It's evident, by now, that the Rangers' roster isn't exactly flawless. When it comes to the forwards, two issues stand out. The first is Jesper Fast being thrust into more offensive minutes than ideal. Fast has had a strong sophomore season and is an incredibly intelligent, dependable player. But he's limited in terms of offensive firepower and is more suited for a shutdown role. The other, more glaring issue is that the fourth line is an absolute disaster. Both issues could conceivably be fixed with the acquisition of a quality winger. It would give a boost to the upper end of the roster while some talent trickles down to the fourth line.
The problem for the Rangers is that an uneasy cap situation and a limited arsenal of trade chips makes a fix easier said than done. Pavel Buchnevich, in theory, could provide the answer. By far the Rangers' top forward prospect, Buchnevich is right around the age that Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov came to North America and immediately stepped into an NHL role. With 16 goals and 21 assists in
68 58 KHL games this season, Buchnevich lags only slightly behind where the previously mentioned budding stars sat at the same age and is pretty much in line with Artemi Panarin. Whether Buchnevich can produce at the elite level that these players have is to be determined, but there's every reason to expect that Buchnevich could step into the Rangers lineup and immediately contribute in that offensive role on the wing. Maybe most importantly, he would cost the team nothing except the entry-level contract they were happy to commit to him a year ago.
Getting Buchnevich into the lineup comes with some major hurdles, however. His floundering hometown team in Severstal traded him to SKA St. Petersberg, a quality KHL squad loaded with talented players such as former NHLers Slava Voynov, Dmitri Kalinin, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Depending on the success of his team, Buchnevich's season could end anywhere between the very start of March and late April.
That still won't clear the way for Buchnevich coming to New York. Although his season will end whenever SKA are eliminated (or win the Gagarin Cup), he will remain under contract until May 1st. In order to get him to come over prior, SKA will have to grant him his release. How easy that will be is unclear. The Rangers were able to convince Metallurg Meganitogorsk to release Mats Zuccarello from his contract in the spring of 2013 with relative ease, but those weren't exactly the same circumstances. Zuccarello was presumably pushing hard for the move and there was probably an understanding upon his signing with the team that they would grant him his release if the Rangers came calling. Evgeny Kuznetsov's situation is more in line with Buchnevich's. His KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, ultimately did grant his release so he could sign with the Capitals in March of 2014, but it required a lot of teeth pulling.
The incentive for SKA to not grant Buchnevich early release is two-fold. Severstal traded Buchnevich because they were out of the playoff picture and understood that his intention is to come to the Rangers. However, while, Severstal are a modest, low-budget team, SKA are the KHL's version of the Rangers or Maple Leafs; an historic team in a major, progressive city with incredible prestige and endless spending power. The team has already stated publicly that it will be making an effort to extend Buchnevich for next season, using the aforementioned qualities in an attempt to change his mind. Will it work? Likely not. But logistically, they have a better chance if they take the time to make a calculated pitch and let him think it over. In that case, they won't exactly be in a rush to cut bait.
This is an issue. It's not a particularly steep mountain, though, if Buchnevich is motivated to make a move happen. Trakhtor still had games to play in a consolation tournament when they gave in and let Kuznetsov walk at his insistence. When SKA's season ends, it ends for good. If Buchnevich and his agents make it clear to SKA that he has no intention of staying, then at that point it will be in their best interest to let him out of his contract. In doing so, they would retain his KHL rights. Add to that the fact that the Rangers have plenty of influence themselves. The team's stature in the hockey world speaks for itself. In particular, the team's Head European Scout, Nikolai Bobrov, makes sense as a liaison. Bobrov was born in St. Petersburg and was a product of the Red Army Team. He's been a European scout in the NHL for some time now and has presumably made some friends in the process. Furthermore, Rangers' scout Vladimir Lutchenko was on the Soviet gold medal teams of the 70s and is very well respected in Russia. The Rangers hopefully have some built in goodwill.
The bigger hurdle is the World Championships. Whereas the tournament is an afterthought in the United States and Canada, European countries take it very seriously. While Buchnevich is not a lock to be on the team - it will largely depend on what NHLers are available for the tournament's May 6th start - he will be considered, and seems very likely to at least be invited to Russia's tune-up camp. Especially with the tournament being held in Russia this year, and on the back of an embarrassing Sochi showing in 2014, Russia will be particularly eager to put forth a strong lineup. European leagues are usually very cooperative with their national teams, and the link between the KHL and the Russian Hockey Federation is particularly strong.
The implication here is quite simple. If Russian executives and coaches decide they want to take a look at Buchnevich, then SKA will likely do their part to make it happen. Buchnevich can't go to Russia's camp if he's in the middle of a playoff series with the Rangers. Or even if the Rangers' season does end particularly early, he could feel too fatigued and banged up to play in the World Championships, or might want to spend the time adjusting to his new living quarters in North America. The only way to ensure Buchnevich's availability for the World Championships would be for SKA to stand their ground. And Buchnevich might not only be okay with that, but particularly pleased with it. Representing his country in such a major tournament for the first time would be a dream come true for him.
This exact situation similarly frustrated the Rangers in 2013. The Rangers wanted to bring Jesper Fast over to North America at the conclusion of his breakout season with HV71 of the Swedish Elite League. At a minimum, he would spend some time in Hartford (at the time the team was called the Connecticut Whale), get acclimated to both the organization as well as North American hockey, and be a step ahead for the following season's training camp. In the best case, he would prove himself to be a solution to the Rangers' agonizing forward depth problem in time for the playoff push; sound familiar?
The NHL and Swedish Elite League (now Swedish Hockey League) are on very good terms, but even still the Rangers came away largely unsuccessful. Sweden wanted Fast for their World Championships camp, and Fast was still technically contracted to HV71. An agreement was reached where Fast was allowed to come to North America to play in the AHL; he was not allowed to join the NHL roster. He also had to be sent back to the Swedes by April 15th. It was the best Rangers could do, and was certainly better than nothing. Fast ended up playing one game in the AHL, then suffering a minor injury before heading back. He then participated in a few of Sweden's preparation games but did not make the cut for the actual World Championships roster. The Rangers ended up bowing out to the Boston Bruins in the second round while the likes of Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley filled the bottom of the lineup.
Will Pavel Buchnevich join the Rangers this season? Maybe. But likely not. The team will first have to see when SKA's season ends. For their own interest, the sooner the better. Then, it's going to depend on how cooperative SKA and Russia feel like being; odds are not very much. But maybe not. Buchnevich does not have ultimate say, but certainly will have his voice heard. He might not even want to make the move over until the summer, which would kill the idea altogether. The Rangers will actively try to make something work. Perhaps even Glen Sather decides to get personally involved and use his staggering lobbying prowess to tilt the scales and make some magic happen like has has so many times before. The Rangers are ultimately at the mercy of others here. As they head into the trading deadline trying to figure out how to get this team back to contender status, the Blueshirts won't be able to confidently put their stock in Buchnevich being the savior just yet.