All About the Benjamins: Why NHL Players Are Choosing the KHL

August 7th, 2010 No Comments

This offseason we have watched as several NHL players have chosen to continue their career with the KHL, shunning the NHL in the process.

At the top of the heap, former San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov signed a four-year, $24 million deal with SKA St. Petersburg, followed by former Atlanta Thrashers forward Maxim Afinogenov, who signed a five-year contract with SKA just yesterday.

For many Russian players, heading back home to play is as much about convenience as it is about the money.

That said, given the choice to make the same money, I suspect every one of them would rather be in the NHL—fact is, most of them are not worth it!

While the skill level in the KHL is getting better, the league is nowhere near what the NHL is.

SKA St. Petersburg, widely believed to be the deepest team in the KHL, features a lineup that includes several former NHL players, including Alexei Yashin, Sergei Zubov, Sergei Brylin, and Petr Cajanek, to name a few—would that lineup scare any NHL teams? Heck no!

Outside of Nabokov, nobody is going to miss any of those players, including Afinogenov.

There is no question, many, if not all of these players have chosen to play in Russia, not because they love the KHL, not because they feel the KHL is on-par with the NHL, not because they wanted to be closer to home—they play in the KHL for the money.

When choosing his future career path, if Nabokov had received a decent offer from the San Jose Sharks, he would have chosen to stay in the NHL.

Trouble is, that offer never came and the offers that did come in were not as lucrative or came from lousy NHL teams.

So, with the prospect of playing for a lesser team in the NHL, Nabokov chose a big money contract to play with SKA St. Petersburg.

Nabokov may make a ton of money with SKA, but he has lost a lot of respect from many NHL players and fans and, in my opinion, has joined a league that, for the most part, is filled with has-beens, old men, and untalented players.

Fans of the KHL point to players like Jaromir Jagr, Yashin, Zubov, Seregi Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Sandis Ozolinsh as if signing them was some kind of coup.

Fact is, if it was 1996 losing those player to the KHL would have been horrific for the NHL…but it’s 2010 and nobody cares what any of those players are doing these days.

The overall depth and skill level of the KHL is nothing compared to the NHL. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the American Hockey League is a tougher league to play in than the KHL.
For many Russian players, the KHL is a convenient place to spend the twilight years of their careers.

No longer will they have to take the nightly pounding that the NHL game provides, no longer will have to put up with the long seasons, long travel, and even longer playoff.

Yep, the KHL is a retirement home, void of fanfare, void of depth, and void of the cache of playing in the best league in the world, the NHL.

The KHL has seen its fair share of potential NHL stars play their way back to the NHL. Ray Emery and Jiri Hudler are two examples that just because you leave for the KHL doesn’t mean you can’t come back, but these two players are the exception.

Most players will never see the NHL again. Part of the problem is that it is tough to quantify what a successful season is in the KHL.

With the depth of the KHL in question, how do you quantify a 30-goal season? A 30-win season? A 1.98 goals against average or a 9.30 save percentage?

For the most part, you don’t.

Even the younger players (prospects) are at risk of not getting the respect they deserve simply because they are developing in an inferior league.

Riddle me this—where would you rather see your prospect develop in the KHL where the coaching and talent level are both suspect, or in the AHL, where hundreds of players have been developed and some of the best coaches in the world have honed their craft?

It’s no contest, you want your prospect playing in the AHL, hands down.

The AHL has developed some of the best NHL talent in recent memory, the KHL is yet to make an impact in the world of developing players and, in my opinion, likely won’t for a very long time.

In the end, playing in the KHL is all about the Benjamins. It’s not about pride of country, it’s not about building a league that may, one day, compete with the NHL. It’s about money.

Until next time,

Peace!

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