George McPhee never wanted Vadim Shipachyov to play in the American Hockey League.
That’s not what the Vegas Golden Knights’ general manager signed him for. Leaving a 30-year-old scoring star from Russia in the minor leagues was not the master plan.
Then again, not everything that transpired leading up to Shipachyov’s NHL retirement Thursday has gone according to plan. In a perfect world, Shipachyov is the first-line center and leads Vegas in assists or something — not him being reassigned to the Chicago Wolves twice in a month and sealing this ugly divorce with a no-show because he didn’t want to play.
Alas, the messy relationship between Shipachyov and the Golden Knights came to an abrupt end Thursday. Shipachyov is heading back home to Russia and will likely re-join the Kontinental Hockey League in some fashion. The Golden Knights, by some weird form of divine intervention, came out better for this. That’s what happens when you win.
Here are some final thoughts on the Ship-Vegas saga.
We’ll never know how good Shipachyov would’ve been in the NHL
The preconceived notion of Shipachyov not ready to play the North American style of hockey will be passed around a lot, and with good reason. Shipachyov looked lost in preseason. He was too hesitant to make plays that someone with normal hockey instincts should make. All of that is true. The case for him starting the regular season with the Chicago Wolves is a valid one.
I, however, play devil’s advocate a lot. It would’ve been easy to look at the Shipachyov saga with rose-colored glasses and have him play opening night. The Golden Knights may have given up too quickly on Shipachyov before seeing what kind of player they invested $9 million over two years in. We’re never going to know what Shipachyov could’ve become in Vegas because the sample size was too small to dictate any formal conclusion.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” McPhee said. “Sometimes the player you see in Europe isn’t the player you see here, and that’s the risk you take when you sign someone. You hope it works out, but it doesn’t always work out.”
Apparently, that sample size was large enough for McPhee to send Shipachyov down to the AHL twice in less than a month and that’s the gamble Vegas had to roll with.
“He needed to play, and we were willing to have him play in Chicago and get in that time, but he just didn’t want to do it,” McPhee said. “That’s OK. That’s not what he signed up for.”
If the Golden Knights aren’t winning, this never happens
Regardless of how this season turns out for the Golden Knights come April, this 15-game start forced the organization to proceed with the status quo, which has led to a second-place spot in the Pacific Division. Vegas’ 9-5-1 start, which by all common hockey logic was not supposed to happen, has let the Golden Knights go forward with what’s gotten them to this point.
What that is, is a winning hockey team without Shipachyov in the lineup.
If the Golden Knights are 2-12-1, Shipachyov is playing in a Golden Knights uniform Friday against the Winnipeg Jets. If he’s in Chicago, fans would be standing outside McPhee’s door at City National Arena wondering why such tomfoolery is taking place. At least Shipachyov would be playing, and the best-case scenario is he slowly adjusts to the North American game with a consistent roster spot.
“You just can’t practice and adjust to this game,” McPhee said. “Everyone here was playing better than he was. You have to do things the right way and whoever plays well plays.”
Winning has made the Golden Knights’ approach to this season much more topsy-turvy than it should be. It’s why Griffin Reinhart was a healthy scratch for as long as he was before Shea Theodore was finally called up. If Vegas isn’t winning, Alex Tuch’s stint in Vegas probably ends when Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula return from injured reserve. Winning can be a blessing, but in the case of the Golden Knights’ stacked roster, there are downfalls to be had in those situations.
One of those was a sinking Ship.
This wasn’t a failure, but a lot went wrong on both sides
Shipachyov’s retirement caps off a month-long drama that would’ve fared well on daytime television. A show called “Days of our Ship” would’ve killed in the soap opera ratings (however it would have likely fallen behind “General Hospital,” starring all of Vegas’ top three goalies). That doesn’t mean it was all him, though evidence from Vegas’ perspective indicates a wide margin of the blame falls on the shoulders of Shipachyov.
This experiment wasn’t a failure, though. The Golden Knights’ plan to be competitive as soon as possible rested on the premise of overpaying Shipachyov the way they did. He was essentially guaranteed top-center minutes by signing with the Golden Knights long before they had a roster via the expansion draft. Fortunately for the Golden Knights, Shipachyov’s contract is now off the books, but the thought of paying him nearly $5 million a year without playing an NHL game can now be seen as absurd in hindsight.
Shipachyov’s representatives also fumbled this situation embarrassingly. Players can’t make money without playing. That being said, whoever got in Shipachyov’s ear and told him not playing in Chicago and getting suspended was a better option than playing hockey should not be representing players at any level. Shipachyov was practicing for the Wolves one day, took part in morning skate the next and then had a change of heart the night of a game. Someone got into his ear and convinced him to make a bad business decision.
That is why it is also hard to believe the Golden Knights had a deal in place to trade Shipachyov, as McPhee mentioned Thursday. Vegas held all the cards to make a deal and get a solid return for Shipachyov. The good guy mantra sounds solid in theory and letting Shipachyov return to Russia while keeping a sliver of his signing bonus sounds great, but McPhee didn’t need to let that happen.
As the book closes on the Shipachyov saga, the best way to summarize this situation is we’re all in need of large bottles of ibuprofen and a couple bottles of flavored seltzer water.
Our Ship has sailed.