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NHL Rules Push Players To KHL

Yesterday it was announced that Evgeni Nabokov signed a four year contract with SKA St Petersburg in the KHL.  Nabokov is a good NHL goalie.  He was named to the First Team All Star in 2008.  He is better than many goalies who are employed in the NHL, including many starters.  He is a better goalie than either of the pair his former NHL team, the San Jose Sharks intend to use next year.  There should be little controversy in claiming he is a better goalie than Antero Niittymaki or Thomas Greiss.

If Nabokov is such a good goalie why was he pushed out of the NHL?  Largely it comes down to a finite number of NHL jobs available.  The salary cap has forced teams to economize in some positions and the prime goaltending jobs filled up with players who will be paid less than the price Nabokov demanded (and deserved based on his past history).  When jobs began to be filled and Nabokov saw other big name goalies in Marty Turco and Jose Theodore remaining unemployed as well, he opted to return to his homeland to play in the KHL.

It is the salary cap that forces players out of the NHL.  Basic economics demands it.  If player salaries are held down artificially through a salary cap in the NHL, some players will not accept it.  They will find that they can command larger salaries outside the NHL’s restrictions and they are abandoning the league to get them.  Nabokov is the highest profile player to depart since Jaromir Jagr did two years ago.

Looking at the available unsigned unrestricted free agents there are several other candidates among the available Russians who may follow Nabokov.  These include Slava Kozlov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Alexander Frolov and possibly Ilya Kovalchuk.  There are many more candidates among Europeans who would be returning to their home continent to play in the KHL.  Candidates here include Pavol Demitra, Fredrik Modin, Marek Svatos, Petr Sykora and others.  In fact, North Americans may wind up going to the KHL.  The experienced, but unemployed, goaltenders Marty Turco and Jose Theodore might be candidates.

Sure the KHL also sends players to the NHL.  It looks like Nikolai Zherdev might sign in Philadelphia and Nikita Filatov is returning to Columbus, but the majority of the player flow is going toward Russia and the players going are not insignificant.

Logically, if the NHL is being challenged for global supremacy in hockey, it would not make sense to have rules that push players toward the competition.  Logic doesn’t often hold in the NHL’s rules.  The salary cap in the NHL has direct benefit to the KHL.  It forces players out of the NHL who are not getting their salary demands met in North America.  The KHL can afford to give these players more money and a bigger role on their team than the NHL does.  This helps to stock the KHL with top talent and it reduces the available NHL talent pool.  I think that eventually this pressure could be the biggest reason the NHL’s salary cap structure is changed.

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Comments

Hank1974's avatar

Nabby played himself out of the NHL.
Salary’s are still based mostly on regular season performances. Because he’s so great between October and April he can command a lot of money.
Unfortunately for him, he’s also prone to playoff collapses.

If he would take $2-3M/year, he’d be in the NHL. But no GM is going to touch a combustible playoff goaltender for anything close to what he wanted to remain in the NHL.

I love the KHL. It’s thinning the weaker animals from the herd. It’s only making the NHL better.

Until that league starts signing players like Crosby, Ovechkin, Keith and players of that ilk, in their primes, there’s no need to worry about the KHL stealing any of the NHL’s thunder.

Posted by Hank1974 on 07/08/10 at 11:55 AM ET

Evilpens's avatar

UMMMMM YEAH !! Nabakov is Great !! tongue laugh

Posted by Evilpens on 07/08/10 at 12:17 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

I think that the continued rise of the cap has been enough to stem so much of a tide.  If Kovalchuk lands in the KHL, that will probably be the biggest splash since Jagr, but the league doesn’t particularly miss these players nor does anybody seriously consider the KHL as adequate competition for the NHL just yet.

I don’t want to outright agree with the “thinning the herd” argument above, but it’s on the right sightline.  The KHL has to pay higher premiums for the same talent and is not nearly as commercially successful as the NHL.  There are significantly more teams in trouble in the KHL and they are spending high premiums try to appear as though they are not in trouble.  I see this as a partial mirror to the arms race of the 80s which crippled Russia’s economy.  I don’t think the KHL can sustain itself paying $6M per year to Evgeni Nabokov (who at most is worth a $4M chance to prove he can perform in the playoffs).

My biggest worry about the NHL versus KHL battle is that it is starting to frighten NHL teams away from looking abroad for talent when drafting players.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 07/08/10 at 12:36 PM ET

Keyser S.'s avatar

I love the KHL. It’s thinning the weaker animals from the herd. It’s only making the NHL better.

Seriously? So there’s 60 other goalies better than Nabokov?

Posted by Keyser S. on 07/08/10 at 01:00 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Seriously? So there’s 60 other goalies better than Nabokov?

Yes. But you have to look at it in relative terms.
Is Nabby at $6M/year better than Ron Ellis at $1.5M?

It’s a subjective argument, but in my mind, I would say Ellis at his current salary is more valuable than Nabby at his.

In a cap world, you can’t just look at talent alone. It’s talent+salary=worth.

All 30 teams would love to have Kovalchuk. Just like all 30 teams could probably find a role for Yashin or Jagr.
But if those players ask for $10M/year, their worth is reduced.

These GM’s are not running their team on an Xbox. It’s real life and real dollars. Nabby, with his playoff failings at $6M is far less valuable to a team when you take the Cap into consideration.

Posted by Hank1974 on 07/08/10 at 01:09 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Until that league starts signing players like Crosby, Ovechkin, Keith and players of that ilk, in their primes, there’s no need to worry about the KHL stealing any of the NHL’s thunder.

The problem with this attitude is that you are not worrying about the KHL until it is too late and they have stolen some of the NHL’s best talent.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The irony here is that Ilya Kovalcuk is one player who stands a good chance of going to the KHL this summer.  He is very talented and could easily be in the prime of a Hall of Fame career right now.  His loss to the KHL would be significant to the NHL.

Even if Kovalchuk doesn’t go let’s look at what the KHL can do to the NHL.  If they amass say 20 of the players ranked 50-300 in the world this is significant.  These are the players that would be in the core of the NHL franchises.  These are the players who could play in All Star Games.  Certainly Nabokov has the talent that his appearing in future NHL All Star Games, were he in the league, seems quite realistic.  I don’t think that figure of 20 potential NHL core players in the KHL is unreasonable and that figure is going up over time.

I don’t think the KHL can sustain itself

To a pretty large degree the sustainability of the KHL is not important when it comes to its hurting the NHL.  The WHA hurt the NHL product significantly in the 1970’s and it clearly was unsustainable.  I think it is clear that the KHL is more sustainable than the WHA ever was.

The final point I want to address is the atitude of putting down Nabokov as no major loss to the NHL.  This is not true.  As recently as two years ago he was a First Team All Star.  he is a good goalie.  The criticism on him comes from a lack of playoff success by the San Jose Sharks with him in goal.  To a large part this is a criticism to his team and not him alone and it doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the better goalies in hockey (probably right below elite level and with potential to regain that level with a strong season or two - at his age that may not be a strong bet but it is far from impossible).

If he would take $2-3M/year, he’d be in the NHL

Here is the problem.  Nabokov was in a situation where if he would take a contract below his established value where the team signing him more than likely gets performance above the price opf the contract he would still be in the NHL.  Naturally Nabokov has no desire to be a bargain to his next NHL team, so he found another option that is better for him.  Nabokov is not the only player who is finding a better option.  The NHL is losing players like him and it hurts their talent pool.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 07/08/10 at 01:11 PM ET

Avatar

To puckstopshere: I really enjoy your writing when you are not writing about who is elite, or who has the best corsi numbers.  (this is not a knock on you, I just don’t think it matters rather a team is elite or not, or rather a players corsi rating is higher then another)

I agree that the NHL Salary cap is going to hurt it over the long run.  For most North American Players the NHL is their dream place, but for a European, if they can live closer to home, play in a league that probably draws more fans, and pays more money, what is the appeal of the NHL?  Especially as the KHL becomes more talented, and a bigger competitor to the NHL.

Posted by wingsnut25 from Cheboygan, MI on 07/08/10 at 01:16 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

KHL is a House of Cards run by the Russian Mafia!! Fueled by Oil Prices when they skyrocketed !! Now that they are at a more reasonable level they don’t have the Ridiculous amounts of cash to throw around

Posted by Evilpens on 07/08/10 at 01:21 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

KHL is a House of Cards run by the Russian Mafia!! Fueled by Oil Prices when they skyrocketed !! Now that they are at a more reasonable level they don’t have the Ridiculous amounts of cash to throw around

Given that the KHL just signed a significant NHL player yesterday and will likely sign several more in the weeks to come, this rant seems like it is more wishful thinking than reality.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 07/08/10 at 01:24 PM ET

Avatar

Nabokov is in the KHL because the NHL GMs were too slow to adapt to the ramifications of a cap. In essense the cap was put in place because the owners thought some GMs were too stupid to spend within their budgets so they limited the overall amount they could spend. That didn’t stop the stupid GMs from overpaying for a few items they could afford and now they are once again in a bind. There needs to be a correction in salaries and term.

Right now the teams have overpriced players and underpriced players with no room for players at fair market value. The salary cap has created an NBA like structure where the stars get paid and the players in the middle get squeezed out. Nabokov is an above average NHL player, but he isn’t a marketing draw and he isn’t going to accept the minimum. So the overall depth of the game is going to suffer if this keeps up. If you think expansion hurt the talent level, what makes anyone think this is any better?

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 07/08/10 at 01:26 PM ET

Moq's avatar

For most North American Players the NHL is their dream place, but for a European, if they can live closer to home, play in a league that probably draws more fans, and pays more money, what is the appeal of the NHL?  Especially as the KHL becomes more talented, and a bigger competitor to the NHL.

I believe that a common misconception. If you were to poll the entire European talent pool, including Russians, the overwhelming majority wants to play in the NHL. The KHL is only a distant exit strategy if they fail to make it there.

Of course, that could change in the years to come depending on the development of NHL and KHL respectively. But right now there is no real contest in terms of popularity.

Posted by Moq from Denmark on 07/08/10 at 01:27 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

The final point I want to address is the atitude of putting down Nabokov as no major loss to the NHL.  This is not true.  As recently as two years ago he was a First Team All Star.  he is a good goalie.  The criticism on him comes from a lack of playoff success by the San Jose Sharks with him in goal.  To a large part this is a criticism to his team and not him alone and it doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the better goalies in hockey (probably right below elite level and with potential to regain that level with a strong season or two - at his age that may not be a strong bet but it is far from impossible).


That’s the same defense as for Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau or of any other single individual from the series of Sharks’ failures.  It’s never just one player’s fault to be sure, but at some point, there has to be a realization that Nabokov is partially responsible for it and, as a goalie, probably more responsible than the average player.  From watching Nabokov, I think he’s been given a lot more credit for being a good goalie than he deserves.  He’s not an elite goaltender (as you stated) and right now the established market value for an elite goaltender is between the $4-7M range, depending on the talent level of the team in front of him.  Since he is below that elite range and the Sharks are one of the teams with a good collection of talent in front of the goaltender, $3M is not seriously below his established market value.

He hasn’t shown that he can carry a good team through the playoffs, so it’s no surprise that a bad team won’t pay him $6M, especially since short playoff runs one series long mean very little to the revenues or sustained earnings potential of a bottom-dweller.

As for the dangers of the KHL, you’re right.  The faster the NHL squashes that bug or at least makes it come to grips with its place as a 2nd-tier league, the better it is for the game in North America, I just think the loss of Nabokov is not a serious blow.  If Kovalchuk goes, It will be a more serious issue.

I also don’t believe the NHL will ever have to worry about the KHL stealing their true top-flight guys.  Let’s be honest here, Kovalchuk is a fantastic hockey player, but there are tons more players in the league more valuable than he is, considering his contract demands.  Bottom line, if the KHL isn’t sustainable (which I don’t think it is), it will come out that great players are essentially paying a bit of a premium in taking slightly less money to play in the more stable league that isn’t a joke.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 07/08/10 at 01:27 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Excellent points PuckStopsHere.
However, lets not avoid the elephant in the room. The simple fact is that a great, GREAT majority of the NHL talent the KHL is stealing is Russian’s.
It’s been confirmed by people who are more educated than I on the subject, that Central Europeans such as Finns, Swedes, Swiss, etc, all have very little interest in playing in the KHL.
And a lot of that has to do with the fact that Central Europe living, or standard of living, is closer to how it is in North America compared to Russia.

Losing a Kovalchuk stinks. But right now, we’re losing 1 star and keeping 200.
Until that percentage decreases drastically I’m not worried.

And judging by what I’ve read about the KHL’s issues, I don’t think the NHL is in any trouble anytime soon.
In fact, we’re seeing two KHL/NHL alumn return to the NHL this year in Zherdev and Hudler. And Radulov is reportedly excited to get back to the NHL as well.

When the KHL signs a Zetterberg or Mike Richards, then I’ll start panicking. It’s not like the WHA when they were able to steal Bobby Hull. Not even close yet.

Posted by Hank1974 on 07/08/10 at 01:27 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

iven that the KHL just signed a significant NHL player yesterday and will likely sign several more in the weeks to come, this rant seems like it is more wishful thinking than reality.

You’re CLUELESS !!!! Jagr went there because of the Tax free contract they gave Him & he loses it as quickly as he pockets it with his Gambling Addiction


Nabakov has NEVER won anything, Plus Genius they resigned Marleauu} Nittimaki, Wallin & Nichol. With a salary cap You have to Pick your Poison, But since you know NOTHING about Hockey on ice other than the Godlike Corsi Numbers! You wouldn’t be able to comprehend this !!

Just like the Pens not resigning Gonchar & signing Michalek & Martin

Posted by Evilpens on 07/08/10 at 01:37 PM ET

Alan's avatar

Given that the KHL just signed a significant NHL player yesterday and will likely sign several more in the weeks to come

Nabokov priced himself out of the NHL. Several teams were in need of a goalie. The Thrashers, for example, chose to sign Mason instead. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, Mason is the better value, even though Nabokov might be the better goalie.

To me, the KHL is just another “red scare” sort of thing. It’s being reported that we should all be scared of the mean ol’ Russians, stealing away NHL players for their fledgling league. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

The salary cap, and NHL rules, had nothing to do with Nabokov being signed in Russia.

Posted by Alan from Atlanta on 07/08/10 at 01:43 PM ET

SharksPhan's avatar

Alan, you wrote:

The salary cap, and NHL rules, had nothing to do with Nabokov being signed in Russia.

Sorry, but I don’t buy this.  Assume for the sake of argument that the NHL had no salary cap.  The Sharks are not a poor team.  With no cap, no spending limit, they can (and probably would) keep Nabokov and not have to worry about dumping other players in the process to stay under the cap.  The nucleus of the Sharks team remains undisturbed, and Nabokov remains in the NHL.

Even assuming the Sharks would have let Nabokov go even in a world without a salary cap, some other rich NHL team would have undoubtedly signed him.  The only reason I can see why he felt he had to leave is that no NHL team could justify signing him at his price while still having to fight to stay under the cap.

I don’t disagree with the bulk of what you wrote, but your claim that the salary cap “had nothing to do with Nabokov being signed in Russia” is (IMNSHO) clearly untenable.

Posted by SharksPhan on 07/08/10 at 05:42 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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