Decreasing Amount Of Russians In The NHL

June 10, 2011, by

From an outsider’s perspective (aka non-hockey fan), one might assume that this sport is made up of Russian players whose names no one can pronounce with accents no one can understand. While this thought might be easy to assume since names like Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kovalchuk dominant the airwaves, a simple look at team rosters over the last 10 years and you’ll learn that a different trend is taking place.

Simply put, over the last decade there are less and less Russians playing in the NHL every year. For instance, during the 2000-01 season, there were a total of 87 Russian players in the NHL. In 2005-06, that number was down to 40. In 2010, only 23 full-time Russian players suited up for an NHL team.

Some believe that the difference in style of play has kept many young Russians from making the move, arguing that bigger rinks and more finesse systems played in Europe are just too different from the North American emphasis on defense and physicality.

While I agree that these differences, along with the language barrier, may slow a player’s initial development, I don’t believe they’re contributing to this overall decline – such dissimilarities have existed for decades.

No, the real reason the Russians are staying put is purely economic. The KHL has more money than ever before and is able to pay their players millions of dollars a year tax free. This has helped send players such as Alexei Yashin, Nikita Filatov, Alexander Radulov, and a host of other players back to Russia.

Additionally, the re-entry waiver system keeps players in the AHL making around $65,000 per year, with a maximum salary of $105,000. Any minor league player making more than $105,000 must clear re-entry waivers to get called up to the NHL…and elite Russian prospects aren’t clearing any waivers.

Not too many Russians want to come all the way over to North America to play in the AHL and make peanuts for a living when the KHL can offer much more. This waiver system, plus our tax code, makes it so that any legit Russian player in the AHL is earning less salary than he would in his homeland by a significant margin.

Between the money issue and the lack of a transfer agreement (where player contracts do not have to be honored by either league), the nail in the coffin is the draft. GM’s are beginning to avoid Russia players like the plague for fear that they’ll waste a draft pick on someone who will never step foot on American soil.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this was there were more Russians playing in the NHL during the 90’s when they had a lot more to risk than money. Back then it wasn’t uncommon to hear about Russian NHL players being strong-armed by the Russian Mob for money or worse.

Evgeni Malkin, one of the best players in the world almost never came to the NHL because men associated with his former Russian club put him “under intense pressure” to sign and honor a deal to keep him in Russia. Matter of fact, he was under so much “pressure” to keep playing in Russia that he had to hide out for five days in Finland in order to escape his team and make the courageous journey to North America. This was only several years ago!

At the end of the day, the tax code is what it is. The best solution is for Bettman to not strong-arm the KHL, so the KHL doesn’t strong-arm their teenage hockey players. It would be most prudent for a transfer deal to be negotiated. Every other international sport has one, there is no reason for the NHL and KHL not to have one.

This way the NHL gets the players they want, the KHL gets the money they want and young Russian players have a chance at living a little thing called the American Dream.


  1. Agentsmith24 says:

    no offense but the international rink makes the game seem artificial. non-authentic. its harder to play defensivly and easier to score/ get scoring chances.

    • The Suit says:

      I do agree that defensive coverage is a bit different, but I don’t think it’s easier to score.

      Shots are often taken from wider angles and players tend to cycle a bit more along the boards.

      If anything you could say that a team is likey to have longer periods of puck possession. This isn’t a better or worse scenario, it’s just apples and oranges.

      The authenticity comment I am just going to ignore.

  2. Dave says:

    Fantastic read. I did notice the decreasing number of Russians lately, especially in the draft. That number is going to continue to go down too.

    • The Suit says:

      Yea, I mean it’s not easy to convince some teenager to pick up and move to a different continent. Gotta give kids like Grachev credit. Takes a lot of balls to do what he did.

  3. Matt J says:

    The KHL is kind of a joke league I will say. I don’t think people completely overwhelm themselves with Ovechkin Kovalchuk and Malkin either. There are few Russians in the NHl now but hardly anyone seems to notice because a lot of people have Russian sounding names. Just the other day my friend said with Frolov gone we only have two russians now and Fedotenko is gone. I said feds isn’t russian he’s ukrainean. So there’s that misconception also…. I also get a kick when I see players names and it has soviet union next to it and not Russia. Only seems like yesterday that Kovalev, Nemchinov, and Zubov were the first russians on the cup.

  4. Jess says:

    The biggest reason why the number of Russians are dropping is the lack of a legit Player Transfer Agreement.

    The Russians and NHL are not even making any kind of effort these days to work out something that will make it easier for Russians to come over.

    Now most Russians have to leave NLT age 17 if they want a shot at the NHL.

    Matt J called the KHL right as it is a joke of a league given the tactics I have heard used to try to keep younger Russians home

  5. wwpd says:

    the change is an interesting dynamic and it’s hard to tell whether the NHL is missing out on amazing european talent because of this. for example a couple of years ago, just to name a few former rangers marcel hossa and pavel brendl were lighting it up too so that speaks for itself. neither one is russian but its the same principle – a czech and a slovak living the Russian Federation dream!

    on the other hand we will never know what could have become of european prospects that return to russia or never come to north america to begin with. maybe they are embarassing flops in the KHL but could have been top guys in the NHL, like a reverse-brendl? although i kind of doubt it.

    maybe it’s just my NHL-centrism but i have to think if an Ovechkin were to arise in the KHL, someone would get him to come over here. i propose an NHL vs KHL all stars tournament, played on a rink that is smaller than intl sized and larger than north american (this may not settle any burning questions but i think it would be fun assuming no vityaz-style gang wars)

  6. Matt says:

    I mean…I agree with stop stereotypes about Russian players, but I don’t think ‘hockey outsiders’ think the NHL is made up of all Russians…if anything it’s Canadians.

    • The Suit says:

      I know, it was more of a sensational opening to get people’s attention. Still, how many non hockey people would have guessed only around 25 Russians laced em up in the NHL.