As reported by Die by the Blade on June 25, the Buffalo Sabres and general manager Jason Botterill did not tender an offer to restricted free agent Viktor Antipin.
Antipin’s brief NHL career was a maelstrom of intermittent usage, mediocre performances, and one crushing hit. His story has become fairly common – KHL standout comes to NHL to play in the world’s best league, but can’t fit in and leaves too soon.
Fans may remember Vadim Shipachyov; the young Russian superstar who signed in Vegas for the 2017-18 season. Shipyachov didn’t make it through November before he was back home with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL. He told reporters, “Now I know that Russian players should think 10 times before leaving for abroad. It’s different from what the clubs and agents tell you.”
Antipin has become another tick on the KHL-to-NHL-to-KHL tracker; a statistic that seemingly proves that the Russian game does not translate well to the North American version. There are likely a few reasons for this, but for Antipin in particular, there are two likely reasons that he did not succeed: high expectations, and a difficult transition to smaller ice.
Primarily, the insurmountable expectations that frequently plague Buffalo hockey players – particularly defensemen – seemingly doomed Antipin from the start. For a team that was desperate for offensive defenders, the Sabres were chomping at the bit to garner Antipin’s attention. Many had the young left-handed Russian ready to pair with Rasmus Ristolainen, who has been lacking an opposing-hand player for most of his career.
Unfortunately, Antipin didn’t measure up in that regard, but fans were warned about that as rumors of his signing swirled around the hockey world. Aivis Kalnins, who reports on the KHL, told the Buffalo press, “While it’s clear that he is unlikely to be a top pair guy, I think some of his qualities will carry over to the NHL. A lot depends on the coach. What will be his tasks on the ice, and how long it will take for him to adjust to North American sized surface?”
In the end, the latter question is likely the key factor in Antipin’s exit from North American hockey. Whereas the KHL’s Olympic ice rinks give a player space to be creative - and even a little more distance to recover from a mistake - the NHL’s suffocating surface size is hell for a player of Antipin’s ilk. While there have been players that have left the NHL for Russian hockey and been quite successful, the reverse has really never been true.
His season came to an end when he was on the receiving end of a brutal hit by Scott Hartnell that left the defender concussed, with a broken nose and dental injuries. Even if Buffalo had decided to tender an offer to the 25-year old, this injury likely pushed Antipin to reconsider his decision to play in the US. Reports that he’d be returning to the KHL began almost as soon as Buffalo played its last game.
It’s unfortunate that Antipin is not a part of Botterill’s plan going forward. While there is no question that the defense is better now than it was three months ago, there could have been a spot here for him if the team had time to let him learn the speed and density of the NHL.
On the other hand, hockey is incredibly fun to watch on the more open international surface. While it will probably never happen in the NHL, it would certainly level the playing field for these stars looking to break into the world’s premier league.