Until it happens, the notion of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin departing the NHL in the prime of their careers and returning to their native Russia to play in the KHL should be considered a significant long shot. However, you shouldn’t take that to mean there’s no chance it takes place. As we saw this weekend when Russian president Alexander Medvedev commented cryptically on the possibility of Malkin and Ovechkin playing for a KHL team next season, there are many who would love nothing more than to convince the two superstars to shock the hockey world and head home.
First thing’s first: ultra-sensitive Caps and Penguins fans who read the above paragraph must be reminded to do some deep-breathing relaxation exercises before falling on their backs and squealing as if they’d been kneed in a soft personal place. If Malkin and/or Ovechkin chose to leave hockey’s top league, it wouldn’t be an indictment of their respective franchises or the NHL itself. Rather, they would be moving back to: the warm comforts of their own culture; a Kontinental League that would treat them like Faberge Eggs with legs; and friends and family who are an ocean away for three-quarters of every year. If the shoe were on the other foot and North American players had to ply their trade in Europe each and every season, North American fans would treat any prodigal son as a hero for choosing to leave a more prominent situation to play at home instead.
There’s also a whole lot of tax-free money that would be thrown at Ovechkin and Malkin, but – and this is where your trusty correspondent wishes there was a sarcasm font – we all know these decisions aren’t about money. It wasn’t about money when Ilya Kovalchuk dropped jaws in 2013 by leaving the New Jersey Devils just three years into a 15-year, $100-million contract, right? He just wanted to go home, and no financial payday could keep him in North America. (And make no mistake – anyone who would try to argue people expected Kovalchuk to leave the NHL that quickly after signing a contract extension is as disingenuous as they come.)
Moreover, with political tensions between Russia and the West mounting by the week, it could be more important than ever for the KHL to bolster its ranks by acquiring marquee-name home-grown talent. If that means a Russian oligarch moves heaven and earth (and perhaps bends some of the KHL’s salary cap rules) to make it happen, few should expect they’ll defer to the NHL’s best interests and not try and tempt Malkin and Ovechkin as best they can.
This is why it’s foolish for fans on this side of the Atlantic to assume the NHL’s higher caliber of talent and better amenities always will be enough to convince every non-North American player to stay in the NHL until their best days are behind them. There are facts and factors at play beyond the surface optics, and whether people like it or not, the battle for Ovechkin and Malkin’s services may have only just begun.