Among the things I didn’t expect to see this summer: Craig MacTavish going against the grain (and channeling Moneyball) by shopping in the Russian market. A year ago, the Oilers drafted Yak City #1 overall, and this summer the organization is adding Russians–going against the market–in hopes of value add. Sound like Moneyball? Yes. Yes it does.


From 1979 through 2011, the Edmonton Oilers called 339 names at the annual entry draft. Of those, just 22 were Russians. That’s a very low total, (6.5%) but consider what’s happened since:

  • 2011 entry draft: Nail Yakupov and Daniil Zharkov (2 out of 7)
  • 2012 entry draft: Anton Slepyshev and Bogdan Yakimov (2 out of 10)

4 out of 17, or about 23.5% since Nail’s name was called by the Oilers. I think it’s easy to overlook how big a deal Nail Yakupov is in Russia–they haven’t had a lot of #1 overall picks over the years–and credit to the Oilers for taking advantage of the opportunity and finding draft value in areas other teams aren’t looking (or are shying away from). Their two picks this season may not come over right away, but both are terrific talents and absolutely value selections where they were taken at the 2013 entry draft.


Craig MacTavish also went the extra mile in free agency, signing sought-after Anton Belov (considered the KHL’s best available defenseman) and then earlier today signing Denis Grebeshkov for a return tour with the Oilers. Should either turn into a useful NHL defenseman, he’ll be considered one of the true bargains of free agent summer 2013. Grebeshkov has performed well in the NHL (with the Oilers) and is young enough to enjoy a productive NHL career if things break right for him this season.

There’s a chance Edmonton breaks camp with three Russians this coming season (Yakupov, Belov, Grebeshkov) and I can’t remember the last time that happened.The number of Russian players in the NHL has been decreasing over the last several years, Edmonton appears to be determined to go against the grain.



Craig MacTavish went about improving his NHL defense this season through free agency. After signing Anton Belov from the KHL, he added one of the gems from free agency in Andrew Ference and then increased the depth of the blueline by signing Denis Grebeshkov today.

At some point this coming season, the Oilers may ice a defensive group that has 2 Russian free agents on it. That’s a moneyball move—finding useful talent at a value price that others are overlooking.

Huh. What’s the Russian phrase for ‘smart bet’? Craig MacTavish may not be able to pronounce it, but he knows it all the same.

    • beloch

      How about Cervanka? I hear he’s free. 😉

      But seriously, Russian players are becoming a huge flight risk as the KHL becomes richer and richer. Kovalchuk didn’t walk away from a $77M contract for a chance to play for beer-money! Watching Russian players like Nichushkin free-fall at the draft shows that NHL GM’s are starting to clue into this.

      At present, I think you either have to avoid Russians or draft a lot of them to build a team culture that welcomes them and pray the KHL doesn’t get any richer.

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        That’s precisely why LT is classifying this as a Moneyball move. He’s exploiting inefficiencies in the market, finding value where others — for dubious reasons — have abandoned it.

      • Clyde Frog

        The KHL has a hard cap of 39 million, with that cap still less the 30% of the teams are profitable.

        The Kovulchuk contract required two things, permission to ignore the cap on his contract (which comes from a bunch of preset rules) and the richest owner in the league eating his contract to empower the Russian people!

        Could it happen again? Sure, some of the owners are ridiculously wealthy.

        Will it happen again? Probably not, all it really does is force NHL teams to give them a good shot at success because a 3rd or 4th liner can make similar money in the KHL without constantly being demoted to the AHL.

      • DSF

        The Oilers are looking to win now. If Belov and Grebs can provide a stop-gap measure till a few of their defensive prospects emerge then voila. If these two leave back to the KHL in a year or two then so what. Pro-hockey is becoming a very fluid state. Players can come and go.

    • bazmagoo

      The only legitimate reason to sign Grabovski and trade Gagner is to receive a player who the Oilers see as having the potential to be a top 6 forward or a top 4 defender.

      It’s a gamble, but it is “bold”.

    • Lowetide

      For most of my lifetime there’s been an uneasy feeling about Russian politically. It’s such a massive, massive country and of course they are struggling toward a new day, so detours are the order of the day.

      That’s a very long process they are going through.

      • RexLibris

        Russia has had a politically charged relationship with the West since 1917. Arguably even longer if one takes into account the wrangling of European powers over the ailing Ottoman Empire and the Crimean War.

        The issues that have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet political structure in 1990 have led to a frightening mixture of nationalism, oligarchy, kleptocracy, and borderline dictatorship.

        My concerns lie generally in that when a group exerts such overwhelming political power over a nation they often begin to cast about for projects unrelated to their real mandate of improving the lives of their citizens. Sports is a common outlet amongst men who hold a great deal of power, be it in politics or business.

        All this is meant to suggest that I hope the Oilers can shop freely in the Russian Hockey Supermarket but steer clear of getting caught up in any customer loyalty programs put on by the store owners.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    I want to see a Hall – Nuge – Yak line. Nuge would be like a mad scientist out there with all the space those two would make for him through the neutral zone. Hall’s speed forces defenders back, and with Yak City burning up the right side, we could see some legitimately breathtaking sequences.

    Plus, when’s the last time three first-overalls got to play on the same line?

    • Lowetide

      I think they liked Nurse more. From what we were told, the Oilers had narrowed it down to those two players and Nurse impressed the hell out of them.

      If you’re the Oilers, a big piece of the puzzle like that is tough to pass on. I think Nurse convinced them.

  • bazmagoo

    Kudos to you Lowetide for recogizing this, I’ve had that impression since I saw a Nail interview leading up to the draft in 2012. Very positive guy, religous, who just wants to play epic hockey. Sounds like a franking gold mine if you ask me.

    Guaranteed the Oilers will fall ass backwards into a legitimate Russian player because of Nail.

  • beloch

    “There’s a chance Edmonton breaks camp with three Russians this coming season (Yakupov, Belov, Grebeshkov).”

    I would be a lot happier if the 3rd Russian was Grabovski as the team is seriously deficient at C.

    Often no news is bad news and I think this applies to Gagner. Don’t think the arbitration (if it happens) or a favourable contract for the Oilers will work out. If the Oilers were prepared to offer Hemsky $5M a year for two years, why would Gagner expect less? The Oilers’ over-pay contracts come back to haunt the organization.

  • Bucknuck

    I don’t know if I would class any single move this off-season as bold, but when taken collectively, it’s a pretty big amount of change.

    Trading Paajarvi, dishing Horcoff, and buying out Belanger were all pretty big changes for the team. Signing Ference, Grebs, Labarbera, Belov, and Gordon – were all improvements. Adding Perron was a certain amount of risk, but an immediate improve on Pajaarvi.

    Changing that many faces is pretty indicative of “an impatient guy”, and I am feeling more confident that MacT is seeing the holes that everyone (except Mr Dithers) noticed every offseason. I actually feel more hopeful this year than ever. I hope I am not crushed once more.

  • @LT; I like the Belov signing. From what I read, he was one of the top-rated d-men in the KHL. He wanted to make the leap to the NHL & MacT played his cards right and he signed here. That signing screams of moneypuck. But Grebeshkov? I’m not sure.

    That seems just a plain old “riverboat gambler” move. To be kind, he was not elite in the KHL. Most of the players signing at this stage of free agency are signing for less than $1 million per. If MacT really wanted to sign him, why not sign him for $1 million or less?

  • I am hoping there are some trades coming to use some of this abundance of wealth on defence to shore up the bottom 6……..unless MacT really is a mad scientist and is thinking about a shutdown line of Belov – Gordon – Grebeshkov

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Grabo is Belarusian. But he’d fit great if MacT could land him either to replace Gagner or to simply create serious C depth instantly.

    A bottom of the roster version might be Thoresen. I’d say he’d clear the Lander hurtle on the depth chart.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    With Grebs and Belov signed and one more of cap strap group soon to be available : Coburn , Pitkanen and Stralman it would appear as though Larsen and Potter could very well be put on waivers . Leaving us with a 7th round pick for Horcoff . Still , we have a huge hole left by Horcoff leaving to fill in an area we have little depth . Horcoff move was ill timed and has put us in a bind .

    Expected Cap raiding candidates : T.Lewis , J.Nolan. B.Boyle all centers . R.W. David Moss , L.W. possibly K.Clifford , N.Kulemin .

    Not surprising we are going against conventional thinking and perhaps that is part of the reason our results remain subpar . Will it work this time where in the past it has not worked to our favor ?

  • Joy S. Lee

    Sorry for this long post, but I feel strongly about this subject, and want to get my point across….

    I like the Russian factor for several reasons:
    First and foremost, Russian hockey players are generally talented.

    Russian hockey players have learned a great deal over the past few decades – and remember, they’re nothing if not talented – and in much the same way we Canadians have morphed our game to include skill to go with the raw passion of Canadian hockey, the Russians have learned from us; if you watch any youth tournament featuring these countries, you’ll notice young, Russian hockey players that look an awful lot like young Canadian hockey players: skilled, tough, good size, and willing to battle and play physical.

    The fact that they (Russians) are less valued on the open market is simply an over-correction to a problem (KHL), but MacT has it right, here. In fact, there are a number of guys from the young team that came over to play that exhibition series with the CHL in 2012 that I’d be interested in. And, I’m going by memory here, so please excuse any errors, those names are sometimes hard to get a grip on. Kirill Kabonov, Vladimr Tkachek, Andrei Mironov, and there was another defenseman who impressed me quite a bit, but his name escapes me at the moment. These guys are not only skilled, physical, and play the type of game MacT might be looking for, but they’re also YOUNG. Tkachek is a perfect 3rd to 4th line center who has the ability to be a major pest, he can skate, he can deviate, and he can score, I cannot believe he was not drafted, nor does he even seem to be noticed by the NHL or anyone following the NHL. I’m prone to misreading the tea leaves just like anyone else, but I really thought this kid had something matching the Oilers needs – short at center, specifically on the lower lines, and frankly, we could use a little of that skilled, annoying, defensive-minded pest element, too. He looked a tad undersized in the height department, and perhaps that’s the disconcerting facet of the player, but to me, he looked like he had great influence over the outcome of games. As I recall, the Russians won that series, for the first time ever, as well, and that’s ultimately my point…

    ……the Russian players aren’t stupid. They have been learning from us over these past 30 years. They’ve added grit, determination, and nastiness – elements of the Canadian game – to their repertoire, and their young players look an awful lot like the Canadian players these days, or the Swedes, or the Americans, or the…..well, you get the point. It’s a very large pool, and it doesn’t really matter where you look for your players these days, they are all going to have various elements of skill and tenaciousness that have seeped through from one program to the next, to the point where it’s just one big, giant pool of varying degrees of skill and tenaciousness, independent of “where” you might be looking. They are all NHL prospects now, and they all possess varying characteristics of an NHL player. But, while the Russians may be a concern to return home to the KHL, they aren’t dumb, as I said. They know the NHL is the top level. And, they are Russian, which most often means they possess skill. As we Canadians know, skill is highly valuable, but without determination, it is sure to be defeated.

    When Craig MacTavish took over as GM of the Oilers, he lamented competitiveness as his number one target quality. I can only assume that his pursuit of these specific Russian players has been influenced by the degree those players possess that quality, since it seems to be a central cog in the spirit of his search. (YouTube clips reveal Belov as someone who seems to be willing to do just about anything required to win, sometimes to the extreme.) And that’s a good thing, because if they possess any of that Russian skill, then we’re sure to benefit from that, this team does need skill in the lower half of their roster.

    Pigeon-holing Russians these days is a mistake that most GM’s are making, I think. So long as they possess skill, tenaciousness, and compete, they are a good potential fit for any NHL team with those needs. And, so long as they want to play in the best league in the world to see how they measure up, they will come. As an organization, if you can find the “right” Russians, I’d have to say it’s a very good strategy, especially if you’re getting them late in the draft, or without costing you an asset (as free agents). It’s hardly like 4th – 7th round picks are highly populous on the pro team in the first place, so how can you go wrong based on those criteria?

    There’s really only one area where Russian players concern me, besides the leaving for home tactic. It revolves around a small pocket of some of their more highly-skilled players like Yashin, Kovalev, Kovalchuk, etc., and it derives from an air of selfishness, where they seem to put themselves on a pedestal, or in essence, exhibit behavior that exemplifies them as separate from, or different than their teammates.

    If you can address those concerns:

    If they want to play across the pond, in North America, in the best league in the world, because they want to know just how good they are, they are a fit.

    If they want to be one part of a winning NHL team, get along with teammates, and are always pushing for improvement, they are a fit.

    If they want to compete and win the most revered trophy in sports – the Stanley Cup – for the Edmonton Oilers, in the NHL, they are a fit.

    No reason to overcomplicate matters. If MacT has answered those questions for all of our new Russian additions, I’d say we’ve made out just fine, and I’d suggest he continue looking for players like this, who have the potential to be extremely high ROI.

    Stigma’s are present because they were, at some point, bearing out. But a smart manager knows that stigma’s are just as susceptible to change as anything – in fact, moreso! Because, nobody likes to be pigeon-holed, and told they can’t do this, can’t do that, they’re too much this, or too much that. Keep telling someone that stuff, and they will do whatever they can to change that, which means they will eventually alter their approach enough that they are likely to become very adept at the exact shortcoming they were told they couldn’t do anything about. It’s natural evolution. And it’s a wise manager who sees the process itself evolving, because they can take advantage of others’ flawed assumptions to swoop in and act while those others are talking about why it won’t work.

    I’m good with it. Based on the very limited organizational depth this team had a few months ago, it looks to me like MacTavish has addressed it with varying methods and sources, not the least of which is the Russian factor. I’m good with it, despite the various perceptions, because the potential for a big payoff with a guy like Slepyshev, or Yakimov, or Belov, is extremely intriguing. I like Zharkov, too, as a great potential size and skill 3rd/4th line guy, and he’s already had a good taste of the OHL. And let’s face it, worst-case scenario, they don’t pan out. It’s hardly like either our 4th or 5th round picks or our free agents have lit up the NHL in recent years. Nothing lost, nothing gained. But the potential for gain? Well, that’s as yet to be determined, but I’m excited about these prospects, and the strategy I hope the Oilers have used to land them.

      • Joy S. Lee

        Oh. Sorry.


        Actually, this sorry is more an apology for your ADHD, you’ve obviously never read a newspaper article, nor — gasp — a book.

        I realize you may (or may not) be kidding, but it’s not so much the length, but the message. If it ain’t worth reading, then I have no problem with that. If it’s just too damned long, then it’s a matter of content and delivery, and I have to say that my stuff generally flows, even if I am long-winded. And, it’s not a politically motivated comment, it’s a comment about…..this story! I’ll shut up now… (yeah, opening myself up there, I know)

        • Joy S. Lee

          Thanks, buddy, I appreciate the vote of confidence, especially after being compared to NewAge guy. I never claimed to invent the sport, although I can admit to creating a few drinking games in my time. That’s like the same thing, isn’t it? I guess I’m an expert, after all!!

    • Joy S. Lee

      Yes, really.

      If you have watched Ferrence throughout his career, the guy has a menacing intent. He has a refuse to lose mentality, something the Oilers have been extremely short on, especially on the back end. Plus, he can play the game, and all aspects, minus big offensive numbers, but still a good passer, etc.

      Yes, one of the very few gems in free agency this year, that is correct. People underestimate this guys’ value, because much of what he brings are intangibles. Again, something this team sorely needed.

      It was a great move, IMHO.

  • RexLibris

    We have an overload on parent club and farm club for defenceman . I thought MacT. wanted to give top minutes on farm to top developing prospects ? Putting some of parent overload back on farm seems to defeat that purpose . Time to clean house on overloaded defenceman .

    • RexLibris

      Weeding my friend……..Mac T has planted a lot of seeds, most of them came for free, and soon the plants will show their true nature. When that happens the gardners will come out and pluck out all the weeds pretending to be something they are not.

      I for one like the fact we are heavy on the defensemen, this really helps other team focused on offence to start making deals. I suspect Mac T is waiting to unload some of these contracts ( prior to the trading deadline) for another skilled, tough, power forward.

    • toprightcorner

      You are right and wrong at the same time. Yes MacT wants to give top minutes on the farm for prospects and that is exactly the reason he has added so much depth for 6th to 8th dmen. If the Oil suffer an injury or two (which will happen) you don’t want to bring up Klefbom or Marincin or Fedun to fill the roster spot as that will just expose them. Leave those guys with the Barons all year round.

      Whoever doesnt make the team out of camp can be sent down with little risk to a waiver pickup and they can play in the 3rd to 5th range will supporting the young guys with their experience by still giving them top AHL minutes.

      Belov – is waiver exempt but I expect him to be 3rd pairing out of camp

      Potter – not likely to get picked up on waivers but no loss if he does

      Grebs – not likely to get picked up on waivers cause MacT gave him just enough money to make people pass without over paying him.

      Larsen – not waiver exempt but don’t know enough about him as to whether he would be picked up or not

      MacT has set up the team perfectly to protect and develop our future dmen at minimal cost when we have lots of cap space. Next year Grebs, Belovs, Larsens and Potter’s contracts are up and MacT can keep those that excelled and bring up youger guys to fill the rest.

      He can also package some guys up to get a top pairing dman or a big 3rd liner. For the first time in a long time we actually have options.

      Its what any intelligent businessman calls a back up plan.

      I understand the confusion everyone has since Tambo never though past the current year he was in and thats why we are in this Gagner mess now. MacT is look at the team not only in the now but also a few years down the road. He is head and shoulders,knees and toes above Tambo.

      • Old School G

        Refreshing post and good insight. I fully agree with you, MacT hasn’t earned full support from all Oiler fans yet and that’s fair it’s his first offseason. He has a Master’s Degree in Business, they don’t just hand those out, he’s a smart cat with a very good plan for this team moving forward. I still cannot believe he pulled off that Horcoff deal without any of Horcoff’s massive salary hitting our books. Well played so far MacT!

  • Benny Botts

    I think the only thing that makes me happy about the Grebeshkov signing was the term. One year. That’s perfect.

    As memory serves – and the service has been spotty of late – Grebs was terrible in his last year with Edmonton. Handled the puck like it was a grenade. Think Laddy Smid in his rookie year. Lots of five-alarm fires.

    But … like I say, at one year, I’m OK with this. Maybe Grebs improved his decision-making in his own zone when he was over there.

  • Benny Botts

    great article, mac t going to the russian well so much this summer makes alot more sense when you look at it that way. in regards to belov and grebeschov, are they ufa’s at the end of the season or do the oilers retain either of their rights?