The NHL lockout is over – but some KHL stars may not come back

Photo: RicLaf/Wikimedia

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.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • T__Bone88

    The report of certain players not wanting to come back makes me shake my head. During this lockout the players were adamant that owners honor contracts but then players see no issue if they do not do the same. I have lost respect for Visnovsky over his situation with the Islanders.

    • DSF

      Thing is, the NHL is NOT honouring their contracts as they were signed.

      With the cap dropping next season, it’s likely the players will be putting large amounts into escrow and the “make whole” provision of the new CBA will only assuage a portion of that deficiency.

      • nuge2drai

        The contracts were signed with full knowledge of the CBA and the fact that escrow is a part of it. Sure, the new CBA may result in more “leakage”, but saying their contracts are not honoured is BS. No way players and agents are that naive.

        There is also the whole side where clearly certain players knew they had a much greater chance to cash in this summer, as opposed to next, due to expected CBA changes. Weber is a perfect example. I bet there would have been no way he would have signed that offersheet this past summer, knowing he could have walked as a UFA in one more year, had it not been for just how much more $$ he (or should I say his agent) would be able to collect within the expiring CBA.

    • As I recall, the Oilers honoured Visnovsky’s no-trade clause (which only came into effect after he was dealt to Edmonton) even though there was a decent case that they didn’t need to (the no-trade clause having been negotiated with Los Angeles).

      The Oilers trading Visnovsky to Anaheim voided that no-trade clause, though Visnovsky argued that it didn’t and tried to block the trade to NYI (an action which ultimately failed).

  • book¡e

    As people have raised on LT’s website, the big playing card the NHL and NHLPA have is the Olympics in Sochi. In any other year, I would really fear a push by the KHL to enter into this game of stealing players under contract, but in this year, I think they will play nice. The Olympics are bigger than the KHL politically.

    • This^^
      Absolutely, more to the point, the Russian ice hockey federation will flip out if the KHL does not honor there commitment to the NHL.

      Any hint of foul play by the NHL they will issue a private warning to the RIHF and the IOC once this happens, I believe the IIHF gets involved

      The NHL won’t care if it’s one or two players making a stink but if it is 7-8 and up the NHL will pressure the necessary people.

      Also, Radulov contract had little to do with Radulov not being an NHL player, I’m sure partying had a big part.

  • No way Kovalchuk actually stays in the KHL. Radulov’s situation was different because he could make millions more playing in his home country. The KHL could offer Kovi similar money for a season or two, but there has to be concern long-term. NHL CBA is set for at least 8 more years. Kovalchuk would be passing up 80 mill by staying.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    I could care less if Kovalchuk and Ovechkin turn away those ridiculous contracts and stay in Russia.

    I just hope Yakupov and Larionov stays true to their word and stays in the NHL. Buying his home in town and bringing his family over is a good sign.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    “We spoke to (Oilers GM) Steve Tambellini and (president of hockey operations) Kevin Lowe about it,” said Larionov, who represents the Oilers latest first overall pick. “To me, I think it was a much better setup for him to play in Oklahoma City in the AHL. It was better for him to play with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins and the other young guys. That way he can go and play the North American style, get used to it, get used to the grind and the length of the season. But that option wasn’t around. Plan B was to go to the KHL and play against men, which is what he did.”

    “He’s got more goals than (Alexander) Ovechkin, more goals than (Pavel) Datsyuk, more goals than (Evgeni) Malkin, so that tells you that he’s right there,” Larionov said. “He’s playing not on the best team in the KHL, in his hometown, but he’s making a big difference helping his team win hockey games and keeping them in the playoff hunt.”

    “I watched Game 3 of the CHL series and I thought that he played pretty well,” said Larionov. “He’s needs somebody to play with that is at his level and he’s got players like that waiting to play with him in Edmonton. Here, when he steps on the ice, everybody knows who Nail Yakupov is and coaches send one or two guys out there to shadow him. He’s got to find a way to get away.

    “But when he goes to Edmonton, they’ll have five guys like him, so it’s tough to cover all five guys. It’ll be like what it was like to play against the KLM (Vladimir Krutov, Larionov, Sergei Makarov) line, it’s impossible to cover them all. Right now all the focus is on him. All the coaches are trying to stop him because they know that every shift if you miss him and he gets open, he can get the puck and put it in the back of the net.”

    “I told him not to worry, he was going back to Russia in case of the lockout to play in the KHL and even though he had never played against men, I told him he was going to be fine,” Larionov said. “I know the league, I know Nail and I know what he can do and to me it’s no surprise that he’s playing well.

    “I can compare him to Pavel Bure easy, but he’s only 19 years old. He’s quick, he can finish, he’s got a good mind and can see the ice so well. He just needs someone to play with him that’s at the same level. I think mentally and physically he’s ready for the challenge and I can’t wait to see him in an Oilers uniform.”

  • nuge2drai

    Personally I hope Kovi stays in the KHL. He screwed over his former team, then signed a ridiculous cap circumventing contract. I’m just glad he isn’t an Oiler. As a NJ fan how would you feel knowing he doesn’t even want to come back. Diva baby can ride around on buses in Siberia… good riddance.

  • 24% body fat

    I’m with Chris. Why wouldn’t New Jersey want to an opportunity to walk away from this albatross? If I am the new majority owner of the NJ Devils and my team is coming out of bankruptcy(?)I would be like thank you very much and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. That is huge saving for the Devils. Massive cap reduction. I would be phoning his agent so fast and absolutely begging him to stay in the KHL

    Parise left in part because Lou was unable to match the money Minnesota was offering because of Kovy’s contract.

    Is the NHL going to miss Kovy? Not a chance. By this time next year he’ll be a footnote. The NHL is more concerned about Sid Crosby and his traveling road show then they are about some overpaid bum who’s marketability is nada to less than nada. Its not like anyone in New Jersey is going to care if he is in Russia.Name me the guy who cares?

    If I am the Devils I ask the KHL team he is with for a little grease and plead a little hard done by to the NHL and they’ll probably get some dough and a compensatory pick. Meanwhile the the KHl and the NHL avoid some nasty litigation and the IIHF does not need to do something it doesn’t want to do in terms of sanctions and such against the KHL. Especially before the 2014 Sochii games in Russia.

    IMO. Let the guy rot and ensure that if he does want to come back that nobody can sign him. Make this a precendent and stick to it.No more Radulov kinda BS.

  • 24% body fat

    The reason New Jersey will want him back is because he is one of the best players in the league. Top five in points last season. And had nineteen points in the playoffs. Is he overpaid? Yes. Will New jersey be able to replace him? No. every team has over paid players. If you’re over paying your superstar you are probably more ok with it.

  • 24% body fat

    Good riddance Kovalchuk. I’ll always remember you for picking a fight with half foot smaller Mike Comrie and then pulling his hair when Comrie started feeding you.

    Take Ovechkin with you. I wouldn’t have either on my team.

  • 24% body fat

    Im glad there not coming back and making a stand to the NHL. I dont blame Russian players for not wanting to come back and have to listen to people always bashing them cause of ther nationality. I think the NHL is a joke after this lockout. The only reason Ill be watching is cause the Oilers have Eberle Hall RNH and Schultz. If they were in the same position as Toronto I probably wouldnt bother watching the NHL again.