by PuckStopsHere on 07/11/09 at 03:54 AM ET
Ever since there stopped being a valid player transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, both sides have been fighting over players. The first major battle was over Alexander Semin who played in Russia during the lockout year and the year after it despite a valid NHL contract. That was sorted out and he came to the NHL. Though he has become an NHL star since then, he was not one at the point of the fight over his rights. The Russians attempted to fight the transfer of several players to the NHL including Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, but the NHL was able to get any player they wanted and Russia was only successful in getting some NHL rejects (such as prospects Roman Voloshenko and Igor Grigorenko). The NHL had been able to get their way in any important case until Alexander Radulov left Nashville for the KHL.
The war over player rights threatened to become bigger and more open at that point. The IIHF stepped in to try to settle things. Both sides agreed to honor each other’s contracts and only sign free agents from the other league.
That thaw in relations lasted until the Atlanta Thrashers signed Joel Kwiatkoski. Kwiatkowski is an NHL veteran who has made little impact in his seven years if NHL (and AHL) play. Last season he signed with Cherepovets Severstal in the KHL. He signed a two year contract with SKA St Petersburg to stay in Russia before learning there was NHL interest in him. He then signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, where he was expected to be an extra defenceman. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation immediately jumped on this as though it was a major attack. The NHL is bowing to their pressure and not allowing Kwiatkowski to come back to North America. That isn’t much of a concession because he is essentially a replacement level defenceman, but it prevents the KHL from actively trying to sign NHL players who are under contract.
The NHL has responded with a gambit of its own. Jiri Hudler signed a two year contract with Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. The NHL claims that when he declared salary arbitration with the Detroit Red Wings he was contractually obligated to stay in the NHL. It isn’t so clear that is true. Technically Hudler is a restricted free agent until he signs a contract or his salary arbitration case is resolved. It isn’t clear that he would have a contract even after salary arbitration as a team can “walk away” from the arbitration award and let him become an unrestricted free agent. Given Detroit’s salary cap situation, that is a relatively likely scenario. I don’t think that the NHL can win this battle but clearly Hudler would make more of an NHL impact than Kwiatkowski.
I would be surprised if this is the end of player battles between the NHL and KHL this summer. I think the battleground is beginning to heat up and we will have more disagreements before the summer is through. The KHL is slowly gathering a better talent pool. They cannot directly compete with the NHL, but they have drawn away players I would have liked to see stay in the NHL and they will continue to do so and probably at an accelerating rate.
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