Shalunov, 23, is a 2011 NHL draft pick whose rights are still held by the Blackhawks because the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL. He’s emerged as one of the best players in Russia this season, and suddenly has become an intriguing target for the Blackhawks as his exclusive NHL rights holder.
The problem is convincing Shalunov to leave the KHL for North America, as he’s got a good thing going over there. The Sibir Novosibirsk winger has become one of the best players in what’s widely considered the second-best league in the world, so while he considers the NHL a goal, he’ll only pursue it if it’s the right opportunity.
“Of course, I would like to be in the NHL someday, and the Blackhawks are my team there,” Shalunov said in a Russian interview with Alvin Kalnins that was translated to English. “I am a free agent this summer, but it’s really too early to say what happen in the summer.”
The big condition that Shalunov discussed in the interview was NHL playing time. He’s become a top player in the KHL, playing 18:28 per game this season. With 18 goals and 15 assists in 41 games, he’s also been very productive while playing primarily right wing.
The winger even got invited to the 2017 KHL All-Star Game, where he scored a goal.
That success is part of what’s gotten him back on the Blackhawks’ radar, but it’s also given Shalunov leverage to just stay in Russia. He already came to the United States in stints with AHL Rockford and ECHL Toledo in 2013-14 that didn’t go too well. Now if he’s coming back new and improved, he wants it to be NHL or bust.
“I want to play, and that’s what matters to me,” Shalunov said. “I know I will get to play in the KHL, so that’s kind of a head start. As a player you want to play, regardless of where you play. If I decide to head to North America, I want to be in the NHL, not play in minor leagues again.
“It’s not worth it going go to America and playing in minors. I can play the same minutes here in KHL and play at a higher level.”
So that’s one key area where the Blackhawks would need to sell Shalunov. They will be limited in terms of how much money they can offer in an entry-level contract — the annual max is a $925,000 base salary and $2.575 million in bonuses — so they’ll need to provide other ways to sell him, even if the KHL has some money problems.
The good news is that he doesn’t seem particularly picky about his role. Shalunov’s bigger point was that he’s not signing with the Blackhawks to play in the minor leagues. He just doesn’t want to leave a cozy gig in his native Russia just to end up playing in small Midwestern towns again.
“Top six, top nine, it doesn’t matter to me,” Shalunov said when asked if a top-six role factored into his decision-making. “I want to help the team and I want to win. If I get to play, I don’t care where I’m playing.
“Of course, the more minutes, the better, but there is really no big deal. I can’t be going around demanding such things. You have to earn what you get.”
The Blackhawks will surely have some openings to fill. Even with Artemi Panarin signed for the next two seasons, the team still needs at least one more proper top-six winger who can help get Jonathan Toews’ mojo back. Shalunov is a real possibility there if he gets an early crack at it. Just don’t expect them to sign him as a long-term project when he’s already a star in his own country.