The Winnipeg Jets should be "Russian" to add Europeans to their roster

Rick Stewart

With rumours of Alex Burmistrov returning to the 'Peg and that Mikhail Grabovski & Nikolai Kulemin wanting to play together, a perfect storm is brewing. Could Winnipeg revert back to its Euro-heavy Jets 1.0 roots with Maurice in charge? Should they?

The Winnipeg Jets 2.0 have a chance this summer to do something very out of character for them.  And though I'm not sure they're willing to go here, I thought that the dots are out there so why not try and connect them?

Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff at True North have shown what some believe is a pretty clear lack of interest in non-North American players. This is fascinating as one of the only players that Chevy has acquired was Michael Frolik of the Czech Republic and he's worked out wonderfully. But other than him, it's appeared to be a push towards being more "North American".

They've drafted exactly ONE player from outside of North America in the three years that they've sat at the draft table (Marcus Karlstrom, 194th overall in 2013, from Trångsund, Sweden). They tried the Nik Antropov & Alexei Ponikarovsky experiment for 12 games before shipping Poni out of town and letting Antro play out his contract. But perhaps even more disappointing, they created a culture where young players in Alexander Burmistrov and Arturs Kulda felt the need to head back overseas as RFA's and play in the KHL instead of sticking it out here under ex-coach Claude Noel. The debate for why they left and who was right or wrong is a tired one, so lets skip it and proceed.

That was then, and this is now. Paul Maurice is the new coach in town, and his experience coaching in the KHL has been well documented. But it was this quote, which Gary Lawless included in his piece here about why the Jets should try and bring back Burmi, that began this whole idea that Winnipeg could be friendlier to Russians:

Probably the biggest thing I walked away with is a blanket apology to every Russian player I ever coached. When they come to Canada and play the way they do, there's a reason for it. Things sometimes get said about them, like they're not tough, but I can tell you there are tough players over there. They just play the game so differently," said Maurice. "We expect them to make adjustments in a couple of weeks when they get here... you want them to tip the puck in and chase it, and you want them to do this and go there, and then you think they don't want to play your game. It's not like that at all, and you'd have to be there to see where they come from... the culture and the hockey. So a blanket apology... I have a better understanding of their world, how they train, how they play, and why they play the way they do."

That article was written on March 17th. Paul Maurice was extended to a 4-year extension on April 16th, and then only two days later the following tweet caused major waves in and around Winnipeg:

Hmm. A Russian-friendly (in terms of hockey players, lets keep the politics out of here) coach is extended by the Jets, and two days later Burmi is quoted as potentially having some interest in returning? Very interesting. On top of that, Maurice is on the coaching staff for Team Canada at the Worlds and Burmi is playing for Team Russia. You have to figure that at least a discussion between the player and organization could be had.

Anyways, with this Burmi stuff still "up in the air" at this point with the Worlds still going on, we were greeted with this tweet on Friday by Darren Dreger, talking about the Leafs and some of the names they've put on the trade block:

Now, we could sit here and dream about stealing Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner from the Maple Leafs all day, but that's for another blog post. Instead, the name that got me thinking a bit was Nikolai Kulemin, who is a pending UFA this summer. With the aforementioned rumoured return of Alex Burmistrov, I pondered how good Kulemin would look on a line next to Burmi.

This idea began picking up major steam when it was suggested to me on Twitter that Kulemin (Russian) and Mikhail Grabovski (Belarusian), who are best friends, are interested in signing with the same team this summer. A quick Google search brought me to this article my Michael Traikos of the National Post, which had the agent for both players, Gary Greenstin, confirming this:

"They’re always talking about, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to play on the same team together,’" Greenstin, who was in Detroit to watch his other client, Pavel Datsyuk, said prior to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday. "They’re best friends. They play great together. We’ll see what happens."

Well how about that? They want to play together and the Jets may have two open roster spots and $7.5m worth of cap-space if Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi are not retained. Combine that possibility with the potential return of Burmistrov? Huh.

So I tweeted out the idea yesterday about combining the trio of Burmistrov, Grabovski and Kulemin under Maurice, and Steve Dangle of The Leafs Nation (and of course the tremendous Steve Dangle Podcast) hit me up with the following two tweets:

Whoa. Now we're getting somewhere. Kulemin played under Maurice in the KHL? On the league's best line? I mean sure, it was alongside Evgeni Malkin, but still. PoMo already has a relationship with Kulemin which makes this whole thing that much more plausible. Add in the Komarov comment about him liking Winnipeg? He was a tremendous 4th-liner for the Leafs two years ago during the lockout-shortened season and apparently wants to come back to the NHL. Why not bring them all in?

It's a well-known part of Winnipeg's hockey past that the Jets 1.0 were very European-friendly, as this excerpt from Winnipeg Jets Online says about their history:

The Jets were further noteworthy in hockey history for being the first North American club to seriously explore Europe as a source of hockey talent. Winnipeg's fortunes were bolstered by acquisitions such as Swedish forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, who starred with Hull on the WHA's most famous and successful forward line (nicknamed "the Hot Line"), and defenceman Lars-Erik Sjoberg, who would serve as the team's captain and win accolades as the WHA's best defenceman. Behind these players and other European stars such as Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Veli-Pekka Ketola, leavened by players such as Peter Sullivan, Norm Beaudin and goaltender Joe Daley the Jets were the most successful team in the short-lived WHA. The team won three Avco Cups, including in the league's final season against Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. The Jets made the finals five of the WHA's seven seasons and were widely considered one of the best teams in hockey, NHL or WHA, of the era.

Even though I wasn't alive during the above era, I am confident that those that were would certainly agree that the influx of Europeans on those teams was a very good thing. It's pretty evident that the talent level on those teams were incredible, and it didn't seem to matter where these players were from back then. So why should it matter now? It's a well known fact that the current Jets lack talent, and it seems to me it's because Chevy and co. have been too busy focusing on getting bigger, faster and more "North American" at the expense of acquiring actual talent. The above players would all be improvements compared to what the Jets currently have.

Let's embrace Maurice's Russian-friendly stance and build a culture around it, and establish this city as something other than a frozen Northern wasteland that is home to the Atlanta Thrashers of Winnipeg.

There is still a possibility that Burmi-Gate could have a happy-ending, as the addition of PoMo seems to have at the very least opened up a chance for the young Russian to return. But why stop there? Why not exploit the market inefficiency that has teams overlooking talented Russian, Belarusians, Latvians and other "enigmatic" players? The Jets have a chance to reestablish their identity as a hockey city with a monopoly on talented Europeans, even if they move the target further East then it was in the past. It worked with Frolik. It could work again.

Since I've been so critical of Chevy up to this point, people often ask me what I'd do if I was the GM of the Jets. Well, here's where I'd start. I'd bring back Burmi and Kulda, and I'd go out and sign the "enigmatic" duo of Grabovski and Kulemin. And if Komarov wants in? Sure! They'd all be upgrades on James Wright, Chris Thorburn and Matt Halischuk, at the very least.

Let's embrace Maurice's Russian-friendly stance and build a culture around it, and establish this city as something other than a frozen Northern wasteland that is home to the Atlanta Thrashers of Winnipeg. True North appears to be struggling to establish a "culture" within this organization, so I'd like to see them return this town to its hockey roots and become the North American home of Eastern European players. Who knows, they may even improve their Corsi numbers and win a few games in the process, which would be a much nicer result than what we've watched happen over the past three years.

So... who's with me?

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