Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the “What The Hell Happened To…?” series, not all of our subjects are monumental draft busts. Sometimes, a player experiences success before the wheels fall off. And in even rarer cases, a player will reach the heights of superstardom before they plummet back to Earth.
The latter, still somewhat surprising even today, brings us to Alexei Yashin.
Yashin’s name was famous in hockey circles at a very young age thanks to being made the first pick in Ottawa Senators history — 2nd overall in 1992 (Tampa Bay was also added as an expansion franchise that year, making Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik the 1st pick).
He would wait a year before joining the Senators, arriving at the same time as 1993 1st overall pick Alexandre Daigle. Yashin would surpass Daigle’s totals in their first season in Ottawa, putting up 79 points and earning himself a Calder Trophy nomination as the NHL’s top rookie.
It was during this time that his tumultuous relationship with Senators management would begin. They initially scoffed at the idea of giving him a five-year, $4M contract to begin his career, viewing Daigle as the franchise cornerstone and giving him the largest rookie contract in NHL history. From there, he had another spat with the team before the 1995/96 season. Yashin refused to honor his contract unless he was made the team’s highest paid player. This attitude divided the fan base’s opinion on him with some souring on him while others found themselves supporting him since his numbers exceeded the more hyped Daigle every step of the way.
Yashin would see similar success over the next few seasons, posting back-to-back 30-goal, 70-point seasons in 1996/97 and 1997/98.
Though he was named team captain, by the time the 1998/99 season rolled around, his relationship with the team was again damaged. Following an incident where Yashin pledged to donate to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa but wanted the NAC to pay his parents $425,000 for a loosely defined “consulting fee”, things seemed like they may be irreconcilable.
Despite all of this, Yashin would emerge as an elite player after 1998/99. Exploding for 44 goals and 94 points, he earned himself a Hart Trophy nomination for league MVP. All of his successes would not be celebrated for long as Yashin again held out (for the third time in five years) following the season. The Senators balked at his demands and he demanded a trade at the advice of his agent. Instead of trading him, the team stripped him of his captaincy (Daniel Alfredsson would get the honor and has held it ever since).
He would refuse to report for the 1999/00 season and, on November 10th, was suspended for the rest of the year by the Senators with the support of the NHL. He would try to sign with a Swiss team but the International Ice Hockey Federation intervened, suspended him from playing internationally until the issue was resolved.
Finally, after realizing there was no other avenue for him to pursue, Yashin returned to the Senators for the 2000/01 season, posting 40 goals and 88 points. But after a poor showing and a playoff defeat at the hands of the Leafs in the first round, Yashin’s days in Ottawa were clearly over.
This led to the now infamous trade during the first day of the 2001 NHL Draft. Yashin was dealt to Long Island for defenseman Zdeno Chara, forward Bill Muckalt, and the second overall pick in the draft (the highly touted Jason Spezza). Islanders GM Mike Milbury then immediately re-signed him to a ten-year, $87.5M deal. Milbury had put all his faith and money into Yashin, making him virtually untradeable.
Moving to a lesser team on Long Island, Yashin’s production declined. Still, he led them to the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons during 2001/02 and brought them back in the two years after. But once there, they didn’t experience much success. He would miss half of the 2003/04 season and wasn’t very good when he was in the lineup, leading many around the league to question his effort and wonder how the Islanders would handle his salary in regards to his declining production.
Heading into the 2006/07 season, it was decided that it was sink or swim time for Yashin in an Islanders uniform. He started the season among the league leaders in scoring through 20 games but would suffer a knee strain that would sideline him until March. Upon his return, he helped lead the Isles into the playoffs but once there, the wheels fell off. He posted no points in five games and was demoted to the fourth line by coach Ted Nolan.
The team had seen enough and that summer, bought out the remainder of Yashin’s contract — $17.63M to be paid out over eight years.
Following his buyout, rumors swirled that Yashin would possibly be returning to Ottawa. His agent furthered the rumors by saying that the two sides would be in touch but after little to no interest from the Senators, he wound up signing with his home-country KHL.
Prior to the 2011/12 season, it had been speculated that there were talks of a return for Yashin to Long Island. Ultimately, talks fell through and he signed a one-year contract with CSKA Moscow of the KHL.
For all of his success, including landing supermodel Carol Alt, Yashin frequently felt like he was undervalued by the Ottawa Senators. And in retrospect, it appears the Senators were smart to keep the Russian superstar always striving toward the big pay day. The Islanders, who overpaid even at the time, learned the hard way. Chara has become a cornerstone of the Boston Bruins, winning the Norris Trophy and leading the B’s to a Stanley Cup while Spezza has become one of the cornerstones of the Senators and one of the premier playmaking centers in the league.
Perhaps we haven’t seen the last of the enigmatic Russian center. But for now, we’ll be left to wonder just what the hell happened to Alexei Yashin.
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