Free agency is never truly over. NHL executives keep an eye on impending free agents all year long and will take any opportunity to create a positive impression on a possible target. It’s no different when it comes to foreign talent, as recently demonstrated by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. KHL insider Igor Eronko reports that while scouting in Russia recently, Dubas met with two recognizable KHLers who are set to hit the open market next summer: Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov. Grigorenko, 25, was a first-round pick of Buffalo in 2012 who played over 200 games with the Sabres and Colorado Avalanche before returning home to Russia in 2017. The power forward was a top-10 scorer in the KHL last season and helped to lead CSKA Moscow to a Gagarin Cup title. He’s picked up right where he left off this season, recording 15 points through his first 16 games, and is likely to be highly sought-after by both KHL and NHL clubs this off-season. Nesterov, 26, is Grigorenko’s teammate for CSKA, coming over with him in 2017 after three NHL seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. Nesterov is a reliable defensive defenseman, which can often be hard to find in the KHL. He has played an important role for Moscow over the past two years, even if he doesn’t frequent the score sheet. Both Grigorenko and Nesterov are core pieces for CSKA, and the team will not let them walk away easily. However, that didn’t stop Dubas from doing his due diligence on the duo in case they do become available. The Maple Leafs have been successful of late in prying talent from the KHL, including the likes of Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov and now Ilya Mikheyev. He appears to be readying himself for another run at Russia’s elite this summer.
- While most only think of Sergei Zubov as a former NHL defenseman, and soon a Hockey Hall of Famer, he has continued his hockey career overseas as a coach. After hanging up his skates in 2010, Zubov joined the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg as an assistant coach in 2011. He spent five years as an assistant with St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow before being named head coach of HK Sochi ahead of the 2017-18 season. In two plus seasons, Zubov did not have as much success from the bench as he had on the ice in his playing career. Sochi qualified for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but in both years they finished with a negative goal differential, last season they finished below .500 in the regular season and they were bounced easily in the first round to end both postseason efforts. With just five wins in their first 17 games to begin this season, Sochi has opted for a coaching change. The KHL announced that Sochi has fired Zubov, who will now be left to look elsewhere for coaching work. Perhaps when he is in Toronto for Induction Weekend in November there will be NHL executives with interest in speaking to him about a full-time return to North America. It’s hard to imagine Zubov -- a world-class talent on defense --staying unemployed for long if he wished to continue coaching.
- Former New York Islander David Ullstrom is on his way out of the KHL. After spending last season with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, under contract with the Arizona Coyotes, Ullstrom returned to Europe this season, signing with Dinamo Riga of the KHL. However, he has already parted ways with Riga after playing in just 11 games. EHC Biel-Bienne of the Swiss NLA has scooped up the free agent forward, announcing that it has signed Ullstrom to a one-year contract. Ullstrom, 30, spent three seasons with the Islanders organization from 2010 to 2013, recording 13 points in 49 NHL games. While his ability was always apparent, the Swedish power forward struggled with puck security and decision-making, leading to a lack of trust at the top level. He has gone on to find success in the KHL and SHL in recent years but never to the extent expected of him when he was a prospect. Ullstrom performed well with Tuscon last year, recording 23 points in 29 games, and some questioned his decision to return to Europe. He was never recalled by Arizona, but had his foot in the door with the organization. An NHL return seems unlikely now, but a strong season could get him back into AHL or even two-way contract consideration. He likely hopes that his first foray into Swiss hockey will produce a career season and possibly a multi-year deal, as he has played for nine different teams in the seven years since he left the Islanders and has never once spent more than a season and a half in one spot.