Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 02/08/12 at 02:10 PM ET
When the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) was founded in 2008, more than a few observers suggested it had the resources to not only retain the best Russian talent, but could also prove a viable rival to the National Hockey League for the world’s best players.
One reason for that belief was the presence of wealthy Russian investors, many of whom earned their fortunes via the country’s lucrative petroleum industry, making it possible for KHL teams to offer up competitive salaries to top free agent players.
Russian professional athletes also don’t to pay income tax on their salaries in their home country, which was also seen as another potential enticement.
It was also believed the KHL, born in part out of frustration over the NHL’s unwillingness to properly compensate Russian teams when their best young players were signed by NHL teams, would stand a better chance of retaining that young talent than the old Russian Super League.
The KHL made it’s first big splash in the summer of 2008, when Avangard Omsk inked Jaromir Jagr to a long-term deal.
Some observers compared this to the fledgling World Hockey Association (WHA) signing Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull in 1972, suggesting it gave legitimacy to the new Russian league.
Had Jagr been ten years younger and still in his playing prime, such a move certainly would’ve been comparable to the WHA signing Hull. Jagr, however, was in his late-thirties and on the downside of his great career. His departure scarcely created a ripple in the NHL’s deep talent pool.
A more controversial signing that year was Alexander Radulov joining Salavat Yulaev Ufa, even though he had one year remaining on his entry level deal with the Nashville Predators.
Because that signing was made prior to an agreement between the KHL and NHL restricting either other from signing players under existing contracts, Radulov was able to honor his contract with his KHL team, much to the chagrin of the Predators and the NHL.
Since then, however, both leagues have honored the agreement and there’s been no further incidents similar to Radulov’s.
Despite those signings, the KHL has not become a league of choice for the NHL’s top free agents.
Fears of NHL fans that Russian superstars like Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk would return to their native country proved unfounded. They spurned expensive, short-term offers from KHL teams in favor of guaranteed long-term deals, job security and the higher level of skilled competition provided by the NHL.
The KHL has instead turned into a league of last resort for veterans with fading skills to continue their professional careers when their NHL days are over.
Alexei Yashin, Danny Markov, Sergei Fedorov, Richard Zednik, Alexei Zhitnik and Sergei Zubov were all well past their “best-before” dates when they signed with their KHL teams, and like Jagr’s departure, their absences had no impact upon the NHL’s talent pool.
The last notable NHL restricted free agent to sign with the KHL was Detroit Red Wings winger Jiri Hudler, who inked a two-year deal with Moscow Dynamo in July 2009, but returned to the Red Wings only a year later.
Hudler’s struggle last season to regain his scoring touch was suggested as yet another example of the inferior quality of play in the KHL.
Several reasons have been cited for the KHL’s inability to attract top hockey talent.
Last September’s air crash which killed the entire roster and coaching staff of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was seen by critics as a significant example of Russia’s questionable air travel safety record.
The death of NY Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov in 2008 was considered an example of the sub-standard conditions and medical facilities available at Russian arenas.
The global recession, which began in the fall of 2008, continues to affect the value of the Russian ruble, Several teams have had financial difficulties in recent years, leading to concerns and delays in payments of salaries.
One example was current Chicago Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery, who left his KHL team over a salary dispute.
Despite these problems, however, the KHL has survived, regaining a measure of stability over the past two years.
One factor has been the support received from the Russian government, especially from Prime minister Vladimir Putin. In an interview last summer, Putin not only claimed to have initiated and created the league, but envisions it one day becoming pan-European, expanding into notable European hockey powers like Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
While many of Russia’s best players continue to play in North America, the KHL has retained a considerable number of their nation’s promising young players, resulting in a steep decline in the number of Russian players in the NHL in recent years.
If future Ovechkins and Malkins opt to remain in the motherland, that could over time have a significant impact upon the NHL’s ability to attract and retain Russia’s elite players.
Relations between the KHL and the NHL have grown warmer in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the Lokomotiv tragedy.
If the NHL should lose part or all of next season to another labor war with the NHL Players Association, the KHL will become the prime destination for many of the league’s best players looking to supplement their income during another lengthy work stoppage, though the Russian league would be hard-pressed to prevent most, if not all, of those players from returning to the NHL once the labor dispute was settled.
The KHL is now considered a “mini-NHL”, but while its future seems brighter than in its early days, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a serious threat to the NHL.
It would take a significant improvement in the league’s economics, transportation, arena facilities and quality of play to make it a competitive alternative for the NHL’s top free agent stars.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.