Just as he sometimes does before burying a goal or dishing a pass, Evgeny Kuznetsov hesitated for a moment in advance of delivering a line he knew was going to land well.
“He’s Russian Crosby,” said Kuznetsov, suppressing at least a partial grin.
The man in question is Vadim Shipachyov and this is where we clarify that the Russian centre wears No. 87, which gave Kuznetsov the leverage for a Sidney Crosby comparison he might not otherwise make. But just for fun, let’s retroactively emphasize the word “might.”
Shipachyov, whose Russian team downed Norway 3-0 on Monday at the world hockey championship in Moscow, has raised more than a few eyebrows while leading the tournament in scoring. With rumours swirling on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean that he could take his game to the NHL next fall, expect every shifty move Shipachyov makes the rest of the way to attract more and more attention.
Shipachyov has three goals and eight assists in six games while playing between NHL rookie-of-the-year nominee Artemi Panarin and Evgeni Dadonov, Shipachyov’s teammate with St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL. (All three played for St. Petersburg before Panarin joined the Chicago Blackhawks last summer.)
With Shipachyov acting as the line’s router, the trio has been staging one giant game of keep away with opponents. The uncanny chemistry even caused Kuznetsov to toss out a reference from a bygone era.
“Like Red Machine play, 20 years ago,” he said.
The latest example of their brilliance came in the second period against Norway when Shipachyov showed the patience of a hunter in a tree to wait out Norwegian captain and former NHL defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen in front of the net. When Tollefsen dropped to the ice, Shipachyov sent a beautiful pass to Panarin that the latter easily deposited into the empty cage.
“You pretty much never know which way he’s going to go,” said Tollefsen.
That’s why fans of a few NHL clubs — there’s chatter the offence-challenged Montreal Canadiens have interest — are hoping Shipachyov’s next juke could be a hard cut west toward the best league in the world. Panarin, made that move better than anyone dared to dream, registering 30 goals and 77 points in 80 games while playing beside Patrick Kane.
While Panarin carries more of a finisher label, Shipachyov is a born set-up man. He led the KHL with 43 assists in 54 outings and his playmaking ability was evident well before he teed up Panarin on Monday. Some of his best work came below the hashmarks, where Shipachyov, on more than one occasion, spotted open teammates as if he was watching the game from 15 rows up in the stands.
As for the number on his back, we can only assume it’s inspired by reasons that match Crosby’s.
“Same age, probably,” Kuznetsov offered.
The Washington Capitals centre was right — Shipachyov shares a 1987 birthday with the Pittsburgh Penguins captain. At 29, he’s old enough that the NHL’s entry-level contract restrictions won’t apply to him as they did to the 1991-born Panarin. If Shipachyov opts to sign an NHL deal, the only factors impacting term and dollars will be his level of play.
And as anybody who’s been watching the worlds can tell you, No. 87 has got game.