During the NHL lockout, a number of Russian stars earned unfavourable press commentary after commenting that depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement looked, they might stay in Russia. For the biggest names – players like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk – those threats were largely seen as empty given the superb contracts waiting for them in North America.
The KHL, however, appears to have seen an opportunity in the rhetoric, and may now be making a hard play to keep European stars who made the trip overseas for the lockout.
The first player to publicly push to stay in the KHL was former Oiler Lubomir Visnovsky. Visnovsky’s in a unique position because he’s pushing hard to avoid landing with the New York Islanders. He claimed when he was dealt that his no-trade clause should still be in effect and allow him to block the trade, a request the NHL overruled. He’s in the final year of his contract and despite a hefty $5.6 million cap hit, will make (just) $3 million in actual salary this year. He’s also playing for Slovan Bratislava, the club he played for from 1994-2000 and over the last two lockouts.
Now, rumours are swirling around Kovalchuk, who is making comments like “nothing is out of the question” to Russian media. Kovalchuk is just entering the ‘massive dollars’ section of his contract with New Jersey (after making $6 million over the first two years of the deal, he would have earned $11 million before escrow over a full 2012-13 season). Even with the likelihood of escrow reductions, he’s likely to take home more than $60 million over the next six NHL seasons.
But while the financial case for players like Kovalchuk and Ovechkin (who will make $9 million pre-escrow until the summer of 2014, after which he’s slated to earn $70 million over the last seven years of his deal) is difficult to make, if the KHL is willing to ignore the validity of NHL contracts there is another group of big-name Russians it would be wise to pursue: players whose earnings are still capped by the NHL’s entry-level system.
It’s the reason that Alexander Radulov defected back to Russia: because rather than earning a base salary of less than $1 million on the final year of his entry-level contract with Nashville, he could earn millions in the KHL (salaries go further there, too; income tax in Russia is a flat 13 percent, even for the extremely wealthy).
Iif the KHL is really willing to go to war for players with NHL contracts, 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov is going to face the same choice that Radulov did. All down the line, Yakupov has made it clear that his goal is to play in the NHL. To date, there has been no public indication that he has changed that stance, and it would be irresponsible to assume that he will.
All we know for sure is that if the KHL is serious about going after guys with NHL contracts, Yakupov’s a prime target. His entry-level contract has a base salary below $1.0 million for each of the next three seasons. The KHL can offer more money, a more favourable taxation rate than he would get in Canada, and the chance to star for his hometown team.
Undoubtedly, the NHL hopes that the KHL opts to continue to respect its contracts, and that its best players and prospects overseas won’t be put in a position where they have a chance to make these choices. Encouragingly, many aren’t waiting to see what happens – two of Kovalchuk’s teammates (including star Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, who will almost certainly contend for the Calder Trophy) are on their way back to North America, and the KHL’s official website says that “most locked out NHL players have already booked their flights home.”
Still, it’s going to be interesting to see if the KHL can resist the urge to ignore NHL contracts, and if they choose to whether the players who signed them can too.