Less than a month ago, Matvei Michkov was off to a rough start to his 2023-24 season.
The Russian super prospect — and possible future Philadelphia Flyers franchise player — wasn't playing poorly, but he was struggling to get playing time. His club, SKA St. Petersburg sat him in three of its first four games and put him out for just 6:12 in his one appearance.
It's unfair to be completely definitive about the reasoning for that, but SKA scored just eight goals in the three games Michkov didn't participate in. The team also has a 6-6 record this season, suggesting it's not a juggernaut that can afford to bench a premier talent like Michkov.
The youngster isn't a perfect player at the outset of his professional career, but he's coming off a 2022-23 where he managed 20 points in 30 games, and demonstrated an extremely high skill level.
This is Matvei Michkov. He loves scoring goals.
There's a team outside of the top 3 that's going to draft him and then smile for a really long time. pic.twitter.com/noAzbuOkJK
The most likely reason for his benching is the desire Michkov has demonstrated for playing in the NHL. That can be a no-no for Russian players in the KHL as Ivan Fedotov learned when he ended up on serving on a military base instead of battling for the Flyers' backup goaltending job last year.
"I've heard that he was offered a contract by CSKA and he declined it," he said. "They said they wouldn't let him go to the NHL. He said he would go. And one person sent him to military service."
Parking a player on the bench is far less extreme than sending him to a military base, but Michkov seems to have been put into an unfair position by SKA early in the season. It's precisely the sort of thing NHL teams fear when drafting Russian players whose development will take place under unpredictable circumstances.
Luckily for Michkov — and by extension, the Flyers — SKA loaned the forward to HC Sochi for the rest of the season, and the early returns on that move have been excellent.
Matvei Michkov on Sochi HC:
— 4 Goals
— 6 Assists
— 10 Points
— 1.25 Pts/Game (3rd in entire KHL)
— 33 Shots
— 9 Hits
— 6 Blocks
— On pace for the best point total from a D+1 player in KHL history
7th Overall Pick from 3 months ago. pic.twitter.com/YAVOizIkAU
— Big Head Hockey (@BigHeadHcky) October 2, 2023
That's precisely what Flyers fans want to see, and even in a small sample those numbers invalidate the idea SKA was benching Michkov for legitimate reasons. Sochi is 7-1 since the youngster joined, and he's tied for the team lead in points during that span (10).
On Monday he hammered home the idea that he was good enough to play a prominent role for SKA when he produced his first three-point performance of the season against his old squad — including a goal within the first five minutes of the game.
— Hockey News Hub (@HockeyNewsHub) October 2, 2023
From Michkov's standpoint, it must feel good to do some damage against a team that was either malicious or utterly incompetent in its handling of him — especially when his club managed a win to put them even further ahead of SKA in the standings.
Beyond any personal grievances, it's also a great sign for the Flyers. Philadelphia is undoubtedly appreciating the heater Michkov is on, but more than that, the team can now rest assured that his 2023-24 season will include the 18-year-old playing a prominent role on a competitive KHL team.
There is still some uncertainty about precisely when he'll be able to come to the NHL, but logging significant ice time in the KHL will help him get ready for the game's highest level — probably more than playing in the CHL, like many prospects his age.
Philadelphia has less control than it might like over Michkov's path, but if the past few weeks are any indication, his move to HC Sochi is a positive course correction for the 18-year-old.