July 08, 2010
Maybe it's because we've all got Kovalchukian blinders on. Maybe it's because once his salary demands became apparent, a cash-grab in Russia was simply expected. Maybe it's East Coast apathy for a West Coast star.
Whatever the case, Evegni Nabokov's decision to leave the NHL for the KHL just doesn't feel like it's been treated as a significant moment, even though it potentially is one.
He becomes possibly the largest NHL star to return back to Russia. 6-time Vezina winner Dominik Hasek(notes) and 3-time Stanley Cup Champion and member of Detroit's "Russian Five" Sergei Fedorov(notes), joined the KHL in the twilight of their careers. Sports.ru blogger Vadim Kuznetsov believes the biggest NHL defection was the move of Jaromir Jagr(notes) to Omsk Avangard in 2008-09. One year removed from a 30-goal, 96-point season with the New York Rangers, Jagr left for the KHL with much fanfare. "When Jagr joined KHL, everyone was shocked," Kuznetsov said.
... The long-term signing is a coup for the burgeoning KHL. "It is a continuation of the rising popularity for hockey in Russia," noted Pavel Krepkiy, the lone Russian member of the Sharks day-to-day media scrum and often Sharkspage's neighbor in the press box. "The signing of stars like him raises the level of hockey in Russia." Vadim Kuznetsov offered a somewhat more colorful outlook. "It's interesting but maybe 50% of fans are happy now because they will see him playing in Russia, and the other half is (upset) - they don't like rich clubs such as SKA."
This move is shocking in its own ways. Nabokov will be 35 this month, so he's nearing those twilight years that players like Fedorov are spending back in Russia. But he was still a very viable NHL goalie: Sixth in the League in save percentage (and fourth among goalies with at least 60 starts) and in the top 10 for GAA (2.43).
He's arguably the second-best regular season goalie of the last decade behind Marty Brodeur, for whatever that's worth.
So why is he now a KHL goalie; and what does it mean for the NHL?
That's the question The Puck Stops Here is asking this morning, believing that the NHL's post-lockout economic system helped force him out of the League:
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(notes) and Jose Theodore(notes) 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.
What the salary cap did was help reorganize the priorities for many general managers and changed the way championship teams are built.
The price of goaltending drops while the price of defensemen grows forever higher. In that sense, it's a conscious effort by GMs to find more affordable alternatives in goal; but it's also a market correction. Why should a goaltender with as many Stanley Cup Finals appearances as Tyler Seguin(notes) make $6 million as a 35 year old?
We can't thank the cap for much, but we can thank it for that sanity.
Can it be argued that Nabokov was pushed out by the salary cap? Perhaps.
That's assuming Comcast would have paid $6 million a year for Nabby to goal-tend for the Philadelphia Flyers in an uncapped NHL. Or that the San Jose Sharks would have retained him were it not for other economic priorities under the cap. In both cases, these are reasonable assumptions.
But the better argument is that teams simply view their goaltending position differently than they did even three years ago. You can develop young players, or settle for cheaper alternatives, and then spend to the cap in other places to challenge for a Stanley Cup. The San Jose Sharks are attempting ro do just that post-Nabokov; even if they end up with a Marty Turco, it'll be at a dramatically reduced price.
Cap or no cap, that's a fundamental change for many teams that don't have a "franchise" keeper.
There simply weren't opportunities for Nabokov once the cheaper models took jobs in places like Atlanta this summer. From Pierre LeBrun at ESPN:
"There wasn't much going on [in the NHL]," Nabokov told ESPN.com. "We had a couple of [NHL] teams interested, I guess ... but I had to make my decision pretty quick."
Nabokov earned $6 million this year in San Jose. While he refused to discuss financial details of the new deal, Russian media reports pegged the total contract at around $24 million.
Should the NHL be concerned that a significant player just left for paper bags filled with tax-free millions in the KHL? Not really.
These are specific circumstances for a specific, aging player. It adds viability to those Russian offers that roll in every summer for NHL stars, but until someone in his prime makes the jump, the KHL threat isn't as viable to a capped NHL as the Nabby move may make it appear.
Speaking of which: Tick-tock, Mr. Kovalchuk...