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A Devils Perspective on the Ongoing Ivan Fedotov Saga

Flyers 2015 seventh round draft pick goaltender Ivan Fedotov signed an entry level contract back in 2022. Since then, he has been detained for military service, signed a contract with CSKA Moscow, and played for them despite an IIHF suspension. This saga impacts the Devils, the NHL, and the international hockey landscape.

Philadelphia Flyers Headshots
This man is goaltender Ivan Fedotov. He is in the middle of an growing international problem in hockey.
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Russian Factor is the short term to refer to the current issue between NHL teams and players in the KHL. There is no transfer agreement between the two leagues, so NHL teams that want to sign a prospect or even an already developed player have to wait until their KHL contract ends. In the interim, the KHL team can (and does) negotiate with the player and can offer more than what the NHL can offer initially. This has made some organizations stay away from the KHL and their development leagues. Not the New Jersey Devils or the Philadelphia Flyers. However, an ongoing saga with a mid-20s goaltender drafted in 2015 has the potential of creating an even bigger problem.

Ivan Fedotov: Before the Saga

Back in 2015, the Philadelphia Flyers drafted a goaltender in the seventh round: from the MHL, goaltender Ivan Fedotov of Nizhnekamsk Reaktor. The 6’7” goaltender was under contract with the KHL team, Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik, and played for their junior team. As there is no transfer agreement between the KHL and NHL, the Flyers had to wait until he was out of contract. Which was fine at first. Fedotov’s career was rough as he was traded thrice. But with experience and a move to one of the biggest KHL teams, CSKA Moscow, Fedotov broke out in the 2021-22 season. He took over the starter’s job, led the team to the Gagarin Cup, and was a finalist for KHL goaltender of the year. Perhaps Fedotov would have the talent to perform in the best league in the world. The Flyers clearly took notice.

Especially since the 2021-22 season was the final season of his contract. The timing was perfect. While Fedotov was an older prospect, finding a quality goaltender is worth a contract. The Flyers did not delay and offered an entry level contract (ELC) to Fedotov. Even better for Philadelphia, Fedotov was very interested in making the move to North America. He signed it on May 7, 2022. Due to his age and the NHL CBA, it would be a one-season contract. Still, Fedotov would have an opportunity to get an opportunity to play in the NHL.

Then things got complicated.

Detainment for 2022-23

Fedotov was planning to make the move to America in July. That never happened. Fedotov was arrested on July 1, 2022 for the charge of dodging Russia’s military draft. A serious charge as Russia was and is continuing to try (and continuing to fail) to invade Ukraine. He was first hospitalized and then later moved to a remote military base in northern Russia. He would ultimately be detained for military service. As a result, Fedotov did not play at all in the 2022-23 season.

What happened to his NHL ELC? It was determined by the league that they would toll the contract. That is, his contract would apply for the 2023-24 season. Which makes sense as Fedotov being unable to play in the Flyers organization was entirely out of his control. And it is not as if Russia was requiring all of its mid-20s and younger players to serve in the military. The detainment had the thread-bare cover of being technically legal but practically looked like a raw deal. After all, it is awfully convenient that the player was arrested shortly before leaving CSKA Moscow to play in the Philadelphia organization.

Ultimately, it was determined that Fedotov had to serve until the Summer of 2023. Logically, one would expect that Fedotov would come over after this year-long detainment. That did not happen. The situation would get messier.

The IIHF Gets Involved

On July 8, 2023, an unexpected bit of news came out. The 26-year old goalie signed a two-season contract with CSKA Moscow. Again, Fedotov signed an ELC back in May 2022 and that was rolled into this upcoming season due to the detainment. Fedotov effectively had two contracts with two different teams in two different leagues. How could that be?

It cannot. Among the functions of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the organization oversees international transfers and the leagues in member countries have to register contracts. The IIHF can decide whether or not it is valid. They were now forced to step in as CSKA Moscow registered the two-season contract Fedotov signed in July 2023.

Why did CSKA Moscow do this? Mostly because they think they can. Also because they (and perhaps others in Russia) want to keep Fedotov in the country. And also because there was no agreement between the NHL and the KHL. Not only was there no transfer agreement, the NHL suspended a memorandum of understanding they had with the KHL regarding contracts, agents, and communication back in March 2022 after Putin’s invasion began. I am speculating, but I would not be surprised if those in charge of CSKA Moscow, the KHL, and the Russian Hockey Federation (RHF) felt that without any agreement with the NHL, why should they honor this tolled contract from Philadelphia? From their perspective, Fedotov was a free agent.

The IIHF, whom already suspended Russia from their competitions since the invasion, did not agree. On August 14, the IIHF made their ruling that Fedotov’s ELC with the Flyers was a valid contract. Subsequently, this meant that CSKA Moscow’s contract was a breach of their regulations. This would mean that Fedotov would finally come to America and try to take a spot on a Flyers team that probably will have some openings at goaltender, right?

No. The IIHF’s ruling came with an odd punishment. Fedotov was given a four month suspension by the IIHF and CSKA Moscow was given a one-year ban on international transfers. I would have expected something like voiding CSKA Moscow’s contract and requiring Fedotov to go play for the Flyers on the contract he signed in 2022. But no. He can play for CSKA Moscow for about half of a KHL season and CSKA will just to make domestic deals only for a season, which they are capable of sustaining on. It also seems off to punish the player for what the team decided to do. I have no proof but I would not be shocked if CSKA Moscow insisted on this two-season contract after his detainment.

CSKA Moscow was unhappy with the ruling. And so rather than begrudgingly follow it, they opted to take a different path.

The Opening Cup & the Opening of a Can of Worms

The KHL regular season started on September 1, 2023. They call the first game of the season the Opening Cup; a game scheduled between Ak Bars Kazan and CSKA Moscow. Starting in net for CSKA was the 6’7”, Finnish-born Russian goaltender Ivan Fedotov. Yes, the suspended Fedotov. How?

Simple. CSKA Moscow, the KHL, and the RHF did not like the IIHF’s ruling in August so they are not going to accept it. They are openly defying it. They just will not do it. Even the English-language KHL site has a quote from KHL President Alexei Morozov about Fedotov playing:

“The KHL accepted this roster in accordance with our central database, therefore [Ivan] Fedotov can play. Neither the KHL nor the club agree with the IIHF’s decision, which infringes the constitutional rights of a Russian citizen to work. Russia’s prosecutor general spoke in defense of the player, and sent a message to the Russian Hockey Federation, the club and the league about the consequences of violating his right to work and insisting that Fedotov be allowed to take part in the championship.”

I am just a middle-aged hockey blogger. I am not a lawyer, much less one versed in Russian law. But this reasoning is flimsy at best. I do not think Fedotov being suspended for four months denies his right to work a job. He just could not play in the KHL for four months. Nothing is stopping him from seeking employment outside of hockey during these four months. Or continuing to get paid by CSKA Moscow while not playing (the suspension did not say anything about payment). He would not be suspended for four months if he reported to Philadelphia to start honoring the contract, in fact. The real message is that the KHL and the team does not like the IIHF’s ruling so they are just not going to follow it. If Fedotov’s rights were their concern, then where was that concern in 2022 when he - as opposed to other players - got arrested and detained for military service?

On X, Szymon Szemberg, the Managing Director of the Alliance of European Hockey Clubs, had further information about this decision by CSKA Moscow. Namely that this goes beyond just the KHL and CSKA just rejecting the IIHF ruling. He points to this article at the Russian-language KHL site for a more detailed discussion with Morozov about the decision. Szemberg points out that it was not an accident that well-connected and super-wealthy Russian oligarchs Arkady Rotenberg, Igor Sechin, and Gennady Timchenko were thanked in the Russian article. The same article stated that the RHF backed this decision. That defeats the idea that the RHF wanted to tread lightly given how the IIHF continues to keep Russia out of their events. Szemberg also notes that the former IIHF Director Rene Fasel now works for the KHL and he could have been involved. I do not think that was an accidental hiring by the KHL or just a tidbit Szemberg threw in there.

The IIHF is absolutely aware of this decision and Fedotov’s participation in the game against Ak Bars Kazan. The initial action: a mere fine of 5,000 Swiss francs. CSKA Moscow can absolutely afford that fine. The announcement of the fine also stated that the IIHF Disciplinary Board could get involved and implement additional sanctions. If the fine is going to be that cheap, then you can bet on Fedotov continuing to get in games. 5,000 Swiss francs means nothing to a team as large as CSKA Moscow and with the backing of the country’s hockey federation as well as three of the richest, most powerful people in the country not named Vladimir Putin.

Oh, by the way, CSKA Moscow lost 5-2 to Ak Bars. It was a day to forget on the ice for Fedotov - the least important part of the game.

Speculating Implications

It is all contingent on what CSKA Moscow does. Given the statements put out by Morozov, what Szemberg wrote, and the fact that CSKA Moscow dressed Fedotov, I have to expect that Fedotov will keep playing. At this point, this is not about hockey, it is about the principle. And that principle is that CSKA Moscow, the KHL, and the RHF feel they can do as they wish with their players. Russia is already suspended by the IIHF from their events. Even with an ongoing invasion and many reasons to think Russia is not safe, players continue to go to the KHL to get paid to play there. Teams still draft prospects out of the KHL, VHL, and MHL. And based on what Szemberg pointed out, the Russian government is at least not opposed to this decision. What does the KHL have to lose?

I would like to think they have something to lose. Two thoughts come to my mind. First, the IIHF can just pull rank and declare that any contract registered by the KHL and through the RHF is effectively null and void. Let the larger hockey world look to poach players from the ‘K.’ Many in the KHL would not make it in the NHL - but they could in Finland, Sweden, Czechia, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Italy, Austria, France, Denmark, and so forth. This could get messy in terms of what the responses to that would be. This would also further set back any chance of a return of Russia to IIHF hockey. But the IIHF is now in the difficult position to at least consider drastic actions. Fines are not going to get CSKA, the KHL, or the RHF to change their ways. If they do not slap this down as hard as they can, then what is to stop teams in other member leagues from doing the same?

Second, the NHL may decide on their own to stop playing nice and just offer out contracts to KHL, VHL, and MHL players and see what happens. After all, CSKA does not respect Philly’s ELC, so why should Philly or any team respect CSKA’s contracts? Or any other KHL team’s contract, like, say, Matvei Michkov’s deal with SKA St. Petersburg? There is no agreement or memorandum anymore, after all. Again, this could get really messy. Especially if one of the larger KHL teams are involved. They have the resources and connections to, how do I write this suggestively enough, be especially persuasive to convince some players to stay. As daring as it was for Evgeni Malkin to desert his team in 2006, I do not think that should become standard practice.

Of course, I am thinking of the worst case scenarios. What makes this whole saga so interesting and off-putting is that at the center of all of this is a 26-year old goaltender. Ivan Fedotov may have the goods to play in the NHL. But he was never a top prospect. He was a seventh round draft pick in 2015. Philly offered him a deal after a breakout season just to see what they have in the player. This has not happened to any other player out of the KHL as far as I am aware. That may be a reason to say, “OK, this is weird, but it’s not going to be the norm.”

Further, I do not think every team in the KHL could pull this off. To be fair, the KHL is absolutely a league of haves and have-nots. SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow are wealthy and well-connected; they are two of the biggest, if not the biggest, teams in the league. A team like, say, Severstal Cherepovets, is not. They may not have the juice to pull what CSKA is doing. And Fedotov was a top goalie for CSKA coming off a championship 2021-22 season. I suspect CSKA values him a lot and believe they need him to remain competitive. Between their connections and that belief, that may explain why they have gone this far to keep him and not someone more promising.

That said, those same facts are why I believe this is such a big deal. If CSKA, the KHL, and the RHF essentially get away with this, then I would expect other teams to follow suit with prospects and late-blooming pros to keep them from playing elsewhere. If not now, then soon.

Why This Matters for the Devils

This new version of the Russian Factor is something that could impact all 32 NHL teams; not just the Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils have not been afraid of scouting and drafting out of Russia and the KHL’s leagues. They have multiple prospects from there in their system right now: Arseni Gritsyuk, Artem Barabosha, Zakhar Bardakov, and Daniil Orlov are all under 25 years old and on their own paths. Yegor Zaitsev remains on the reserve list, too. The Devils have been able sign Daniil Misyul after his contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslav ended. He should be a participant in camp this season. But this development with Fedotov will definitely be something the Devils and every team will have in the back of their minds if and when they negotiate their KHL or MHL based prospect to a NHL contract. Something they would normally do even if the decision is to loan the player back to the KHL (see: Shakir Mukhamadullin and Ufa) since it gives the team a level of control over the player’s development. Now, they have to consider the possibility that their KHL team could just “find a way” to deny a NHL contract from even being honored.

The Devils and the other NHL teams will have keep an eye on the developing situation until something happens. That could be the NHL informing their teams that it is open season on the KHL. That could be the IIHF coming up with a sanction with some actual teeth that can leave a mark on CSKA and the KHL. It could even be a sudden and welcome end of the invasion and a, uh, re-structuring of the Russian government that would take some of the power out from the league and certain teams. The latter is a pipe dream but whatever. My point is that the Devils and the other NHL franchises have reason to pay attention to what happens next from the IIHF as well as CSKA, the KHL, and the RHF.

Again, I feel the most bad for Ivan Fedotov. Szemberg concluded his series of statements by pointing out that Fedotov is in a no-win situation. He is just a goaltender. He carries next to no power in the larger geo-political world. He is just a professional athlete. All he wanted to do was play in the NHL. Forces in his home country and his team made a point of it to not let that happen. Even to the point of defying a suspension from the international organized body that oversees the sport. He cannot just leave on his own; it would make him and others in his life a target. He cannot refuse to play; he could very well be forced to go back to the military. That could mean being sent to fight and die in Putin’s quagmire. And so he has to play for CSKA Moscow; regardless of whether it makes sense for the team or if he wants to do it.

Your Take

This continues to be a developing situation. I really doubt CSKA Moscow’s, the KHL’s, and the RHF’s defiance will just be met with cheap fines and little more. It could end up being something that greatly impacts how any nation’s league deals with the KHL or Russian players. As ever, we will know it when it happens.

Until then, I want to know your take. What do you think the IIHF should do? What do you think the NHL should do, if anything? Does this impact what you think about the Devils’ prospects in the KHL and their likeliness to come over? What does a best-case scenario even look like? Will there be a second player subject to this other than Fedotov? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Fedotov saga in the comments. Thank you for reading.