TORONTO -- For any NHL scout, media member or hockey fan questioning Kirill Kabanov's interest in staying and playing hockey in North America, he has a very succinct answer.
"I will stay in North America forever," Kabanov told NHL.com. "CHL, AHL, NHL -- I don't want to go back to Russia."
Teams wanted to hear more than just those words when they met with him here this week during the NHL Scouting Combine. Kabanov's rich skill set makes him a tempting pick, but the off-ice issues that have surrounded him bring any kind of high selection into question, and makes the Combine more important to him than any of the other 99 top prospects assembled in Toronto this week.
"If he comes in and there's a certain level of humility and you get the sincerity in the player and a commitment to play in whatever league he's asked to play in by his National Hockey League team, that means something." -- Atlanta GM Rick Dudley
"This is an important event for him," said New York Islanders Director of Amateur Scouting Ryan Jankowski. "I think we all have seen Kirill Kabanov play and we've seen the skill level he brings. Now it's about using your weights and measurements to figure out if this is the right pick for our organization at this spot."
A recounting of the controversy surrounding Kabanov reads like a Broadway tragedy -- fitting, because his older brother is an actor in the Russian theater.
Kabanov missed the first month of the QMJHL season while the Moncton Wildcats, who drafted him this summer in the CHL Import Draft, fought with Kabanov's Russian team over the validity of his contract. The IIHF finally sided with Moncton, and Kabanov made an immediate impact, with 5 goals and 14 points in 11 games.
However, persistent wrist pain was revealed to be a broken scaphoid bone, and surgery to repair it sidelined Kabanov for nearly three months. When he returned, Moncton was a top team with a solidified lineup, and Kabanov found his top-line role had been changed to a third-line spot. He chafed under the reduced ice time.
"(Kabanov) is used to being a go-to guy," Moncton coach Danny Flynn told the Times and Transcript of New Brunswick in April. "The fact that other guys were playing ahead of him was an adjustment that he had to learn to make. He was restless playing on the third line."
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"I wasn't getting much (ice) time," Kabanov said. "Moncton promised me lots of ice time and I get only eight or seven minutes. I still was playing not bad, scoring a point per game (9 points in 11 games)."
Prior to Moncton's third playoff game, Kabanov met with Flynn, and a decision was made for Kabanov to leave the team and return home to Russia and get ready to play in the World Under-18 Championship.
In hindsight, Kabanov says he never should have left.
"I understand it was the biggest mistake in my career," he said. "I think it was biggest mistake in my life, in my career."
The lack of ice time wasn't the only reason Kabanov wanted to leave Moncton -- Russia U-18 coach Mikhail Vasiliev had been asking him to return to play.
When he got home, however, Vasiliev cut him from the team and then ripped him in the media.
"I removed him from the team because we thought Kabanov would help us, but he brought only confusion to the team," Vasiliev told Sovietsky Sport. "Kabanov came and thought, 'Here I am, a star from Canada, who will save all.' But it's the team that wins rather than an individual player."
"Coach told me he didn't need American bubble gum on the team," said Kabanov. "It goes back to in Soviet Union there was no bubble gum, so if somebody went to North America they would ask them to bring bubble gum home, so that's why he called me bubble gum. So I'm an American bubble gum in Russia right now."
Kabanov felt chewed up and spit out by his home country, and vowed never again would he pull on a Russian national team sweater.
"I don't want to play on national teams," he said. "Actually, I wanted to change my citizenship."
NHL teams likely don't want him to go that far, but it's likely they were looking to hear certain things.
Kirill Kabanov (Getty Images)
"If he comes in and there's a certain level of humility and you get the sincerity in the player and a commitment to play in whatever league he's asked to play in by his National Hockey League team, that means something," Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Rick Dudley told NHL.com.
Kabanov said he doesn't mind answering the questions -- he only joked he wished he could tape record his answer because it's the same every time. He made a mistake and wants the chance to move forward and play in the NHL.
It's an opportunity some team will give him. Which team and where, however, remain as more questions surrounding Kabanov.
"The kid's got a gift, he can score goals," San Jose Sharks Director of Scouting Tim Burke told NHL.com. "Sometimes with goal scorers you have to put up with that a little bit."