Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Magnetogorsk Millions: The Rise of a Rival League

Funny thing timing. As we wrap up the Canadiens reviews this week, we are coming to a very important trio of Russian/Belarussian players at the core of the Canadiens recent and future success. Simultaneously, the very real possibility of a significant drop in Russian talent is growing.

Back in May, we spoke about the lack of transfer agreement and how it could harm the NHL in terms of reduced influx of Russian talent. Now, we are seeing real competition for established NHL talent, Russian or not.

This has been coming for some time.


The Russian league, in its old guise as the Super League, was the one league that was poised and ready for the last NHL work stoppage. Players by the busload went to play throughout Russia in 2004-05. AK Bars Kazan from that year iced Lecavalier, Richards, Kovalchuk, Heatley, Kozlov and Kovalev in what (barring a reversal in the salary cap) will likely be the best top two lines ever to be seen again. The European Champions of that year, Avangard Omsk, got it done with star Russians and one Jaromir Jagr. While the Russian champions were thankful to have Datsyuk and Afinogeniv back in the fold to help Ovechkin win the title.

A lot has happened in the NHL since that season.

For one thing, there is a salary cap, which limits the buying power of the biggest teams so outfits in non-traditional (to be polite) hockey markets can bear the weight of competition. For another, the NHL has grown wealthier and, as a result, more arrogant. The arrogance can be witnessed in the league's dealings with and declarations about rival leagues like the new KHL (Continental Hockey League) and national associations in Europe, and in quote like this:

"We don't view them as a threat," (Bill Daly) said. "We still believe the best hockey players in the world will continue to want to play in the NHL."

But, it's a dangerous line the NHL is walking. While it probably garners many laughs and guffaws to mock the KHL and the players who make their way there, the truth is the KHL is poaching real talent now. Jagr, for one, was still a scoring star in the league, which is still largely starved of players of his skill and stature. Ray Emery, for all his problems and jokes about him, would be the best goaltending talent on more than a dozen NHL teams (Mike Smith?). And, Alexander Radulov was one of the only half decent things going on in Nashville (an otherwise flailing operation), as far as the NHL was concerned. Add to this list the players that will never come to the NHL (because of the new aversion to drafting Russians), but would outplay the vast majority of second-line talent in the league in a Moscow minute, and the argument builds.

Something else a lot of North Americans need to understand when it comes to the threat of the KHL is that we are not looking at league vs. league here. Of course it is true that the NHL is still the biggest and most powerful hockey league in the world, and will probably remain that way for the forseeable future. However, the biggest 30 hockey clubs in the world are not those in NHL cities alone. Avangard Omsk, owned by Chelsea billionaire Roman Abramovich, could only be dwarfed in buying power by Detroit, Toronto, NYR and the very biggest NHL clubs. Omsk, along with AK Bars Kazan, Moscow Dynamo and a few others are far bigger clubs than Nashville, Atlanta, Florida and the like. In addition, consider that the power structure of the leagues will also be altered, inevitably, by the players which they are able to draw in. The Russian powerhouses are big players and deserve the respect of the NHL.

Ultimately, its my feeling that if the NHL lets the Omsks and Kazans to "wedge" their proverbial feet in the door, the league could be facing wide open movement in the not too distant future. This article from the Sporting News provides an excellent thesis on why this could be the case.


What for the future with Russia?


Unless the NHL comes out from behind its arrogance and makes sincere efforts to negotiate with the KHL as a peer, the losses of players like Jagr could conceivably continue.

Even if the only problem to come from a lack of treaty is the loss of fresh Russian talent to the league, the NHL would suffer. It only takes a glance at the NHL award winners and nominees from this season to understand the important role that Russia has played in changing the face of the North American league:

– Ovechkin walked away with the Maurice Richard trophy, and was only challenged for the Art Ross, Pearson and the Hart trophy by his fellow Russian, Evgeni Malkin

– Pavel Datsyuk won the Selke trophy and the Lady Byng, not to mention the Stanley Cup

– Nabokov didn't win the Vezina, but could have (he was on the first all-star team)

– Kovalev joined Ovechkin, Malkin, Nabokov as the Russians on the first or second all-star teams

– No Russian defenceman garnered Norris nominations or All-Star nods, but we know Markov is better than Brian Campbell, and I imagine people in Dallas know Zubov is too

– 3 of the top 5 scorers were Russians, 5 of the top 11

– 3 of the top 4 goalscorers were Russians


Is it an anomaly that so many Russians are leading the way in scoring in the NHL? Perhaps, but since they have been coming into the league, we have already witnessed players like Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. I think this new crop is a continuation from those traditions. And, with a flourishing league of their own, there is no good reason to believe that the tradition of Russian hockey talent won't continue

I believe the NHL should make efforts to come to some agreement with the KHL and the Russian Association, primarily because I don't relish a future NHL without Russians. I can't imagine going backwards to a time without exciting (and sometimes enigmatic) Russians. Even this year, if you took Russians out of the mix, a league trying to reinvent itself as a scoring bonanza would be left with Brad Boyes and his 43 goals as the number 3 attraction. It seems the North American skaters are simply not as creative at beating the North American goalies and defencemen (who consequently are the best). What's more, if the NHL stood by its 30-team model in the absence of Russian talent, the days of free-flowing scoring hockey will be over sooner than they began.


And for Europe?

The Russian league and Russian gulf also provide problems for the NHL as a precedent for other European leagues to follow. I've heard on pretty good authority that the next strongest league and association (Sweden) is watching this Russian situation the closest, and will be making their plan of attack for the NHL based on that experience. The Czechs are already disgruntled. And, the Swiss have the money and the momentum to make waves too.

Whereas the efflux of Russians from the league would be a major step backwards, the loss of Europeans of all nationalities would be catastrophic.


Leadership

In times of flux, it helps ton have good leaders to take the helm. It remains to be seen as to whether Bettman can handle this crisis. But, frankly, why should it be his responsibility. If there were a leader among the NHL owners with an ounce of foresight, this moment could have been headed off ages ago. It remains their interests under threat (albeit their employee Bettman is the point-man), and it is their leadership and creativity that needs to be tapped to find a solution.

I have proposed on a number of occasions that one team could realistically set transfer conditions in a treaty-free market independently of all the others, and I see no reason why this could not be pursued. I have also made no secret that I would like this team to be the Canadiens. But, for the ultimate success of the league and the quality of NHL hockey, it wouldn't matter who stepped up. Once one did, the others may follow.


For all the conjecture and ranting, the situation is still within the control of the NHL. All it will take is a little bit of modesty and sincere effort. If not, this won't be the last article written on this topic. They don't call it the thin end of a wedge for nothing...

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