In recent years it doesn’t seem like autumn is approaching until someone muses about the possibility of top Russian NHL stars one day returning home to play in the KHL.
The latest came earlier this month courtesy of KHL president Alexander Medvedev. When asked about the possibility of Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin returning to Russia, Medvedev suggested “good surprises” regarding the pair could be in store next year.
Now, before Capitals and Penguins fans start wasting time fretting over either player bolting back to Russia after this season, here’s a little perspective.
The KHL has regularly renewed its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the NHL, in which both leagues agree not to poach away players already under contract. As long as the MOU remains in place, it is very difficult for any player under NHL contract to bolt for the KHL or vice versa. When Medvedev was asked earlier this year about the possibility of Ovechkin jumping to the KHL, he stated the winger must first find a way out of his existing NHL contract.
Ovechkin (or Malkin, for that matter) could follow the example of Ilya Kovalchuk. Last summer, Kovalchuk got out of his long-term contract with the New Jersey Devils by “retiring” from the NHL. It enabled him to return to the KHL and SKA St. Petersburg, where he played during the NHL lockout. This was done with the Devils’ blessing, allowing the then-financially troubled team to shed his salary.
While Kovalchuk was willing to break his NHL contract, there’s no certainty Malkin and Ovechkin will the same. It’s also doubtful their current NHL teams would approve of such a move. Indeed, the Capitals and Penguins could launch immediate legal action, in conjunction with the NHL, to challenge their “retirements”. The NHL would undoubtedly pressure the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to ban them from playing in Russia or Europe, as well as barring them from international tournaments.
Malkin and Ovechkin are on lengthy, guaranteed NHL contracts. They’re also among the league leaders in endorsements. It would cost a KHL club a significant amount to lure away either player.
Starting this season, Ovechkin will earn $10 million per season in real salary over the remainder of his contract, which expires at the end of 2020-21. He’d be turning his back on a lot of money for a short-term cash grab with the KHL. He’d likely lose out on many of his North American endorsement deals, which could prove difficult to match in Russia.
Malkin, meanwhile, re-signed his current contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, earning $9.5 million per season from 2014-15 until the end of 2021-22. If he were keen to jump to the KHL, he could have simply let his previous contract expire at the end of last season and become an unrestricted free agent.
Medvedev’s recent comments could be hinting at not renewing the MOU. Opting out, however, is a double-edged sword, allowing NHL clubs to sign away players under KHL contracts. While it would make it easier for a KHL team to approach Ovechkin or Malkin, signing either guy will result in legal challenges from the NHL.
The NHL remains the world’s top professional league. It offers up financial security and the highest caliber of play. It provides the best equipment, training facilities, medical treatment plus first-class travel and accommodation that most KHL teams cannot match.
The KHL does, however, have some benefits to entice Russian NHL stars. Tax-free money and playing in their home country would certainly be attractive. But since the KHL’s inception in 2008, it has tried and largely failed to sign top Russian and European talent away from the NHL. So far, the biggest stars they’ve lured were Kovalchuk, Jaromir Jagr and Alex Radulov.
Jagr already gave the best seasons of his playing career to the NHL before making the jump to the KHL in 2008. After four seasons, he returned to the NHL, spending the past three seasons playing for Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston and New Jersey.
Radulov was a promising young forward with the Nashville Predators when he bolted over a contract dispute just prior to the implementation of the MOU in 2008. His brief return to the Predators late in 2011-12 proved an embarrassing failure, sending him running back to the KHL.
Kovalchuk spent over a decade in the NHL and was still considered a star in his prime when he jumped to the KHL last summer, but as noted earlier, he’s the exception to the rule.
Since the KHL’s inception it’s been suggested its existence made the NHL a little poorer in talent depth, but it is difficult to find any reasonable substantiation for this belief. It assumes there isn’t any comparable or superior talent replacing those who join the KHL. Last season, a rising young superstar named Nathan MacKinnon joined the NHL, more than filling the void left by Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure.
One is hard-pressed to find someone of influence among hockey pundits and bloggers who feel the NHL is missing Kovalchuk’s talent, let alone find many NHL fans pining for his return. The NHL’s increasing attendance, TV ratings and revenue certainly indicates it’s not suffering from Kovalchuk’s absence. Stars come and go, be it via retirement or joining other leagues, but the NHL goes on.
The KHL remains a league kept afloat by oil oligarchs, stocked with former NHL veterans and young players who couldn’t cut it at the NHL level. While they’ve expanded into other European countries, they haven’t become as big a threat to existing European leagues as originally perceived.
Finnish club Jokerit joined the KHL because of their Russian ownership. Lada Togliatti has returned. Thanks to its Olympic hockey arena, HC Sochi has joined the league. However, Ukraine’s HC Donbass won’t be playing in the league this season, while Lev Praha and HC Spartak Moscow have disbanded for this season for financial reasons. The KHL also lowered its salary cap from $40 million to $32 million, though it still exempts returning NHL players from the cap.
Ovechkin and Malkin will one day wind up in the KHL, but probably near the end of their current contracts. By that point, they’ll be approaching their late-thirties and their best seasons will be behind them. They’re unlikely to spurn their current lucrative deals and NHL star status to return home and play in an inferior league.
For the KHL to truly put a dent in the NHL’s supremacy over professional hockey, it must do more than just target Russian stars in their prime. Only when the KHL begins successfully signing away top North American and European stars can it truly be taken seriously as a top-tier professional hockey league.