There wasn’t much excitement heading into the 2008 NHL Draft for the Montreal Canadiens. They had traded away their first-round pick in exchange for speedy forward Alex Tanguay, their fifth-round pick in the trade that landed them Josh Gorges (and a first round pick in 2007 that turned into Max Pacioretty), and their sixth-rounder that brought Janne Niinimaa. They did pick up a fifth-round pick along with Tanguay, so overall they had five late-round picks to make.
When the draft was over, the most intriguing pick was the one draft boss Trevor Timmins believed could be a steal: 17-year-old forward Maxim Trunev. The Russian was ranked as the 55th-best European skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, and was just eight days shy of having to wait for the 2009 draft. Some had said that at his rate of progress, he could have gone up as high as the first round a year later.
Trunev was coming off of a 52-point season with Severstal’s youth team, including one game in the top Russian league for at just 17 years old.
Odds were that the Canadiens (and other teams) got a first good look at Trunev back in 2006 at the Macs Midget AAA Hockey Tournament in Calgary, where he earned first-team all-star honours, turning heads for his speed and dynamic offensive ability. Despite his smaller size, the forward was a fast and agile skater and possessed a hard wrist shot.
He continued to shine after that showing. He was named the best forward at a 2007 tournament featuring several KHL farm clubs, and in January of 2008 was was part of the Severstal-2 delegation that won an international tournament in Canada contested by 25 Junior team, defeating the Vancouver Giants 7-0 in the final. He scored two goals in that game, once again standing out for his offensive prowess.
After drafting him in 2008, the Canadiens would have to wait a bit before they saw Trunev in their environment. Although he was scheduled to go to the Canadiens’ development camp right after the draft, passport problems prevented him from crossing the Atlantic. Management wasn’t too worried; they knew he was coming over to play Junior hockey anyway, so they would still get to watch him develop from up-close at their rookie camp, and then in the CHL.
“We were lucky in the past with Europeans,” said Timmins. “Trunev mentioned his interest in coming to North America to play his Junior, and that attracted the interest of several Canadian Junior teams.”
A few weeks later, the CHL Import Draft was held, and that’s where everything quickly soured. Trunev was drafted third overall by the Portland Winterhawks, which is an impressive ranking, however Portland picking him was not part of the plan. The Shawinigan Cataractes had a deal with Trunev’s managers that they would pick and sign him, despite not picking until much later in the draft.
“I am really disappointed,” said Martin Mondou, general manager of the Cataractes. “I spent a lot of time working on a deal with Trunev’s representatives. When everything was sorted a few days ago, his agent let all the other teams know that his client would not be available, and that he would only consider one place to play in the entire Canadian Hockey League. You have to believe that Portland decided to take a risk.”
This sudden change of circumstances did not please the Canadiens, but they had to try to make it work. “I would have preferred if Trunev was selected by a team closer to Montreal,” Timmins said following the import draft, “but [Portland] is a good city, and a good arena for a young player. Hopefully their representatives will help us convince Trunev to play there.”
The odds of seeing Trunev make the jump dropped significantly according to La Presse, and unfortunately for the Canadiens, Trunev ended up staying in Russia and signing a multi-year contract with Severstal Cherepovets, running through the end of the 2010-11 season.
The contract was not an issue for the Canadiens since there was no transfer agreement between the Russian and North American leagues. The Memorandum of Understanding pertaining to player movement between leagues wasn’t put in place until 2011. The Canadiens were fully expecting Trunev to break his contract and come to North America for the 2008-09 campaign, but instead would now have to watch him develop from far away and without the sort of control they would have had otherwise.
The 2008-09 season became a turning point for Trunev. He started the season in the KHL with Severstal as an 18-year-old, but saw very limited ice time. In a 2012 interview for Sports.ru, Trunev recalled that he had a hard time with the coaching staff at Severstal.
“I got little playing time. I didn’t have many shifts, and when I did it was on the fourth line. The main thing was not to make a mistake. It was very difficult to prove myself individually under these circumstances, hence the statistics I had.”
“We had two players injured and we offered him the chance to play,” explained Timmins about the lengths the team went to in order to attract Trunev to North America, referring to a potential spot on the NHL roster. “He’s only played three games thus far over there. We hope that he will take part in the World Junior Championship. If that’s the case, we will be happy. We know that he wants to come and play in North America.”
Trunev was initially selected for the U20 Four Nations Tournament, but an injury prevented him from competing in the tournament, and subsequently in the World Juniors as well. It was the worst-case scenario for Montreal.
The following year, Trunev did take part in the WJC, recording two goals and four points in six games. Despite the performance with the national team, Trunev was sent back down to the MHL farm team, Almaz, to complete the season, not having earned his KHL team’s trust beyond spot fourth-line duties.
On Severstal he was one of the youngest players; on Almaz he was one of the oldest. He was a top-line player for Almaz, scoring points in bunches, but then he would be recalled to Severstal and expected to stay after practice to pick up pucks and have the last pick of lockers and seats on the plane.
“It’s hard to prove oneself in the few minutes you’re allowed to play,” he said at the time. His development was obviously being seriously affected, as there was no steady slope, but rather hills and valleys where he would spend long stretches having an easy time in the MHL.
In March of 2011, still in the MHL, Trunev was selected to play an international tournament with Canada, Russia, and Slovakia as participants. By this point, Trunev’s star was fading quickly in North America. He earned a good grade from Mathias Brunet in a prospect overview for La Presse, but at the same time Brunet said that Trunev’s odds of making the Canadiens were in between “it won’t be easy” and “you never know.”
For four seasons, Trunev jumped between Cherepovets and their minor-league team, never fully establishing himself as the offensive breakout star. He moved on to various other KHL teams where he played bottom-six roles for the majority of his career after having lost the speed that set him apart, exposing his defensive shortcomings and reported unwillingness to battle for the puck.
Now 29 years of age, the ship has long sailed with the Canadiens. He has played just three games for Traktor Chelyabinsk this season, after partial campaigns with Spartak Moscow the past two seasons. A player who was one of the top offensive hopes for Montreal a decade ago now seems to be playing out the final part of his career.