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Penguins Notebook: No Secret Why Russian Stars Prefer NHL



A Russian coach made it clear recently that he believes KHL officials should have prioritized luring Evgeni Malkin back to that country before he re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer.

Per an interview discovered by Washington Hockey Now’s Sammi Silber, that coach — Vladimir Plyuschev of Kassinc-Torpedo in the Supreme League — felt the same about Alex Ovechkin, who accepted a five-year deal in 2021 to stay with the Capitals.

Plyuschev told that the people who run the KHL, which former Penguins winger Alexey Morozov has led since 2020, are “clearly underperforming” because they aren’t persuading the best players Russia has produced to work there.

It apparently didn’t occur to him that convincing players that the KHL is even remotely worthy of comparison to the NHL might be even tougher that selling the rest of the world on the idea that what’s been going on in Ukraine for the past six-plus months is a “special military operation,” not an invasion.

Indeed, the assault on Ukraine prompted teams in Finland (Jokerit) and Latvia (Riga) to withdraw from the league in February. While North America is experiencing plenty of political-based turmoil, no club is pulling out of the NHL over it.

The KHL also has had issues in the past with lengthy delays in paying players’ salaries, which isn’t much of a selling point. Indeed, more than a few teams have dropped out of the league over the years because of financial problems.

Then there’s the most important factor: The NHL is undisputed as the sport’s premier league, and the best players want to go against the best competition. Some kids in Moscow might grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup, but there aren’t many in Massuchusetts or Manitoba who feel the same about the Gagarin Cup.

Now, it could be that guys like Malkin and Ovechkin, both of whom played professionally in Russia when they were younger, will write the final chapters in their Hall of Fame careers in their homeland, picking up a final paycheck after their productive seasons in North America have passed.

Bur regardless of where they were raised, they have absolutely no reason to do it before that.

Come callin’ for Cullen?

The Pittsburgh Penguins nearly had to rebuild Mike Sullivan’s staff this summer, as assistant coaches Mike Vellucci and Todd Reirden were serious contenders for head-coaching vacancies around the NHL.

Ultimately, neither was hired elsewhere and both re-upped with the Penguins recently, but there’s no reason to believe either will now fall off the radar of clubs looking for a fresh face to run their bench in coming years.

One team executive, discussing the possibility of Reirden and/or Vellucci moving on earlier this summer, noted that officials maintain a standing list of potential replacements for everyone in the organization (including the executive) so they are not caught unprepared when a vacancy occurs, for whatever reason.

Precisely who is a candidate to replace Reirden or Vellucci if the need arises isn’t known, and the list likely evolves as prospective hires become more (or less) attractive, but Matt Cullen seems worthy of consideration.

He does not have significant professional coaching experience, which is an obvious negative, and has made it clear that he would prefer to allow his family to continue to sink roots in his native Minnesota. (He travels to Pennsylvania when his player-development duties are needed here or in Wilkes-Barre.)

But Cullen’s keen attention to detail, a valuable trait in any coach, is part of the reason he lasted more than two decades in the NHL, and helped his teams to win three Stanley Cups. No less important is that he earned the respect of his teammates with his commitment and professionalism, and is an excellent communicator, capable of effectively passing along the knowledge he has accumulated.

Whether management could convince Cullen to relocate if an assistant-coaching position opens at some point is far from certain, but it might be worth the effort to try.

Final Farewell to Phillips

Former Penn State defenseman Clayton Phillips, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-round draft choice in 2017, finally has signed … with the Savannah Ghost Pirates of the ECHL.

The Penguins had declined to offer Phillips an NHL contract by the deadline last month, making him an unrestricted free agent. At the time, a team official floated the possibility of inviting Phillips to attend training camp here,

Ghost Pirates coach Rick Bennett, in a statement released by the team, said Phillips “will add pace and positional flexibility to our defense corps.”

Savannah is the ECHL affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights, the same as Wheeling is with the Penguins.

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28 days ago

I have to admit (even though I hate Ovenchicken) I’d hate to be in his shoes and any Russian NHLer. Their being asked to pick constantly between living well in the USA and loyalty to a country that can and will make the family you may have still in Russia miserable. They constantly have to walk a very very thin line.