In The Wake of Kovalchuk’s Departure, Is The KHL Becoming A Problem for the NHL?



By Dave Turner

Paint Ilya Kovalchuk as a monster if you’d like. But the last thing that should be done is to call this a “retirement.” Abandonment seems more fitting.

Be angry.  Be hurt that he spurned not only the New Jersey Devils, but the best hockey league on the planet. The most important thing to realize, is that this is a deeper issue than just his sudden departure.

The real dilemma here is that the NHL, in its current state, is the fourth-best sports league in America and constantly at a disadvantage. It is a league in which many teams struggle to make profits and the salary cap for this coming season has shrunk.

This isn’t a scathing indictment of Gary Bettman either. Say what you want about him as well, but he’s trying to make the league profitable, whether all of his decisions are right or not.

The fact is, hockey players in the NHL make far less than their top counterparts in other sports. A.J. Burnett, who couldn’t hack it in New York with the Yankees, is making $16.5 million dollars per season. He has been a solid pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he’s certainly not a top player in the league. Comparatively, the highest amount any player in the NHL will make in base salary for the upcoming season is Shea Weber’s $14 million with the Nashville Predators.

Now that Kovalchuk is gone, only four players (Weber, Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) will make a seven figure salary in 2013-2014.

So what does this have to do with Ilya Kovalchuk leaving for the KHL? For starters,the former Devil is slated to make anywhere from $15-$20 million dollars in un-taxed salary. That’s considerably more than what he would have made in the NHL. Add on taxes and the NHL escrow and his $10.5 million dollar salary that he forfeited would have been even less.

Financially, it makes total sense for players to go to the KHL and that’s a scary thought. To throw two examples of why the KHL is enticing, take former NHL defensemen Anssi Salmela and Brent Sopel. Salmela was a fringe NHL player who has gone to the KHL and made more money than he’d probably be making here. As for Sopel, he knew his career in the NHL was coming to an end, so he left for Russia as well.

Both are not Russian, yet both are playing in the KHL. Why? Because they can make more money playing in Russia, and when you only have a limited number of years on your body to make money doing the skill you’ve trained to do, you have to take advantage of that.

What about Alexander Radulov and Nikolai Zherdev? Two players with success in the NHL, yet they’ve both decided to play in the KHL instead of the National Hockey League.  Radulov left with a year remaining on his contract with Nashville to sign a bigger contract in Russia. Add Kovalchuk to that list now, and you could begin to field a pretty competitive team of players with NHL experience who have all gone to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Russian league is becoming a real threat to the NHL, simply because it allows players to make a lot more money. There’s no indication that this will last for the long term, as the KHL plays in a lot of smaller buildings that don’t bring in a ton of revenue, but the bottom hasn’t fallen out quite yet.  Due to the low ticket prices and building capacity, something has to give eventually, but for the foreseeable future, Russian teams will have the ability to offer blockbuster deals.

In the short term, players like Alexander Ovechkin, who has been unhappy at times during his tenure in Washington, Pavel Datsyuk, who is getting towards the end of his NHL career and even Evgeni Malkin might be enticed to leave.

Can you really blame the players? If you worked overseas and were offered more money to come back to the US, wouldn’t you at least consider the offer?

Don’t expect a mass exodus from the NHL at any point; that’s not going to happen. But, it’s completely feasible that many Russian players and some older NHL’ers looking to continue making money by playing professional hockey may be enticed to leave the friendly confines of their NHL cities.

It’s always about the money; don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. Dollars, or in this case, Rubles talk, and as long as the KHL is in the position to offer monster contracts to players, they stand as a huge threat to the NHL.

This may be just the tip of the iceberg.