by PuckStopsHere on 05/16/13 at 12:25 AM ET
The preliminary round of the World Hockey Championships concluded yesterday. Ilya Kovalchuk of Russia leads the tournament with 13 points. In second in scoring is Petri Kontiola of Finland. He has 12 points. This is a bit of a surprise since Kontiola is not an established NHL player.
Kontiola was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004. He was 19 years old at the time. In 2007 he decided to leave Finland to play in North America. He spent two years in North America and spent most of his time in the AHL. He played well in the AHL and was an all star in that league. Despite that he wasn't given much of a shot to make the NHL. He was given 12 games played with the Blackhawks in 2007/08, where he scored five points. He was kept in the minors for the entire next season. His entry level contract had ended and instead of staying in North America where he would likely make AHL money and ride the busses, he opted for a pay raise to play in the KHL.
In the KHL he has been a pretty good player. He was the second highest scorer on his Trakor Chelyabinsk team. His record both in North America and Russia, as well as at the World Hockey Championships clearly shows that he has NHL ability. It is hard to directly compare his numbers between the European leagues and the NHL in part because the different ice surface makes the game meaningfully different, but I think it is clear that he could contribute as a solid forward on an NHL team. He probably wouldn't be a star but he could be a core player. Quite clearly Kontiola isn't the best player in the KHL. There are about a couple dozen players of his ability. This is slightly more players than you would need to fill an NHL squad. The NHL cannot claim to be the league that holds all the best players in the world.
Many of the KHL players have similar stories to Kontiola. They attempted an NHL career first, but when that didn't immediately work out they went to Russia. Given the NHL's salary structure this makes sense. An AHL player gets pay $100,000 or less in most cases on a two-way contract. There are exceptions for long-time AHL players but these Europeans trying to make it in the NHL will not qualify. The KHL will pay them more. In many cases they are paid multiple times their AHL salary. It makes financial sense not to be in North America under those circumstances.
These players are in their early to mid 20's when they go to Russia. This is a typical age where hockey players make a significant improvement and hit their primes. When this happens they are not in the NHL anymore and they are not coming back.
As this career path becomes established to European players, the next generation is more likely to skip the stop in North America, since the path to success in Russia is better established. The NHL is losing out on these players and they will continue to miss out at a faster rate into the future. At this point it is easy to sweep it under the rug because there are probably 20 or 30 of these players and Alexander Radulov is probably the best of the bunch, but the talent pipeline from Europe is leaky and becoming leakier. Many of the other players (Petri Kontiola for example) are not well known to most NHL fans.
More and more European talent is staying in Europe and playing in the KHL. Many of these players gave North America a shot first and went to the KHL in search of bigger paydays (when compared to the AHL where they were playing). These players have NHL talent. International tournaments are clearly showing us that these players exist. Petri Kontiola is the most significant one in the World Hockey Championships so far. His success is largely overlooked in North America but he could be an NHL player. He is better than many of the players currently in the NHL.
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