Jiri Hudler is back in the NHL after spending a year in the KHL with Dynamo Moscow, a club that no longer exists. (KHL Photo Services)
If the Kontinental League is to fulfil its goal of being on the same ground as the NHL, it’s got a long way to go yet.
Here we sit on Aug. 22, closing in on two months after the opening of the NHL’s free agent market and the top draw, Ilya Kovalchuk, is still without a home. Before he signed his controversial contract with New Jersey there was buzz a KHL team was offering more than $10 million per season for Kovalchuk’s services. Even after his NHL contract was nixed there were further rumors of Russian interest, but even still, it doesn’t seem as though Kovalchuk has any interest in heading home at this stage in his career.
The KHL, it seems, is a dumping ground for players who have priced themselves out of the NHL or hit the end of their career, plus those rare few who have the urge to make a few more bucks. Jaromir Jagr and Evgeni Nabokov are world class hockey players, but Nabokov is still unproven at 35 and not worth anything near the $6 million he earned last season and Jagr is an old man compared to North America’s newest stars.
So far the biggest catches for the Russian league have been Alexander Radulov, who bolted from the last year of his entry level contract with Nashville, and Jiri Hudler, who jumped at the opportunity to make a few extra million dollars over a few years than he would have under a two-year arbitration award. Radulov likely won’t come back unless a new CBA works out in his favor and he doesn’t have to play one more year for less than $1 million. Hudler, on the other hand, is back and not necessarily because the NHL beckoned: his KHL team, Dynamo Moscow, folded.
And that’s a whole other dynamic in this debate the KHL is failing miserably at: perception.
Dynamo Moscow folding is in some ways like the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs closing up shop. It is the historic franchise that has cultivated most of Russia’s greatest stars. The team, established in 1946, winner of nine Russian titles, two Spengler Cups and a source of national pride for decades, was for so long a sign of strength, but now signifies trouble in Russia’s big league.
There have also been stories of players not being paid on time – though none of the big-name variety. Add in the fact that Dynamo Moscow wasn’t the only team to fold last year – Lada Togliati fell by the wayside, too – and you get a great sense of instability.
Ray Emery, Nikolai Zherdev and Anton Babchuk came back to the NHL after a short KHL sabbatical created interest in their services that wasn’t there when they originally left. In those cases, the KHL worked like a farm league or a proving ground to get back into the world’s best league, not one in competition with the NHL.
One player who you might think would be susceptible to bolt to the KHL, Antti Niemi, apparently has absolutely no interest in doing so. The Stanley Cup-winning goalie is still without a home in a league that has no goalie market to speak of. But Niemi himself shot down any idea he’s considering the KHL at the moment:
"The NHL is the only place I am willing to play,” he said recently. “I don't know right now where, but I will play in the NHL."
And stepping away from name players for a moment, how many depth NHLers are still available? How many are waiting on tryout offers from NHL teams? How many of those have received offers from the KHL, but would rather exhaust all NHL options before considering that route?
The NHL’s salary cap has crunched a lot of players this off-season. We’re seeing how this CBA favors young players with small, entry level cap hits over veterans who require one-way deals you can’t bury in the minors without shame. We’re seeing how the CBA could have opened the door for the KHL to become the NHL’s biggest rival by scooping a few more players for a few more bucks each year.
We’re also seeing the majority of players don’t view the KHL as a choice, but rather a destination after all other roads to the NHL are cut off; a destination where veterans can happily ride off into the sunset and where those still with game can hopefully work themselves out of.
The KHL is still one of the best professional leagues out there and can toss around the most money outside of the NHL. But is it a rival, or on the road to becoming one, of the NHL for its players?
Not even close. And there’s absolutely no sign that time is drawing near.
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