With the Olympics upon us, international hockey has come to the fore and it is time to look back and re-evaluate the biggest international hockey story in years, the founding of the successor to the Russian SuperLeague, the Kontinental League.
When it was announced two seasons ago, many august hockey commentators saw the KHL as a fearsome rival to the NHL. With oil prices high and politically powerful oligarchs willing to spend huge sums to compete, the KHL was destined to steal a good measure of the NHL’s top talent and like the World Association before it and raise the salaries of those who stayed in the NHL.
Threats emanated from various sources in Russia that the NHL would no longer be known as the best league in hockey, as the KHL would grow into a European Superleague that would equal the standard of North America’s best. However, time has demonstrated that if the KHL is indeed a predator, it brings a beneficial symbiotic relationship where the predator culls only the weak and the sick, so that the herd (the NHL) is stronger for the process. It is evident that, so far, the KHL’s players generally fall into two camps: NHL has-beens and never-will-bes.
First of all, the KHL has been unable to expand successfully outside of any non-Russian speaking cities. More importantly, not only has the KHL failed at pilfering NHL talent, it has had to settle for overpaying former NHLers and failed prospects, effectively excising expensive dead weight for the NHL.
To add insult to injury, even Russia’s top young players do not want to play in the KHL. We know Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Semyon Varlamov left Russia and are now young NHL stars. But did you know that four of the top six Russian prospects for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft left the KHL behind for major junior? Kirill Kabanov, Alex Burmistrov, Stanislav Galiev and Ivan Telegin could not even wait to be drafted by the NHL before leaving Russian hockey behind. Even last year, the only Russian taken in the first round, Dmitri Kulikov, was drafted from the Quebec League.
So who does play in the KHL? Well, the top two scorers in that league are players few NHL fans would have heard of, Sergei Mozyakin and Maxim Sushinsky. Mozyakin has never touched the ice in the NHL, while Sushinsky managed to play only 30 games in the Minnesota Wild’s expansion year before begging to go home. Tied for fifth among goal-scorers is another opening act you’ve never heard before, Maxim Spiridonov.
For the most part, the successful players in the KHL are players who had a good measure of skill, but could not adjust to the North American game or lost the heart to compete at it. Names like Alexei Yashin, Josef Stumpel and Alexei Morozov are examples of some who could succeed for a time in the NHL, but not over the long haul. There are also the talented young phenoms who were unable to play the complete game required in the NHL, like Nikolai Zherdev, Sergei Zinovyev and Pavel Brendl.
A good number of accomplished North American minor-leaguers have found great success in the KHL. Mattias Weinhandl, who last played in North America in the American League with the Houston Aeros, is fourth in the KHL scoring race, well ahead of Jaromir Jagr. Other AHL all-stars who could not make the NHL, but who have excelled in Russia include Geoff Platt, Kevin Dallman and Matt Ellison, all of whom are within shouting distance of the KHL league leaders in points.
In truth, only four of the top-40 scorers in the KHL as of Feb. 7 were players who had walked away from NHL teams that wanted them to stay. A total of two (two!) are young stars of the type that were feared to leave in droves when the league first started. One left despite having a contract in the NHL, the other was a restricted free agent whose rights were owned by Detroit. But if Alexander Radulov and Jiri Hudler have the desire to play the best hockey in the world, they know where to find it. There were also two aging veterans, former all-stars, who were shadows of their former selves, but could parlay their time in the NHL to a more remunerative “retirement contract” in Russia (Jagr and Sergei Zubov).
These numbers do not support the consistent, overblown threat of impending NHL free agents fleeing to Russia if their ransom demands are not met. It just doesn’t happen. After two seasons, the verdict on the KHL is in: this menacing new league has strengthened the NHL’s claim to be the best hockey league in the world now, more than ever.
Tom Lynn served for nine seasons as assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild and for six seasons as GM of the Houston Aeros. Prior to that he was an attorney in New York representing the NHL and other sports entities in a wide variety of legal matters and has taught Sports Law at St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. Read more from Lynn HERE.