Alexander Burmistrov says he will “almost certainly” return to the NHL – but will it be with the Jets?

Alexander Burmistrov

Alexander Burmistrov – remember him? – still has one season remaining on his contract with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan. Last season, he scored 10 goals and 37 points in 54 games to lead the third-place Eastern Conference club and finish just outside the top 20 in KHL scoring.

In the NHL, Burmistrov wasn’t that kind of scorer in three seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.

But he was an important piece of a very mediocre Jets lineup. Towards the end of last season, when the Jets flopped to the bottom of the Central Division with 84 points, Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gary Lawless called on the team to “Bring back Burmi.”

Part of the reason Burmistrov left for the KHL when his entry-level contract expired after the 2012-13 season was that he butt heads with then-coach Claude Noel over playing time. In the two years Burmistrov spent in Winnipeg with Noel as his coach, the Russian’s average ice time dropped by a minute (16:39 to 15:38) from 2012 to 2013. His shorthanded time dipped as well, though by an average of only 15 seconds.

In an interview (in Russian) with Prosports.ru, Burmistrov spoke about his eventual return to the NHL. “I do not believe that my story in the NHL is over. I will almost certainly return there,” he said. “For me, the money does not play any role. The dream (of playing in the NHL) is still alive.”

He then added: “I don’t have any preferences, but I’d like to get to a team where I’d play a lot.”

In Winnipeg, Burmistrov was essentially a third-liner and shorthanded specialist. His defensive game is his strength, so Noel gave him a fair amount of minutes there, but his even strength time was shrinking and Noel even benched him four consecutive games in a 48-game season. This, despite the fact Burmistrov had solid possession and zone stats on a depth line.

But Noel is gone now and Lawless suggested Paul Maurice could help pave the way towards an easier return:

Maurice was asked recently about his experiences coaching in Russia and spoke with empathy for players trying to cross over into a new hockey culture. If the Jets are hoping to build a bridge with any of these players, Maurice might prove the answer.

“Probably the biggest thing I walked away with is a blanket apology to every Russian player I ever coached. When they come to Canada and play the way they do, there’s a reason for it. Things sometimes get said about them, like they’re not tough, but I can tell you there are tough players over there. They just play the game so differently,” said Maurice. “We expect them to make adjustments in a couple of weeks when they get here… you want them to tip the puck in and chase it, and you want them to do this and go there, and then you think they don’t want to play your game. It’s not like that at all, and you’d have to be there to see where they come from… the culture and the hockey. So a blanket apology… I have a better understanding of their world, how they train, how they play, and why they play the way they do.”

Burmistrov will be a 23-year-old RFA in the NHL once his overseas deal expires after this season. The Jets could certainly use the depth and defense he would bring, plus there’s still plenty of time for him to develop into a better scorer than he’s shown. The Jets could convince him the environment is different now, with a coach more understanding of his mindset. And with a young core consisting of Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Jacob Trouba, adding Burmistrov and whichever high first round draft pick the team inevitably lands this year makes it a pretty intriguing core to watch. But if they want him, they have to be ready to play him.

The jury is still out on Burmistrov as an impact NHLer and the Jets will now be down two years of controlled development time. Does the eighth overall pick from the 2010 draft have the offence to live up to that high of a selection? Will two years in the KHL leave him more prepared to play in the NHL, or set back his growth? There’s no doubt he’s a defensive player this Jets team could use on the ice. But he’d also be a useful, and cheap, option a lot of other teams would love to take the chance on. At the very least, Burmistrov is a player Winnipeg could look towards putting on the trade market.

If Burmistrov comes back to the NHL, he’ll need to sign his first non-entry-level contract with the club. Burmistrov noted money wasn’t an issue, but you have to imagine he’ll still get more than $1 million to return.

Is that the kind of investment GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will want to move forward with? It shouldn’t be an issue. However, the Jets appear to have a habit of mishandling their roster and their young players – that’s why it seems Evander Kane can’t wait to get out and why Burmistrov went to Russia in the first place.

If the Jets go the trade route, they’d likely want to sign him to a contract first and raise his value. It’s an option, but next summer will mark two years since Burmistrov played in the NHL: teams will be intrigued by him, but would they give Winnipeg a good enough return to offset the defense and potential he’d bring them? Or, more importantly to Jets fans, do you trust Cheveldayoff and his management team to make that decision?

Remember, these are the Jets, a team that has done almost nothing to improve the roster. Cheveldayoff has sent out more draft picks in trade than he’s brought in and not once has he made an NHL player for NHL player trade. This team still employs Ondrej Pavelec as a No. 1 goalie.

So maybe a trade isn’t the most likely route.

But the Jets can’t make a blunder here again – they absolutely need to do something with Burmistrov. Winnipeg has been sitting on its hands for too long, doing practically nothing to inspire hope that better days are ahead. Burmistrov, through his play or through his trade value, wouldn’t single-handedly put the team on track to greener pastures, but he’s a barometer. Is anything changing at all with the Jets, or is the team bound to stagnant mediocrity?

Burmistrov is a No. 8 overall draft pick and a player with good defensive instincts who still has promising upside for more. Winnipeg can’t afford to get nothing out of such a player.

In one year, Burmistrov will be open to return to the NHL, which is his stated desire. If Cheveldayoff still can’t get him back – even just to trade him – then perhaps the GM’s position with the franchise will need to be reexamined.

Winnipeg is one of the slowest moving teams in the NHL and we’ve heard that the Honeymoon period in that city is over. These fans need to start seeing something, anything, that shows an attempt at improvement. Bringing back Burmistrov is about the least they could do.

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