At the very beginning of the summer, it seemed that next season of the KHL could set a historical anti-record for the number of foreign players in the league. Against the backdrop of the difficult political situation in Russia and the world, many legionnaires broke off existing contracts with Russian clubs and looked for options to continue their careers in European championships.
By the end of the second month of summer, we can safely state that this trend has slightly changed. European players are still extremely reluctant to enter into contracts with KHL clubs, which their colleagues from North America have taken full advantage of. Over the past two weeks, a flood of North American hockey players have poured into the league, including such players as 28th overall pick of the 2014 NHL draft Josh Ho-Sang (Salavat Yulaev), 61st pick of the 2015 NHL draft Jeremy Bracco ( “Barys”), the best defender-scorer of the last AHL playoffs Joey Keane (“Spartak”) and many others.
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The motives of the players are completely different. Some have long said goodbye to the hope of gaining a foothold at the NHL level and are now going to the KHL in search of a better financial life, while others cherish the hope of restarting their careers and attracting the attention of NHL clubs. It is to the second group of players that another North American newcomer of Salavat Yulaev belongs – 23-year-old now ex-striker of the San Jose Sharks system Alexander Khmelevsky.
Last week, the American striker did not accept the Sharks’ qualifying offer and decided to continue his career in the Russian league by signing a one-year contract with the Ufa club. It is the short term of the contract that indicates that in Russia Khmelevski intends to have a good bright season in order to return overseas at the age of 24, where the player showed some promise at the start of his career.
“Salavat Yulaev” signed a contract with the American forward “San Jose”
The young striker, who was born in California in a family of Ukrainian immigrants, went through the entire training system for American national teams. At the age of 17, Chmielewski played for Team USA in the World Challenge Cup, where he was teammates with defender Quinn Hughes and forward Brady Tkachuk. A few years later, Alexander played for the American team at the 2019 Youth World Championship, reaching the final of the world championship with his team.
Photo: Kevin Light/Getty Images
By that time, Chmielewski had already been selected by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft, 185th overall. Such a low pick in the draft was due to the fact that Alexander had a rather weak pre-draft year, scoring only 43 points in 58 games in the Ontario Junior League for the Ottawa 67. The “less than one point per game” indicator is an extremely mediocre result for junior hockey.
But after the draft, Alexander’s career took off sharply. Russian fans should remember this striker well, because three years ago it was Alexander who became the evil genius of our team in the semi-finals of the World Cup. At the beginning of the second period, the Stars and Stripes used the majority they earned as a result of the removal of Vitaly Kravtsov. The future first number NHL draft Jack Hughes shot from the right side, and Chmielewski put his stick and sent the puck between the shields to Petr Kochetkov. Alexander’s puck in that match turned out to be victorious for the US team, and the Russian players after the match could not hold back tears of disappointment, parting with the dream of world gold.
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For Chmielewski himself, that tournament was a bright breakthrough in his career. In seven games, he scored 7 (4 + 3) points, and he scored three of the four goals in the playoffs. In addition to the winning goal against the Russian team, Alexander also upset the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals and Finland in the final once. Chmielewski’s goal in the “golden” meeting almost became a turning point in the entire tournament. He distinguished himself in the middle of the third period with the score 2-0 in favor of the Finnish team, and a minute after his puck he also assisted Josh Norris. The Americans managed to equalize the score in the match, but the last word in that final was left to Kaapo Kakko and his team.
Further, Alexander developed in the Sharks system, gradually leading up to his debut at the NHL level. A significant event occurred on February 6, 2021, when Chmielewski made his debut in the world’s major hockey league against the Anaheim Ducks. Already 13 minutes after the start of the meeting, the young striker entered his name in the match protocol, marking himself with an assist. Until the end of the regular season, he played four more matches, and after the end of the NHL season, he went to the US team to play at the adult world championship.
There he again proved himself from the very best side, and, symptomatically, Sasha again played the best matches in the tournament at the most necessary moment for his team – in the playoffs. In three cup matches, he scored 3 (2+1) points, scoring in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, as well as scoring an assist in the bronze medal match, where the US team defeated the German team (6: 1).
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But if the player’s career at the international level was quite successful, then in the Sharks system he turned a little sour. 23 years old is the age when a player who is among the potentially stable players of the NHL level should have a place in the first team of his club for most of the season. But Chmielewski only played 18 NHL games last season. Moreover, Alexander played all the games at the end of the season, when the “sharks” had already said goodbye to the chances of getting into the playoffs.
During this time, he did not score a single puck, but made eight assists. 8 points in 18 matches is not the worst result, but at the same time, 0 goals cannot be attributed to the number of achievements. That is why the Sharks made a half-hearted decision, on the one hand offering the player a new contract, and on the other hand, exclusively in the form of a qualifying offer, which in practice meant a small salary by league standards up to $ 1 million. As mentioned above, qualification Chmielewski did not accept, instead moving to Russia.
“We hope that our legionnaires will come to us soon. According to Chmielewski, we needed a central one, he controls the game, controls the puck, plays both in defense and in attack, mostly plays half board, right-handed. I talked with the guys from America – he is a professional in character and attitude, ”said Viktor Kozlov, head coach of Salavat, commenting on the transfer of Khmelevsky.
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For sure, in the Ufa club, Alexander forms a bond with another North American Ho-Seng, and their combination should become one of the main tools of Salavat in the new season. With the league’s continuing decline undeniable, Chmielewski has the potential to become one of the most interesting players in the KHL this season. It will certainly be impossible for a young player to refuse motivation and desire, because he sees the game in Russia as a springboard for returning to the NHL on different terms. And in this situation, it will be incredibly interesting to watch the game of Chmielewski in Ufa.