The Curious Case of Kirill Kabanov
It’s been a journey halfway around the world for Thunder forward Kirill Kabanov. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Kabanov began his hockey career with his hometown team Spartak Moscow. After playing for their junior team, Kabanov was called up to the senior side at the end of the 2008-09 season. Just like that, the 16-year-old was playing in Russia’s top league, the KHL, which is considered one of the top leagues in the world behind only the NHL.
At 6’3” and 195 pounds, Kabanov has always been a big skater, even at a younger age. But it was still quite an adjustment for him to make at such a young age. “It was tough you know, like all those guys are older and they have families, kids,” Kabanov said. “I was just starting to have a girlfriend! But it was fun. I didn’t play a lot of minutes, just on the 3rd and 4th line, didn’t produce any points, but I had fun.”
That offseason Kabanov played with the U-18 Russian National Team at the world championships in the U.S. While a loss to the U.S. in the championship game took some of the shine off the tournament, Kabanov still took home a silver medal and finished tied for the 8th-leading scorer spot with 11 points in 7 games. But here’s where Kabanov’s story took an odd turn.
With the reformation of the Russian Super League into the new KHL in 2008, all the player contracts had to be re-signed. Kabanov and his father had reached a deal with Spartak to allow him to leave Russia for the NHL back in 2007. However, that agreement was overruled by the KHL’s governing body the next year. After his late season cameo for the senior squad, Spartak traded Kabanov’s rights the following season to fellow KHL club Salavat Yulaev Ufa, forcing him to negotiate another contract under KHL rules.
Kabanov wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL, so instead of signing in the KHL, he petitioned the International Ice Hockey Federation to allow him to leave to play hockey in the QMJHL, Canada’s top junior circuit. The Moncton Wildcats had acquired his rights in the league’s draft and after a drawn out investigative process, Kabanov was finally cleared to play by the IIHF early in the season.
Things started out great with Kabanov posting 14 points through his first 11 games, but a wrist injury derailed his season. Rumors of discontent between the team and Kabanov began just before he returned to health and chose to leave the Wildcats to play for Team Russia in the U-18 Championships.”The move strained his relationship with the Wildcats further and things took an even more bizarre turn when Kabanov was dismissed from the Russian U-18 squad for “bringing too much confusion to the team” according to team coach Mikhail Vasiliev. The injuries and off-ice distractions caused a hit to Kabanov’s draft stock and he fell to the 3rd round where he was selected by the New York Islanders in 2010.
Eager to impress, Kabanov started to hit his stride the following season in 2010-11 after an early-season trade to the Lewiston MAINEiacs. Kabanov posted 28 points in 37 regular season games, but really heated up in the playoffs when he and the MAINEiacs went on a tear. Kabanov scored 8 goals and added 12 assists in just 15 games to tie for the team lead in points with teammate Michael Chaput, all while leading 8th seeded Lewiston to the semifinals.
However, there was another bump in the road ahead, when Lewiston folded and the franchise moved back to Canada. “It was hard, I had a lot of fun on that team,” Kabanov said. “I could play the way I wanted. I met some of my best friends on that team, so it was tough to see it go.”
The next year, 2011-12, was Kabanov’s last year of eligibility for the QMJHL, making it an important step in his development. After thinking over his options, he decided to join a strong Shawinigan Cataractes team that had the added benefit of hosting that year’s Memorial Cup tournament. Kabanov had his best year in juniors that season, setting career-highs in goals, assists, points, games played and penalty minutes. But the best moment came in the Memorial Cup tournament, which pits the winners of the QMJHL, WHL and OHL against each other in a round robin tournament. Kabanov registered an assist in the championship game as Shawinigan defeated the London Knights 2-1 in overtime to claim the trophy.
With that confidence boost, Kabanov was set for his first season in the professional ranks. He was assigned to the Islander’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but things took a turn for the worst early in the season.
On October 14th 2012, just four games into his professional career, Kabanov was playing with Brideport against the Worcester Sharks. He went into a corner to try and free up a loose puck, when he tripped and fell while battling with Sharks defenseman Nick Petrecki. Petrecki’s skate accidentally sliced Kabanov’s wrist causing him to be taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Today, the only evidence left behind is a scar, but the injury still took a toll when Kabanov returned to the ice later in the season.
He managed just 2 goals and 5 assists over the last 25 games of the season while trying to get back into playing form, following his long lay-off. Kabanov admits that there were things to deal with mentally and physically while he was recovering from his injury, but knew that he needed to play better to earn more ice time in the AHL.
This past offseason, he worked with former NHLer Gary Roberts at his conditioning camp, to better prepare him for the upcoming season. Things started well enough with Kabanov scoring in Bridgeport’s season opener, but after two games he was sent down to Stockton for a chance to get more minutes and experience. With all the roadblocks Kabanov has experienced in his young 21 years it would be easy to expect him to be frustrated or fed up with how things are going, but that’s not the case. When you talk to him, he comes across as relaxed and calm. “You just have to look at it the right way,” Kabanov explains. “I’m playing hockey for a living. I’m still breathing… I’m still alive. Even if I have troubles with, for example, like a girlfriend… things happen, you break up, but there’s still a chance to find a girlfriend again… to be happy. “
In his first game with Stockton, Kabanov displayed the skill set that showcases why so many have high hopes for him. In the first period against Colorado he capitalized on a turnover in front and slid a puck past Eagles’ netminder Trevor Cann to open his scoring account with the Thunder. In the second period he didn’t back down from abuse by Colorado forward Kyle Ostrow, dropping the gloves and taking him down in a fight. Later in the period, Kabanov held onto the puck in the Eagles’ zone long enough for Thunder defenseman Mike Dalhuisen to skate over the blueline. A quick pass teed him up for Stockton’s 5th goal of the night and completed both Kabanov’s and Dalhuisen’s Gordie Howe hat tricks. But besides the additions to the score sheet, Kabanov demonstrated an air of composure on the puck that helped the Thunder control the game and establish a big lead.
In all likelihood he may not be in Stockton for long, but for now Thunder fans can enjoy the skills of a player who’s come an awful long way to get here.