It was a moment off the ice, not on it, that may have defined the Golden Knights’ season.
Back in May 2017, general manager George McPhee signed center Vadim Shipachyov to a two-year, $9 million contract. The hope was “Shippy” would anchor the Knights’ top line. After all, he had been sensational in the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia, and there was no reason to believe his game would not hold up in the NHL.
“Vadim is a highly skilled playmaker who has had an impressive career in the Kontinental Hockey League,” McPhee said at the time of the signing. “We believe he can be an impact player in the NHL.”
But it became evident in training camp that wasn’t the case. Shipachyov was struggling to adjust to life in the NHL and his new teammates, not to mention living a new country in a strange city. He labored at both ends of the ice, and when opening night rolled around Oct. 6, Shipachyov was not in the lineup against Dallas. He had been assigned to the Chicago Wolves, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate.
He was recalled a week later, played three games and scored one goal but continued to struggle. Shipachyov was unhappy. And in a locker room that had quickly developed a strong chemistry, Shipachyov represented disruption. He went AWOL after being returned to the minors in late October, and the team suspended him without pay.
McPhee realized something had to be done. And while it took more than a week to sort everything out, they eventually brokered a deal that allowed Shipachyov to return to Russia as he voluntarily retired from the NHL.
“He just wanted to go home,” McPhee said. “Sometimes the player you see in Europe isn’t the player you see here. That’s the risk you take.”
Who knows what would have happened had the Knights stuck with Shipachyov? Would they have been as successful so quickly? But McPhee not only managed to cut his losses — the move gave other players a chance to get on the ice and make positive contributions.
Shipachyov will always be a small yet important footnote in Knights history. It might not have worked out, but it showed McPhee wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions, and it might have been a reason for the Knights’ early success.