Saturday, 24 June 2017

McKenzie's Tweet

The NHL Entry Draft is a bit of a gamble for teams looking to change their fortunes. For the most part, the players picked in the opening round will play a part in helping the franchises who picked them, but there have been general managers who have decided to "go off the board" in the opening round to try and grab a player they believe will help their clubs thanks to some advanced scouting. When the Winnipeg Jets selected the defenceman above with the 17th-overall pick in 1992, it grabbed everyone by surprise including all of the media. That's something rare, even in those days, so I had to point this pick out.

TSN's Bob McKenzie dropped this incredible tweet on the world yesterday, and it brought back all sorts of memories of watching the bumbling #3 patrol the Jets' blue line. Sergei Bautin should never have been a first-overall draft pick, and the names that Winnipeg left on the board to select the Russian rearguard is a little baffling. While the era of Mike Smith as GM in Winnipeg brought in numerous Russian players to the Manitoba capital, Sergei Bautin might be the cherry on the top of what was a rather forgettable era in Jets history.

Sergei Bautin was selected 17th-overall in 1992 in a draft that produced first-overall pick Roman Hamrlik, fifth-overall pick Darius Kasparaitis, and 14th-overall pick Sergei Gonchar. Clearly, the international flavor was nothing new for the NHL that season as 11 of the 24 first-round picks were from non-North American countries. That being said, only two players played less NHL games than Sergei Bautin did, and it's still puzzling how Bautin got that many games attached to his hockey career after seeing him play.

Bautin played two seasons with Moscow Dynamo in the Russian SuperLeague where he put up three goals, two assists, and 116 penalty minutes in 65 games of action as a 21 and 22 year-old defenceman. It wasn't like this kid was some 16 year-old phenom who got a shot to play against the men in Russia; rather, he was simply a low depth defenceman who had an affinity for spending time in the penalty box on a regular basis. Again, he scored a whopping five points when the Jets were scouting him, so I have a hard time seeing why they would draft a 22 year-old Russian who would be classified as a "project player" with their first-overall pick in 1992. He recorded no points at the 1992 Olympics and just a goal and an assist in eight games at the 1992 World Championships, so what did Winnipeg see in him?

After choosing Bautin at the draft and shocking everyone, things didn't go too poorly for the Jets and Bautin in his rookie season. Bautin scored a respectable five goals and 18 assists to go along with 96 penalty minutes in 71 games, helping the Jets make the playoffs where they would bow out to the Vancouver Canucks in six games. There were still questions about his skating and vision, though, as he often seemed out of position and a step behind most other players at his age. However, with the success the Jets had that season, these holes in his game were often forgiven because he was an NHL rookie trying to adjust to the faster North American game.

The 1993-94 season was not so forgiving to Sergei Bautin. With the NHL having undergone massive changes, the Jets found themselves in the Central Division as the NHL changed formats to introduce the Eastern and Western Conferences and playoffs featuring the top-eight teams from both conferences. The club decided to trade defenceman Phil Housley to the St. Louis Blues for Nelson Emerson and Stephane Qunital, and the revamped blue line never found its leader all season. The Jets got off to a 6-3-1 start that season, but a 2-20-2 run that lasted from January 2 until February 25 sunk the struggling club to dead last in the Western Conference from which they wouldn't recover.

After a 5-3 loss to the Penguins on February 18, 1994, the Jets pulled off a minor miracle by finding a taker for Bautin who hadn't won over any fans with his poor play during the losing streak. Somehow, GM John Paddock convinced Detroit GM Bryan Murray to take Bautin and goaltender Bob Essensa off their hands in exchange for Tim Cheveldae and Dallas Drake. While the trade wouldn't save the season for the Jets, it was a move that improved the Jets dramatically both on the ice and on paper.

Bautin, though, would find himself in a very unwelcoming situation. As per the Chicago Tribune in 1994,
But Murray was being ripped royally for the second, less publicized part of the trade, the one that sent young Dallas Drake to Winnipeg for Sergei Bautin. While Drake was playing for the Jets, Bautin had to be sent down to Adirondack because he was so out of shape.

A two-pack-a-day smoker, Bautin, a defenseman, could not bench-press his own weight - 185.

"Condition-wise, he was at the bottom of our organization," said Winnipeg GM John Paddock - after the deal was made. "He's got no quickness and no strength."
Bautin's one-game audition for Scotty Bowman went poorly, and he was dispatched to Adirondack where he wouldn't be recalled. Out of work with the Red Wings, he found a taker in the San Jose Sharks for the 1995-96 season, but he was quickly sent down to the IHL's Kansas City Blades when San Jose's coaches and management realized the defender still couldn't skate in the NHL.

With this NHL options exhausted, Sergei Bautin jumped to Sweden with Lulea IF, but continued to be plagued by penalty minutes. He averaged more than five penalty minutes per game in his first season, leading the league with 153 PIMs, playing alongside players such as Mattias Ohlund, Jarmo Myllys, and Mika Alatalo. Lulea would finish in third-place in the SEL that year and finish as the finalist where they earned a silver medal, and Bautin was invited back for a second season.

At 30 years-old, Bautin cleaned up his act by reducing his penalty minutes total by over 130 minutes, finishing with just 21 PIMs in 1997-98. Lulea would take steps back in the SEL, however, and Bautin's contract was not renewed for a third season. He would play for Ak Bars Kazan the following season, Nuremburg in the DEL in 1999-00, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2000-01. In those three season, he would total four goals, 15 assists, and 221 PIMs as whatever he learned with Lulea was forgotten quickly. After his season with Magnitogorsk, Bautin's career in professional hockey was over.

Ironically, his LinkedIn profile has some inconsistencies once we hit the new millenium. According to Bautin's LinkedIn, he played with Magnitogorsk from 2002-03, some three years after his stint with Ak Bars Kazan, and his 50-or-so games with the Nuremburg Ice Tigers appear before his time with Ak Bars Kazan. He does list two years with Japan's Oji Seishi Tomakomai of the Asian Ice Hockey League as a player and assistant coach from 2000-02 which doesn't appear on some sites, but it does on others. His one year with the Russian Second Division team Krylya Sovetov Moscow is shown on some sites as well, but he used this year to transition into a coaching role with Krylya Sovetov's junior team and to enroll at the Moscow Athlete University where he obtained his Bachelor's Degree in Professional Coaching. I'm not sure about you, but that degree sounds a little questionable. Nevertheless, he has a degree.

It seems, though, that coaching has brought Sergei Bautin back to North America. His LinkedIn shows that he spent four years in Kansas City, Missouri coaching a youth team followed by a 13-months stint in Dallas, Texas coaching another youth team. For the last six years, Bautin has lived in Denver, Colorado where he's the Hockey Director at Big Bear Ice Arena's Evolution Elite Hockey Academy. Again, I'm not sure you want to be taking lessons from a guy whose off-season training was chain-smoking and vodka shots, but he is a "professional coach" as per his degree.

So who did the Jets pass over when it came to that 17th-overall pick? The list is only a few players long before Winnipeg chose again at #27, but there are three names that stand out:
  • Defenceman Jason Smith went at #18 to New Jersey.
  • Centerman Martin Straka went at #19 to Pittsburgh.
  • Winger Grant Marshall went at #23 to Toronto.
The Jets did miss out on others after taking Boris Mironov at #27. Valeri Bure went to Montreal at #33, Mike Peca went to Vancouver at #40, and Darren McCarty went to Detroit at #46. I'm not sure how Mike Smith got his GM job or how he kept his GM job for as long as he did, but his scouting staff was probably the worst staff the NHL has ever produced with the misses they absorbed in trying to draft Russians. Granted, they got a few picks right - Keith Tkachuk, Stu Barnes, Alexei Zhamnov, and Nikolai Khabibulin - but the vast majority of his picks were, at best, questionable.

And that's the story, ladies and gentlemen, of how an obscure Russian defenceman had an NHL career where his only bicep curl was to lift a cigarette or shot glass to his mouth.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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