Headline Hockey

The Latest Defection: Jiri Hudler to the KHL

Heading into this summer, General Manager Ken Holland and the rest of the Detroit Red Wings’ brain trust knew that it would be difficult to keep last year’s team together. After signing Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen to long term contracts during the season, the Wings were perilously close to the salary cap. They had four key unrestricted free agents (Marian Hossa, Ty Conklin, Tomas Kopecky, and Mikael Samuelsson) and two key restricted free agents (Jiri Hudler and Ville Leino) to sign. The Wings knew that it would be difficult to re-sign their UFAs, since most were due for a raise and the cap room was limited, and in the end, all four signed elsewhere. However, they expected to be able to sign Hudler and Leino without much difficulty. While Ville Leino signed earlier this week, Jiri Hudler elected for salary arbitration. It was expected that he would continue to negotiate a deal and sign with the Wings for the next few seasons.

Wrong. The news broke on Wednesday morning that Hudler had agreed to a two-year deal with Dynamo Moscow of the Russian KHL. Varying reports state that the contract is worth anywhere between $3 million to $5 million per season, a salary much larger than what Hudler could have made per season in Detroit. The Wings were reportedly offering somewhere between $2.5 to $3 million per season for 3 to 5 years. The attractiveness of the KHL offer also stems from the fact that the contract is tax free, meaning that Hudler will get to keep nearly all of that cash, whereas here in North America he would be forced to pay some amount of tax on it.

Hudler becomes the biggest NHL name to sign with the KHL this offseason. Although Sergei Fedorov signed a deal to play with Mettalurg Magnitogorsk a few days ago, he is nearing the end of his career while Hudler is just entering his prime. Hudler has stated that he is interested in keeping the door open for a possible return to Detroit. He has told his agent, Petr Svoboda, to attend the arbitration hearing which will take place sometime later this month. Once the arbitrator’s award is made, the Wings will maintain Hudler’s rights and if he ever does make his way back to the NHL, he will have a deal waiting for him in Detroit.

The biggest reason that Jiri Hudler is on his way to Moscow instead of remaining in the Motor City is because of the salary cap. The cap only went up by $100,000 this offseason, to $56.8 million. In the past three off seasons it increased by almost $5 million each year. However, the global economic slowdown has had a significant impact on many professional sports and the NHL is no different. Things may even be worse next year, when some experts predict the cap may actually drop by several million dollars. This will leave teams that are close to the cap scrambling to shed payroll. A team like the Chicago Blackhawks, who just signed Marian Hossa to a monstrous 12 year, $62.8 million contract, may feel the pinch. They are actually over the cap for next season. And once next season is complete, their two brightest stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, are due for major pay raises. It will be interesting to see how that situation sorts itself out.

With the possibility of the cap decreasing, expect to see more players like Jiri Hudler make their way overseas. If a team has a restricted free agent that they cannot afford and the KHL is offering comparable or better money, that player might decide to play in Russia for a year or two. This trend is just beginning.