The Minnesota Wild faithful got to get a ton of peeks at the future this season. They saw 47 games from Matt Boldy, who showed that he could be a future superstar. They saw games from talented prospects like Marco Rossi, Calen Addison, and Adam Beckman. Sure, fans wanted to see more, but at least they all got tastes of the NHL.
Nowhere to be found, though, was the talented wing prospect Alexander Khovanov. In fact, he was barely to be found in Iowa. Visa issues kept him out of training camp. He spent essentially a rehab stint in the ECHL, and didn’t debut in an Iowa Wild jersey until Dec. 2.
Iowa played 57 games between Khovanov’s AHL debut to the end of the season. Khovanov appeared in just 22 of them, where he had only one goal, five points, and 25 shots on goal. When you have almost twice as many minor penalties (nine) as you do points, that’s never a good sign. And Iowa coach Tim Army isn’t exactly secretive about why Khovanov didn’t find success as a rookie.
Army was characteristically honest and forthcoming about Khovanov’s season speaking to Michael Russo on a May 11 episode of Straight From The Source. “I think we provided him a great opportunity for Khovy,” he said. “And he was OK at times. But he managed himself at the AHL grossly out of shape. It’s on him.”
Before this season, you could write off Khovanov’s struggles as being complicated by external factors. In his draft year, a freak incident where he contracted Hepatitis A in the Dominican Republic limited him to 29 games. Still, he put up 28 points in those games at the QMJHL, making him a good bet for the Minnesota Wild, who selected him 86th overall in 2018.
“We knew his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Wild scout Brent Flahr at the time. “But that was something we could fix. His skill, his vision, being light on his feet, and his ability to make plays are what we like.”
Obviously, contracting a debilitating disease is largely out of a player’s control, and yes, it absolutely affected his conditioning. Credit to Khovanov, he got back on track, notching 74 points in 64 games for the Moncton Wildcats in 2018-19, then 99 in 51 the year after.
Then, another setback. This time, a global pandemic shut down virtually all North American hockey below the NHL level. Khovanov hopped to the KHL, hoping to continue his development, but he failed to launch. He scored zero points in seven games, reportedly clashed with his coach, and went to the VHL. There, he had a decent, but certainly not great season, scoring 24 points in 30 games in Russia’s second league.
The coronavirus pandemic firmly falls into Act of God territory, so it’s hard to blame Khovanov for going home to Russia. He may not even have been to blame for clashing with his coach, and not getting playing time. Ask the high-energy, scrappy Marat Khusnutdinov how well the KHL and Russian hockey system treats prospects who are preparing to spurn their country.
Khovanov was most likely bound for the Iowa Wild this year. That is, until he ran into the work visa issue. Was that his fault? Who knows? Yes, others got their paperwork in order in time, but Khovanov’s job is to play hockey. Isn’t that something an agent should deal with?
The problem is that it’s Khovanov’s job to play hockey. And when it finally came time to do that, he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. From December onward, the culprit for what was holding Khovanov back wasn’t some external force. It was Khovanov.
Criticizing a player’s diet and fitness is a bit tricky. Sometimes, there’s nothing to it. Phil Kessel was famously dragged by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons as eating hot dogs daily. Turns out, the story wasn’t even true! Even in St. Paul, coach Dean Evason told Kirill Kaprizov “you look fat” in training camp. On video and everything! In both cases, the allegedly out-of-shape players got the last laughs. Kaprizov with 47 goals, and Kessel… well…
Say what you want about either’s fitness, but Kessel is nearly a 400-goal scorer, and Kaprizov may wind up there as well. In neither case were they 21-year-olds struggling to crack the lineup — or double-digit points — in the AHL.
And that’s simply not anywhere near the level Khovanov should be at with his talent. On Oct. 8, Mitch Brown of Elite Prospects ranked Khovanov as the fourth-best prospect in the Wild system, behind only Rossi, Jesper Wallstedt, and Boldy. “He relishes the physical game, inviting contact, leaning on them, and then spinning back to the inside,” Brown wrote. “Thanks to his adaptability and one-touch accuracy, he combines an overwhelming number of passes into high-danger scoring areas with shocking efficiency.”
Despite his bluntness concerning his conditioning, Army remains a huge believer in Khovanov’s skill. “He’s tough, he’ll engage, he’s physical, he hits like a freight train,” Army raves. “He has NHL hands, an NHL shot, NHL scoring touch, and an NHL sense of the game.”
That talent and willingness to work on the ice is probably the main thing keeping him in the organization. Under Bill Guerin, the Wild haven’t been shy about shipping out players who don’t fit, shall we guess to call it, a low-maintenance mold. That’s happened with franchise icons like Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, prospects like Brennan Menell, and maybe even a superstar coming off “three good months.”
Second chances aren’t big with this front office. There’s probably not a third chance. Can Khovanov figure it out in time? The answer to that could determine whether the Wild have a player with sky-high potential who can help them through these cap hell years or one who gets unceremoniously flipped in a minor-league trade.
Army recounted almost pleading with Khovanov to get it together in their exit meeting. “Don’t be 45-years-old and regret this,” he recalled saying to the 22-year-old. “Because you’re going to look at guys that have played 15 years in the NHL and have become elite players… and if you’re sitting back at home, never scratching the surface of what your ability is, you’re going to regret it. Because there was a time where you were every bit as good as they were.”
As an outsider, you can’t say exactly what Khovanov needs to do to be his best self. Whatever it is, though, he’s got to figure it out this summer. He ran out of excuses last year, and the only thing that comes after that is running out of time.