Wednesday, August 01, 2007

European Exodus Increasing

Before the lockout, the NHL was the best league in the world. The best players in the world played in it with few exceptions. Although it is still the best league in the world, there are more and more NHL worthy players who are opting to play in Europe instead.

I addressed this topic during last season here. The CBA and the NHL labor situation are pushing players to Europe. I suppose it is inevitable that there would be strong leagues in Europe capable of attracting top talent with globalization underway in all areas on the economy; however it never had to be in this form. It is possible that the NHL could have expanded itself into Europe instead of competing with rival European leagues. The timescale of the increase in NHL talented players going to or staying in Europe has been increased due to the labor situation and the CBA. The 2004/05 lockout year sent many NHLers into Europe. This gave European leagues a look at NHL talent and it gave many NHLers the experience of playing in Europe. While most players returned to North America to play in the NHL, some did not. A new CBA was agreed upon that increased player movement in the NHL and placed artificial caps on how much players could be paid. This increases the number of players looking for a new team to play for in any given season and sets up situations where a player cannot get paid as much to play in the NHL as he would be in European leagues. This can occur because the salary cap prevents a player from getting his worth on the open market or it can occur because of restrictions on entry level salaries or it can occur because of the limits on two-way contracts and re-entry waivers. For example, a team may be uncertain if a player in Europe will win a spot on their roster and thus be unwilling to offer him a one-way contract because that would make it impossible to recall him from the minors should he get sent down because he would not clear re-entry waivers. However, the player would make far more than the $95,000 limit on minor league salaries that would not require re-entry waivers if he stayed in Europe, so he does not come to the NHL.

So far this summer, several NHL capable players have signed with European teams. These players include Alexei Yashin, Jussi Markkanen, Oleg Saprykin, Jamie MacLennan and Petr Nedved. While none of these players are coming off of all star seasons, they are all likely better players than the guy who will take their spot in the NHL. Many of these players have potential to have a very good year under the right circumstances (Yashin certainly has the talent to do so), but NHL fans will not see it. These players are likely only the tip of the iceberg of the NHL calibre players who go to Europe this summer. There will likely be several more who find themselves without NHL teams come training camp who decide to continue their careers in Europe. Some of these players might be very good players.

There are already several NHL calibre players in Europe who are not coming to the NHL. These players include Aleksey Morozov (who had a record breaking season in Russia last year), Sergei Zinovjev, Jan Marek, Alex Perezhogin and Artem Chubarov who are all NHL capable but may never play another NHL game. These players also include younger players such as Alexei Kaigorodov and Alexei Mikhnov who might have been able to develop into good NHL players if they stayed in North America for a while, but didn't largely due to CBA imposed restrictions. Here is a list of several North AMe4ricans playing in Europe courtesy of James Mirtle, though many would not make an impact in the NHL.

The lack of a player transfer agreement with Russia could exacerbate this situation. Players under contract with NHL teams could chose to play in Russia before their contracts have expired with little recourse for NHL teams (though this would lead to legal battles) the same way Russian players come to the NHL while under contract in Russia.

The NHL is no longer the league where all the best players in the world play. Aleksey Morozov has a season which would probably have translated to an all star year in the NHL last year, but he had in it the Russian Elite League instead. As more and more NHL players go to play in Europe and more and more European players do not come to the NHL, there will be more and more good and great potential NHL seasons that do not occur because the player in question is not in the NHL. This makes the NHL product a weaker one for the fans. They don't see as high a calibre of player as they otherwise could have. The NHL does not seem to care about this. As long as the casual fan does not realize that there is a growing group of talent outside the NHL, it does not matter. The casual fan will still pay their money to cheer for the guys wearing the colors of their local team, even if they could be a more talented bunch with the players outside the NHL playing for them.

More and more NHL calibre players are not playing in the NHL. This is a problem. This leads to a dilution of talent levels in the NHL. It is not good for the fan.

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