Ilya Kovalchuk (Getty Images)
The KHL is in crisis mode. Russia's ruble has collapsed, and the second-best league in the world is suddenly having money issues. Here are five players to watch as the KHL struggles to save itself. Will these guys stick around, or bolt for North America?
The Russian ruble and the price of oil have tanked, putting Russia’s KHL in crisis mode and casting doubt on the future of the league. Owners are crying poor, players say they’re not being paid and the league’s new commissioner is stuck trying to figure it all out.
That means hard times ahead for hockey in Russia, and while it’s hard to believe the KHL will outright fold, chances are the league’s oil baron owners will look to slash salary so they don’t lose their shirts paying for hockey. They may even have to contract the league.
Which brings us to the big question: what impact will the ruble crash have on players if the KHL is no longer a financial draw?
Many players are still drawn to the KHL for non-monetary reasons. For one thing, it lets Russians play in their home country, where hockey is the No. 1 sport and part of the national identity. For another, the level of competition is roughly comparable to the AHL, so it’s easier to be a superstar there than in North America.
But what good are familiarity, national pride and personal prestige when you’re not getting paid?
Most KHLers don’t have a lot of options, and they’ll remain in the league no matter what form it takes in the future.
Others face some more intriguing possibilities.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk will be fascinating to watch, if only because he’s clearly backed the wrong horse. He went all-in with the KHL when he signed his NHL retirement papers two summers ago. Kovalchuk left $77 million in guaranteed NHL salary behind to take a rumoured four-year, $60-million deal with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia.
But as the economy tanks, what does that mean for his future? KHL players make their salaries in rubles, and while Kovalchuk’s contract was worth $15 million per year when he signed, it’s worth about half that now. He’s signed through to 2017 and he’ll probably get all of his rubles, but his pay won’t be worth what he expected. And what does he do after that contract expires?
Picture this: It's 2017. Kovalchuk is 34 years old, fresh off that big contract and essentially barred from the NHL because he’s retired there. Will a KHL owner have enough money to convince him to keep playing? Or will Kovalchuk simply retire, rather than play in a weakened league that can’t pay him what he’s worth?
He might stick around for one more season to play in the 2018 Olympics, but after that, there may not be a financial incentive to keep Kovalchuk in the game.
2. Alexander Radulov
The idea of Alexander Radulov returning to the NHL must give Nashville Predators fans nightmares. He left for the KHL to become a big-time, big-ticket superstar in his own country, but he might grow tired of that status if his league can’t pay him.
Would he consider coming back to the NHL?
Or the better question might be: would an NHL team try to bring him back?
Washington has often used Alex Ovechkin as a lure to bring other Russians over from Europe (Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov). But former Preds coach Barry Trotz now runs the Capitals bench, and it’s tough to picture a scenario where Radulov would want to play under Trotz again. Their last collaboration ended in playoff disaster for the Predators.
The smart money is on Radulov staying in Russia as long as there’s money to be made there. He’s been the KHL flag bearer for years, and he’ll probably continue to do so.
3. Vladimir Sobotka
The St. Louis Blues were disappointed to lose Vladimir Sobotka to the KHL last summer, but their disappointment could be short-lived.
The Blues were awarded a one-year deal with Sobotka through salary arbitration, but the 27-year-old left the contract on the table and opted for a bigger payday in the KHL.
Sobotka was a defensive specialist for the Blues and led the team with a 61.9 faceoff winning percentage in 2013-14. He also posted nine goals, 33 points and 72 penalty minutes in 61 regular season games. That’s not bad, though he’s scoring at a little off a point-per-game pace with Avangard Omsk these days.
As reports swirl that players are going unpaid, don’t be surprised if Sobotka returns to St. Louis in the future for the modest but guaranteed safety of an NHL salary. He’d have to play under his arbitrator-awarded salary, but he’d be free to sign a new deal the following season.
That said, Omsk is one of the more stable and successful KHL teams, and they might be able to weather this storm and hold on to the skilled Czech.
4. Brandon Bochenski
The KHL has been very kind to former NHL journeyman Brandon Bochenski, who leads a crop of more than 50 North Americans playing in the Russian league. Bochenski was a solid AHL scorer who couldn’t consistently crack the NHL in his early career, but he’s transformed into a star in the KHL. He gets more money, more fame and more ice in Russia than he ever would in North America.
But most North Americans in the KHL are there for the pay check, not the living conditions or culture. They’re stockpiling the rubles so they can live a better life in North America when their careers are done. And with the ruble tanking, their savings will take a massive hit (unless they converted their currency).
Bochenski and teammates Kevin Dallman and Nigel Dawes may still come out ahead by staying in Russia, but other North Americans might reconsider their choices. An AHL salary isn’t huge, but it’s not going to fluctuate like a KHL salary.
5. Nail Yakupov
Former 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov could be the most interesting player to watch in this KHL crisis. He’s still struggling to live up to the hype from his draft year, and he doesn’t have the numbers yet to demand a big salary from the Edmonton Oilers when his contract expires this summer.
But he’s young, he’s Russian and he’s not really clicking with the Oilers. Most guys fitting that description would use the KHL as leverage in contract negotiations, but the ruble crisis puts Yakupov in a bind.
On the one hand, a rich KHL owner might guarantee Yakupov a big payday, no matter what happens to the ruble. Yakupov could then make more money overseas than he would in the NHL, albeit playing in a diminished Russian league.
On the other hand, big-money prestige signings are part of what put the KHL in trouble in the first place, and those owners would be crazy to keep that practice going.
The league’s richest oil barons signed Radulov and Kovalchuk so they could show their league to be capable of outspending the NHL. But now the bottom has fallen out on some of those owners, and their teams don’t make enough money to sustain those big contracts.
Yakupov could sign in Russia and get his money, but he’d be playing in an unstable league where the future is uncertain.
Or he could remain with in Edmonton, playing on unstable team where the future is uncertain.
What a choice...