Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mikhnov Returns To Russia (No Suspension!)

Despite the lack of an NHL-Russia IIHF transfer agreement, a handful of Russian players signed with NHL teams this past summer. There was a defection and questionable legal tactics used to get the Russian players into the NHL. This has resulted in lawsuits between Russian teams and NHL teams. At issue is how much money the NHL should have to pay a Russian team that loses a player who is under contract to the Russian team if he jumps to North America. The NHL position is take the IIHF deal or we will take your players and leave you nothing in return. The Russian position is that the IIHF deal is not good enough and they want more money.

Of these players who left Russia and came to the NHL, the only success so far has been Evgeni Malkin who looks like the Calder trophy favorite. Alexei Kaigorodov was sent to the minors by Ottawa and returned to Russia instead and got suspended by the Sens (despite this being allowed by a clause in his contract). Enver Lisin was sent to the minors by Phoenix and returned to Russian instead and got suspended by the Coyotes (despite this being allowed by a clause in his contract). The latest player to return to Russia is Alexei Mikhnov of the Edmonton Oilers. He has only played two NHL games (and insignificant minutes) with the Oilers. Otherwise he has been stuck in the AHL.

What is interesting is Mikhnov is not suspended. He goes with the blessing of the Oilers. With Mikhnov's Russian team Yaroslavl threatening legal action, Mikhnov unhappy to be stuck in the minors (at a salary that is a paycut from what he could make in the Russian League), the Oilers are not exacerbating the situation. Mikhnov told the Oilers he planned to return to Russia next season (so they might as well let him go now). The Oilers decided they were unlikely to call him up. Yaroslavl agreed to call off any future legal action if they get their player back. So everyone is happy. An agreement was met.

This is probably the best way to solve the Russian/NHL standoff. Let individual teams negotiate individually with one another. People are more likely to go away happy then with the heavy-handed NHL approach of take or leave our bad offer and if you leave it we will take your players for free. Yes, it might cost the NHL a bit more to get their Russian talent, but it will better open the pipeline of skilled players in Russia which the NHL needs to remain the league where all the most talented players in the world compete against one another.

However, the case of Mikhnov (and some of the other Russian "failures" this season) shows other problems that will rear their heads. Except for the most elite Russians, most need a bit of seasoning in the North American game to be ready for the NHL. However, the $95,000 re-entry waiver limit means that players will take a paycut to come to the AHL and get their seasoning. That prevents them from doing so. That is a large part of the reason the Russians wanted to return to Russia when they didn't immediately crack NHL lineups. This re-entry waiver rule will keep more talented players in Europe.

In Mikhnov's case, there is another issue. He is already 24 years old. With the liberalized free agency in the new CBA, he will be an unrestricted free agent at age 27. If Mikhnov takes a couple years in the AHL to be NHL ready, why bother? The Oilers would be producing a player for somebody else. They would develop an NHLer and then he would leave to another team.

As an example, to show this is important, let's look at the case of Dominik Hasek. He was a Czech star who came over to North America at age 25. He shuffled between the AHL and Chicago for two seasons. If he faced salary restrictions that forced him to a paycut in the AHL at that time, he would likely have gone home instead. Chicago wound up getting nothing much for Hasek's development because they traded him to Buffalo for Stephane Beauregard and a 4th round draft pick. Would they have bothered developing him at all if they knew he was 2 years from UFA status before they started? I think that under the current CBA, the fans would likely have never had the chance to see Dominik Hasek the Hall of Fame goalie in the NHL. Are there other players who could be Dominik Hasek's out there? We will probably never know because they will not have the chance to develop into NHL players.

Here is the TSN story on Mikhnov.

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