Bleeding Talent to the KHL

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2008 brought us the birth of Europe's top ranked hockey league - the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), formed from the preexisting Russian Superleague. Almost immediately, KHL teams were able to lure over NHLers and get them signed to hefty contracts.

The KHL and NHL have reached an agreement in principle, whereby each league honours the contracts of the other. However, there is still a lot of controversy surrounding what is becoming dubbed "KHL poaching" - the loss of quality NHL players to the KHL.

While I don't want to get into the whole uproar, I would like to point out that the NHL has been getting some of it's best talent out of Russia for quite some time. Vladislav Tretiak, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, Darius Kasparaitis, Vladimir Konstantinov, Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, and Sergei Fedorov were all Russian-born players. No hockey fan can deny the presence of current Russian talent like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Alex Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov, and Evgeni Nabokov. Would the league be the same without them? I don't think so.

In the end, the onus is on the player to sign where he wants to play. The KHL cannot be blamed for trying to lure quality players to their league, especially when you consider the longstanding tradition of top-end Russian talent migrating to North America. For NHL fans like myself, however, it is impossible to ignore the loss of talent we are experiencing. Here is a condensed list of some NHLers who left to the KHL last summer:

Jaromir Jagr
Alexander Radulov
Marcel Hossa
Ladislav Nagy
Marcus Nilson
Chris Simon
Sergei Brylin
Andrei Zyuzin
Jozef Stumpel
Branko Radivojevic
Josef Vasicek
Karel Rachunek
Bryan Berard
Ray Emery

A future Hall of Famer, a few veterans who had skated in more than 500 NHL games, and a solid bunch of promising young players - all, with maybe one exception, who could have played in the NHL last season. Now take a look at who the NHL has lost so far this summer:

Sergei Fedorov
Viktor Kozlov
Sergei Zubov
Sandis Ozolinsh
Dmitri Kalinin
Richard Zednik
Radek Bonk
Ville Peltonen
Daniel Tjarnqvist
Joakim Lindstrom
Joe Motzko
Janis Sprukts
Martin Gerber
Mikael Tellqvist
Karri Ramo

Starting to feel a bit nervous? I don't blame you - over the last two years, these losses alone (and there have been more) amount to what could be a Stanley Cup contending team in the NHL. While some of them (Lindstrom, Motzko, Sprukts, Ramo) weren't getting the chances they deserved in the NHL, others are considerable losses. It now looks as if there won't be much the Detroit Red Wings or the NHL can do to stop Jiri Hudler from signing with the KHL. Next up may be Nikolai Zherdev, who is set to become a UFA within the next 24 hours if the New York Rangers decide not to sign him to the $3.9 million contract he was awarded in arbitration, and aren't able to trade him to a team who will. There has been some interest in Zherdev from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him wind up in the KHL.

Without a doubt, many NHL teams would have loved to sign these players... So where is the problem? The huge contracts and lowered income taxes are surely not the only motivation for players to leave for the KHL - why can't NHL teams compete?

It is my opinion that the culprit lies in the salary cap. For one thing, teams are pressed so tightly against the cap ceiling that they can't afford to offer many high-priced, competitive contracts - even if they would be in the financial position to do so. Furthermore, the following season's salary cap is presently calculated using the current season's league revenues - which makes it an unknown, especially in tough economic times. The salary cap/floor was intended to achieve league parity, but so far it has done anything but that. As of this writing, the Chicago Blackhawks are the team with the highest payroll - just under $60 million. The Nashville Predators are the team with the lowest payroll, at two thirds of that - just over $40 million. Does that sound like parity?

But while it's easy to gripe about the cap, solutions are harder to come by. I have read around and done my best to come up with a few ideas for potential answers to the problem... which one do you like best?

1 - Change the salary cap by making it no longer based on league revenue, so that tough economic times and lowered ticket sales won't mean a diluted talent pool, which would further diminish revenues.

2 - Allow teams to go over the cap, but increase the percentage of revenues that team must share if they do. This would give big market teams the ability to offer big contracts, while even further helping the smaller market clubs.

3 - Get clubs out of small markets where revenue is low, unstable, and dependant on other franchises. This would help increase revenues league-wide, possibly circumventing some of the cap's negative risks.

4 - Introduce cap discounts to teams who sign homegrown players. In other words, if a team is renegotiating a contract with a player they originally drafted, a discount of somewhere between 20-40% could be applied to that player's cap hit. This option would let teams retain talent that they have developed, while still allowing them to be active on the free agent market.

So what do you think? Feel free to let me know which option you think is best, or suggest one of your own in the comments section. I like the 4th option most, as it puts more emphasis on solid drafting and organizational skills. Mind you, I think the 2nd option would be easiest to administer. Implementing both options could be a possibility as well...

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Josh Lind has 1 articles online

Josh Lind - The Lind Hockey File

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Bleeding Talent to the KHL

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This article was published on 2010/03/29