There used to be no free agency. Imagine a world where players aren’t in any position to demand 10 million dollars a year, where hour-long ESPN specials are dedicated to actual impactful events. Then we were blessed with the beautiful rectum that is the free agency season. This seems to be more painless in the NHL, where they have fewer egos to satisfy and more players who just want to play the game.
It was a simple concept, really; after a player’s contract expires with his team, other teams are allowed to sign said player to a contract of their own. A new wrinkle was added when the salary cap was instituted, but the market adjusted. Now the market must make another adjustment, this time for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
The revamped version of the Russia Superleague, the KHL has really grown in strength and power over the last few years. It’s presence is felt by the NHL more and more each year, and especially around free agency time. It is often the rumored destination of many a free agent who is looking for more money or looking to extend their career. This meant that usually these players weren’t wanted by the NHL. Last year that changed.
Fresh off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and a Western Conference Championship, Jiri Hudler of the Detroit Red Wings turned down an offer from Ken Holland in favor of a deal in the KHL with the now defunct Dynamo Moscow team (yes, the same team that developed and nurtured our own little Alex Ovechkin). Both Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov of the Washington Capitals excepted deals in Russia last summer also. They were aging and there was no longer a market for them at the price they wanted, similar to the situation that brought Jaromir Jagr to Avangard Omsk (KHL).
KHL teams have more money at their disposal to sign players. Not only are the owners extremely wealthy and willing to spend, but the league has no hard salary cap. There is a cap, but if a team goes over that cap, they just have to pay a luxury tax and are allowed to keep the salary. This presents more lucrative opportunities for NHL free agents, however there is a catch. KHL teams are not allowed to have more than 5 non-Russian players under contract, and they are not allowed to dress more than 4 in any given game. They want to keep it a Russian league with mostly Russian talent.
The KHL option can oftentimes show the difference between those who are just playing for the money, and those who want to play for the Stanley Cup and be considered the best. It is viewed as the difference between players who sell out and those who play for the dream, with Evgeny Nabokov being the latest to take the bait. He recently signed a contract at 6 million dollars for four years with SKA St. Petersburg. SKA has also been a rumored destination for elite scorer Ilya Kovalchuk for the same reason: no NHL team seems to want to pay him the kind of money he is demanding. Kovalchuk was using the possibility of leaving for the KHL as a bargaining chip while trying to negotiate contracts with NHL teams.
Free agency is probably where the KHL has had the biggest impact, but their influence on the Entry Draft is growing every year. This year, several prominent Russian prospects, including Evgeny Kuznestov, dropped in the draft because there is a fear that these young players will not sign with the NHL, but instead bolt for Russia. Kuznetsov was ranked as the 3rd European skater in the Central Scouting final rankings. He was the 5th European drafted, the 2nd Russian, and fell to the Capitals at the 26th overall pick. It is possible he would have fallen even further, but the Capitals do not have the same concerns about drafting and signing Russians as other teams do. Having the force of Ovechkin on their team helps ease their minds.
These are worries spurred from incidents like Nikita Filatov in Columbus. He and coach Ken Hitchcock had a difference of opinion and style, and he was not getting satisfactory playing time. Filatov felt it was hurting his development, and left eh Blue Jackets mid-season for the KHL where he would get more ice time. Filatov did this the right way by requesting permission from the organization to leave, and they agreed it would be the best course for his development. He plans to return to North America for the 2010-2011 season.
It can also make negotiations more difficult. It expands the options and therefore prices, and KHL clubs have much deeper pockets than NHL clubs. The possibility of hopping the pond often drives up the contract of the player, and that is a whole set of headaches most franchise’s would rather do without. It serves as a disadvantage to both the player and the organization as it is a growing risk among Russian prospects.
As long as the money is coming in, the KHL will remain a force for the NHL. It will continue to affect the way things are done. Many KHL teams have an “NHL out clause” in their contracts for their young players in case they want to come to North America before their contract is up. The relationship between the world’s two biggest leagues continues to be murky as players leave contracts on both sides of the ocean to play on another continent, but the impact is clear. This is the new way of life for the NHL.