There was some talk in the immediate aftermath of Ilya Kovalchuk's “retirement” announcement on Friday about what this would all mean for the ever-dwindling number of Russian players in the league.
Would other KHL teams throw massive amounts of money at them as well? Probably. Or at least they'd make noise about doing so. Would this prompt any of those players to leave the NHL? Well, that answer is less certain, for obvious reasons, but logic seems to dictate that the answer is "no."
The thing is that the KHL had all these Russian players already; so many went over to play there during the lockout, and were promised tons of money — like Kovalchuk was this week — to stay even after the lockout ended. This obviously would have put them in breach of their NHL contracts, something the Russian league has always seemed to care about very little anyway, and, like Kovalchuk, all but denied them the ability to ever return to North America to play professional hockey.
However noble Kovalchuk's reasons for jumping ship may have been–whether it boiled down to family or not wanting to be so far from his homeland any more or being paid $20 million a season–it must be said that, as Steve Whyno pointed out earlier this weekend, the circumstances are unique. New Jersey was obviously not happy to lose a player of that quality, but they had to be the ones to let him go, which they did because of the financial burden his contract created.
This was a team, struggling financially, that signed the player to a ludicrous, elephantine contract that made it far more difficult for anyone to swoop in and buy the team. The likelihood that we ever again see a player of this quality being allowed to duck out of an NHL contract with even a few years left before it ends seems extraordinarily low.
For players of any real quality, the first choice is almost always going to be playing in the NHL. Think about the players that jumped to the KHL this year alone: Derek Meech, Alexander Burmistrov, Ilya Kovalchuk.
What do you think the disparity in skill level is there? The KHL, for all the talk that it's trying to challenge the NHL in some kind of real way, remains a bit of a joke in terms of who actually plays there; it's the equivalent of baseball's AAA-quality players. Not quite good enough to hack it in the bigs, a little too good to be bussing it in the AHL.
The pay's good, too, but not as good as you'd think based on what Kovalchuk is going to get. Only 10 of the league's 26 teams spent more than $1 million on bringing over NHLers during the lockout. Not surprisingly, Kovalchuk's CSKA was way out in front with more than $10.1 million in that half-season. That club has deep pockets, as do a few others, but for the most part, these are small-time teams, and the league's newly instituted hard salary cap reflects it.
How much can you spend to put together a team there? Just $36 million, with the option to get one cap-exempt player under contract through an appeal to the league itself. Kovalchuk is just such a player, given that he meets the league's criteria as having played his previous season in the NHL and being eligible for the Russian national team.
The simple fact is that most KHL teams lose money. Estimates show only about four or five come up even every year. This is a league that just doesn't have the resources to throw anything resembling Kovalchuk money at the Evgeni Malkins and Alex Ovechkins of the world.
(Though one wonders just how willing the Capitals would be to have a Kovalchuk-like opt-out move come along for their captain in a few years if his play plummets and his paychecks stay the same).
Just look who's over there. The old joke about the complete lack of actual competition in the KHL has always been that NHL washout Kevin Dallman, he of 154 career games on three teams in as many seasons, has been the best defenseman in the league for years, with an almost Nick Lidstrom-like hold on the league's equivalent of the Norris. Look it up now and hey, there's Dallman, second in the league among KHL defensemen last season and first in goals, trailed by a bunch of 30-year-old Russians you've never heard of. Interestingly, Malkin finished third in points with 65, despite playing just 37 games to everyone else's 50ish.
Nobody alive is going to ever mistake the KHL for a credible threat to the NHL, despite its aggressive expansion and constant targeting — or perhaps more accurately, rumored interest — in every Russian-born player playing in the US or Canada. They'll lure away the kids who are discontented with sleeping in Motels 6, and they'll lure away guys who aren't getting money or opportunities they feel they deserve in the Western Hemisphere. They'll even lure away homesick superstars as long as they can guarantee him an essentially tax-free $20 million every season.
Kovalchuk is going to carve up the KHL next year, and you can take that to the same bank where he's putting his insane amount of rubles. But no one in North America, where we actually have the best hockey league on the planet and always will, is really going to notice. No one here is going to care. And no one here is going to follow.
What We Learned
Boston Bruins: Alleged Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger was in Vancouver to watch the Bruins win the Stanley Cup, so now we have someone besides the anarchists to blame for everything.
Chicago Blackhawks: Boston College senior-to-be Kevin Hayes is one of the best prospects in the Chicago system, and during the Cup Final a few weeks ago, his mom wanted to fly a Blackhawks flag outside his house. “She was kind of nervous about getting egged, so we didn’t do that,” he explained. This was a good call.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs' home rink is going to get a new, giant scoreboard in the near future, with 8.5 million pixels altogether. It will apparently be the “largest of its kind in the world,” which seems like it would be impossible.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Here's Blue Jackets prospect Kerby Rychel with some great advice for all you kids out there: “If you grow up loving hockey, I’d say having a dad who’s an NHL player is the way to go.” Something to aspire to, I guess.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers might be targeting Dion Phaneuf in a trade, which you'd have to think would cost them an insane amount. But hey, who wouldn't want to move from Toronto back to Alberta, right?
Florida Panthers: Jacob Markstrom will be signing his new contract very soon. Here's a real thing Dale Tallon said about the team's situation between the pipes: “We have Markstrom; we’re going to get signed here shortly. We got [Scott Clemmensen] and [Michael] Houser. You could never have enough good goaltending.” Or, it would appear, even some.
Montreal Canadiens: No, the Habs aren't going to sign Jaromir Jagr or Brenden Morrow. Just as well, really. The wall Jagr hits every year now that renders him completely unproductive is showing up earlier and earlier, and Morrow is going to want too much to do what he does, which at this point is relatively little. So I guess let's not make a big deal of it.
New Jersey Devils: Patrik Elias says he doesn't think the knowledge that Ilya Kovalchuk would quit the NHL would have affected his decision to re-sign with New Jersey. “For me the decision was bigger than one guy,” he said, probably crying.
New York Rangers: Mats Zuccarello isn't far from a new deal with the Rangers. The current sticking point is the team wants to give him $1.5 million a season, and he wants $2 million. I think I know how to bridge this gap.
Ottawa Senators: The Senators have been trying for years to build something that's not directly related to the hockey team near their rink so people spend more than eight seconds immediately before and after the game there. The latest attempt is a possible casino but honestly who even knows?
St. Louis Blues: The Blues recently hired Ty Conklin as the team's goaltending development coach but all his advice will probably be, “Listen, it's really important to be on a team that's in the Winter Classic every year,” which isn't as helpful as you might think.
Vancouver Canucks: Joacim Eriksson really wants to be Vancouver's backup next season by elbowing his way ahead of Eddie Lack, but if a certain you-know-who gets you-know-whatted he might not even have to win the job.
Washington Capitals: The Capitals are feeling good about their $3.9 million in cap space for next season, and that's what happens when you make no effort at all to improve your team at all.
Gold Star Award
Minus of the Weekend
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
Just in case you couldn't tell by the name that user “mapleleafs81” is a Leafs fan...
Eblerle (1M cap taken)
Phaneuf (2M cap taken)
I’m going to tell you to do two things I hope you never have to do again: tape the Cowboys game and fetch me an apron.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Report: Rob Blake to quit NHL job for Kings
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• Who were the luckiest and unluckiest teams of 2013?
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