The KHL: Legitimate Competition to the NHL?August 1, 2011, by
The KHL keeps signing NHL players and not just Russian players that fail to make the grade in North America. Over the past week – and indeed over this offseason – we have seen plenty of players make the switch to the KHL. The latest players to make the move were former cup winning defenseman Brent Sopel and Russian Ex-Ranger Alexei Kovalev. While it is clear that these two players were no longer in the prime of their careers, both players could have found NHL employment for this coming season. Despite a bad year, Kovalev still came close to 20 goals and no doubt could have helped a talent-less team.
As the KHL tries to retain their own talented players such as Alex Radulov (as well as recruit several NHL based players), it cannot be doubted that the overall talent level and depth has improved tremendously since the KHL formed in 2008. The league benefits from players that could still perform in the NHL. From Radulov – a legitimate star in either league – to record KHL playoff scorer Josef Vasicek, Pavol Demitra, Aleksey Morozov, Viktor Kozlov and others such as Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinigenov or even Alexei Yashin. There are plenty of quality players in the KHL that could still play in the NHL. This isn’t including players such as Sergei Zubov or Sergei Fedorov – quality hockey players who had been winding down their careers in Europe. (Zubov is inactive)
The KHL is still a long way behind the NHL in both quality and quantity, but given it’s inception was only 3 years ago, the quality has come on very quickly. Where will it be in 5 years from now? The biggest thing that seems to threaten to hold the KHL back as a legitimate threat to the NHL is league stability. Given that the league could not stop (or didn’t want to stop?) traditional powerhouses such as Dynamo from having to merge with lesser clubs to exist, the league doesn’t benefit from a stable foundation. Some clubs cannot pay the players on time while other oil rich clubs seem to benefit from cash rich owners. There truly is no level playing field in the KHL.
We have seen plenty of players go to the KHL to resurrect their NHL careers (or find a way back) in recent times, such as Ray Emery or even Jaromir Jagr. This may be one angle that the KHL uses to recruit and improve their own quality in the short to medium term. Former Rangers like recent KHL recruits Nik Zherdev, Nigel Dawes or Petr Prucha may hope a solid year or two in the KHL will mean an offer or two from NHL clubs looking for depth. Zherdev in particular is blessed with elite skill regardless of which league he is in.
While he was an unheralded player in the NHL, when Antti Miettinen moved to Kazan this summer it may have been the start of legitimate NHL players making the move to Russia despite having a solid NHL career that was still in progress. Miettinen (only 31) was a consistent two way player, 30-40 point forward in the NHL who regularly flirted with 20 goal seasons on defensive clubs. Given the paucity of quality free agents this summer it may have been a surprise that the Finn chose Russia ahead of NHL teams.
Is a player like Miettinen the start of a trend and is the KHL’s improving quality reason for concern? If there’s an NHL hold out on the horizon you can bet the KHL will be looking to take advantage. Despite the (apparent) improving relationship between the NHL and the KHL, evidenced by the recent signed memorandum of understanding, the KHL would certainly look to entice any out of work NHL stars to Russia if there is indeed a lock out. This time around, there may not be short-term KHL deals with NHL out-clauses if the KHL continues to improve. Which is another thing for the NHL to consider when they discuss the next CBA.