7 assists. In 12-13 he returned to the KHL for Metallurg Novokuznetsk and had his best season with 20 points in 51 games. The following season he struggled with just 1 assist in 19 games for Spartak Moskva and was demoted back to the VHL, where he's still playing today.

Evgeny Tunik

2003 Draft Round 2 #53 Overall

As an 18-year-old center, Evgeny Tunik had a big season in his draft year playing for Elemash Elektrostal in Russia2. Tunik had 14 goals and 10 assists in 42 games, good for second in points on the team. After being drafted, Tunik actually signed with CSKA Moscow and would have been teammates with follow Isles pick Dmitri Chernykh. Unfortunately, Chernykh spent the season in Russia2 and Evgeny spent time in Russia3 and Russian Super League.

Tunik's stint in super league was disappointing, with just 5 points in 34 games. For 04-04 Tunik spent time in all 3 leagues and was eventually sent to Neftyanik Leninogorsk where he finished out the season in Russia2. Interestingly during 04-05 during his time with CSKA Moscow he would have played with Islanders backup goaltender Garth Snow who was there during the lockout. Also on the team was former Islander Mike Watt, who managed just 2 points more that season then 35 year old Valeri Zelepukin.

Tunik then came to North America to play for Bridgeport. On a surprisingly talented Sound Tigers team, his 4 goals and 14 assists in 61 games were a disappointment for a former 2nd round pick. For comparison's sake, Robert Nilsson (who was also 20 years old and in his first AHL season) had 28 points in 29 games. He returned to Russia at the end of the season.

Since then Tunik has bounced around teams in Russia2 and the VHL. He had two 20 goal seasons, but has faded. His struggles last season led to him being demoted to Russia3, where he started this season for Slavutich Smolensk.

The draft pick the Islanders used to take Tunik was acquired from the Oilers in the Janne Niinimaa deal [obligatory Niinimaa metal hands \m/ ]. The Islanders sent Raffi Torres and Brad Isbister to the Oilers for Niinimaa and the 2nd. Niinimaa was eventually traded for the draft pick that was used to select Jesse Joensuu.

Igor Volkov

2003 Draft Round 8 Pick #246 Overall

Volkov was a product of the Yulayev Salavat hockey school and by the 2000 draft was a 20-year-old who had spent 3 full seasons with the top level club. In his draft year he had 9 goals and 5 assists, which was good for 5th on the team in points. During two of his years with the team he played with Islanders draftee Kukhtinov.

Igor had a good run, getting traded in 04/05 to Dynamo Moscow, winning the championship with them. He returned to Yulayev Salavat the following season posting 31 points in 48 games. In 06-07 he had 23 points and was named the leagues most valuable player. The following season he had 23 points in 50 games, but added 11 points (including 9 goals) in 16 games as Yulayev Salavat won the final Russian Super League championship.

After the formation of the KHL, Volkov joined the Avangard Omsk. But he hasn't had the same success, only getting more than 10 goals once in a season. He's still playing in the KHL today, splitting his season this year between
Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.

Igor Volkov was a late round pick who already had a steady job in the KHL playing for the team he grew up with. It's not surprising that he never came over to North America. But his steady career in the Russian Super League and KHL shows he was worth the gamble.

Sergei Ogorodnikov

2004 Draft Round 3 Pick #82 Overall

Sergei continues the trend of the Islanders gambling on Russian players who had dropped in the draft. Considered undersized at 6'1 and under 200 pounds, Sergei was ranked around 20-40th by Central Scouting but fell. In his draft season he played for THK Tver in Russia2, posting 8 goals and 3 assists in 21 games. He also played at the under 18s, getting 3 goals in 6 games alongside Evgeni Malkin.

The following season Sergei joined CSKA Moscow in the Russian Super League, alongside Isles draftee Dmitri Upper. He had 6 points in 18 games, but had a better stint in Russia3, with 15 goals and 21 assists in 36 games. Sergei struggled the next season, including a trade to Salavat Yulaev Ufa. He still played for Russia's under 20 team that year, but had just 1 assist in 6 games.

The Islanders brought him over the following season and he started the year in Bridgeport. He struggled, getting just 4 points in 21 games before getting sent down to the ECHL in December. He had 18 goals and 22 assists in 42 ECHL games for the Pensacola Ice Pilots, who were the worst team in the league that year. He was recalled for another 6 games towards the end of the season for Bridgeport and posted another 3 points.

One of course might question the decision to use a highly touted offensive center in a 3rd/4th line role. A good answer for that is that the Sound Tigers coach at the time was Dan Marshall, who has never coached at any other pro level and spent most of his time as a scout/player personnel staff member. One of his assistants was Jack Capuano. The Sound Tigers also had Frans Nielsen, Robert Nilsson and Jeremy Colliton at center the same year.

Sergei had a full season in the Russian Super League and it's successor the KHL, but only managed a total of 5 points. The next two seasons he spent in the Belarus league for HK Gomel, getting 67 points in 75 games. This got him his last look in the KHL for Automobilist Ekaterinburg, netting 3 points in 31 games. Since then he has played for 5 teams across 4 seasons in the VHL, averaging half a point a game.

Exeunt, Milbury

That closes the long, dice-rolling and wholly unimpressive record with Russian league players under Mike Milbury. In Real Deal Neil Smith's lone draft in 2007 -- the decision-makers for which have always been debated by fans given Smith's Jesus-in-the-desert length tenure -- the Islanders had 13 picks but used none on Russian league players.

Smith carried a reputation of being able to mine Russia and the rest of Europe for draft gems, though that's mostly due to Detroit's success there, which involved many other people who remained with the Red Wings management (and went on to success with other teams), and never involved, say, drafting Pavel Brendl fourth overall.

It's questionable how much, or how well, the Isles have ever scouted the Russian leagues, going back even to the Iron Curtain days, though Bill Torrey eventually scored with a Russian, a Czech and a certain Lithuanian.

Under Garth Snow the Isles have drafted even less often there, though there are fewer rounds in the draft now (no 8th or 9th-round longshots anymore). But they have taken some low-probability, high-upside shots. We'll get to those tomorrow because, as noted at the beginning, each has a story.