When the Golden Knights took the ice for the first game in franchise history last Friday in Dallas, there was a glaring hole in the roster.
Vadim Shipachyov was left out, excluded not only from the game but the ensuing locker room celebration with his teammates after their come-from-behind victory at the American Airlines Center.
The Golden Knights signed the 30-year-old Russian to a two-year deal worth $9 million in the offseason — their richest contract awarded at that time — but then relegated him to the American Hockey League to start the season.
That might have made for a disgruntled star player only two games in.
A text from someone in Shipachyov’s KHL (the Russian league he played in for nine years prior to signing with the Golden Knights) agency paints an image of a frustrated player.
“Okay so basically what I have is: Shipachyov very upset with the situation wants to crack the Vegas line-up but isn’t given a chance," the text, originally posted by Russian hockey writer Aivis Kalnins, said. "He has set himself a time frame in which if he isn’t an NHL regular he wants to play at the Olympics and will return to SKA St. Petersburg (in the KHL). Basically, his agent is already looking for a way out.”
McPhee responded, “There is no truth to that. He’s not allowed to go back. He’s under contract with us.”
And while McPhee is correct, leaving the NHL wouldn’t be unprecedented. Another Russian NHL star, Ilya Kovalchuk, left the New Jersey Devils in 2014 with $77 million and 12 years still remaining on his contract.
Kovalchuk retired from the NHL to skirt the commitment.
It appears Shipachyov could go that route, though he would likely then have to repay his $2 million signing bonus.
As for why Shipachyov, who was slated to start as a first-line center throughout preseason, was sent to the AHL, McPhee said it was simple.
“That’s a numbers decision,” he said. “As you know we had three guys who we could assign, and we did, to give us the room that we needed to carry what we are carrying. I do not have a specific date when that will change, but we are working on things.”
Following the expansion draft, Vegas had more NHL regulars than roster spots. The Golden Knights managed a few trades but not enough, leaving Shipachyov, Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch — all of whom have performed well enough to be in the NHL — on the outside looking in.
Those three players can be sent to the AHL without the Golden Knights possibly losing them to another team through waivers.
“(Shipachyov and his agent) didn’t understand initially,” McPhee said. “But they do now. This is a roster move that’s not about performance. The three guys we sent down have all earned the right to be here. And we’ll get them here at the right time or as soon as we can.”
McPhee has every intention for Shipachyov to play a vital role for the Golden Knights this season, but the Russian may not be as patient.
“So we are still evaluating what we have and trying to figure out what people do,” McPhee said. “We are two games into a season, there’s no rush to do anything; we are not in a hurry to do anything. We will do things when it feels right.”
In the meantime, Shipachyov isn’t playing with the Golden Knights AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves.
“He came back home (to Las Vegas) to be with his wife because neither of them speak English,” McPhee said. “It was hard for her. So he reported and then came back. He paid his own way back because we are not allowed to do that.”
Shipachyov has worked out on his own in Las Vegas while he waits in limbo.
“I actually talked to him in Dallas,” said Shipachyov’s line mate Jonathan Marchessault. “Obviously he’s disappointed with the situation. There are some players that don’t care, but he’s a guy that cares and that’s what breaks my heart the most.”