For the past few weeks, one of the hot topics in hockey circles has been the stream of NHL talent heading across the Atlantic to join teams in the new Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Players leaving the NHL to play in Europe is nothing new. Leagues in Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, and other countries have long attracted players with NHL experience. However, most of those players have been career minor leaguers or players from those countries wanting to play at home. The players heading to the KHL this season aren’t exactly that caliber.
The highest profile name heading to the KHL has been Jaromir Jagr. After failing to find an NHL team willing to give him the 3 year contract he so greatly desired, he decided to head to Russia and sign with Avangard Omsk, the team he played for during the NHL lockout in 2004-05. While early reports had Jagr being offered a reported $35 million for two years, the deal is actually worth between $5 million and $7 million per season.
After being shunned by the Ottawa Senators and then by the rest of the NHL, Ray Emery decided to try to revive his NHL career by signing a one year $2 million contract with Atlant of the KHL. Although he provided Bryan Murray and the Sens with plenty of headaches, Emery did backstop the Sens to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago and at age 25 it would seem that his best years are still ahead of him. Emery doesn’t seem like the type of guy that will be out of the NHL for too long.
While Jagr and Emery are two of the biggest names to head to the KHL, they aren’t the most surprising one. After enjoying a solid season for the Nashville Predators last season, young star Alexander Radulov decided to bolt the Music City and head back to his native land. Radulov was a key part of a Nashville team that seemed to be up-and-coming and put a brief scare into the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the first round of this year’s playoffs. As Radulov himself said, however, this deal was purely about the money. Radulov earned just under $700,000 last season. His deal with Ufa of the KHL is reportedly worth $12 million over three years. That’s a hefty raise.
Other NHLers that have recently made the jump to the KHL include Duvie Westcott, Sergei Brylin, who won three Stanley cups with the New Jersey Devils, and Mark Hartigan, who won Stanley Cups the last two seasons with Detroit and Anaheim. What this recent slate of signings indicates is that for the first time in a very long time, the NHL is not the only destination for premier talent. Not since the old World Hockey Association was around in the 1970s has the NHL had a legitimate competitor. While Jagr is at the end of his career and Emery, Radulov, and the others are hardly superstars, GMs around the NHL will have to keep a close watch on what is going on in Russia.
Although the NHL and KHL have a new agreement to respect contracts signed in each league, Radulov was signed by Ufa while still under contract with the Predators. He was set to under a little under $1 million in 2008-09. He was suspended by the International Ice Hockey Federation from international competition but they are powerless to prevent him from playing with Ufa when the season starts.
While the KHL won’t be a real threat to the NHL until it signs a true impact player like an Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin, you get the feeling that it may happen sooner rather than later. Perhaps a star Russian will simply decide to stay and play at home instead of coming to the NHL at all. Only time will tell, but until then, you can rest assured that the KHL has the NHL’s full attention.