Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: Russia to NHL Class of 2006

The Junior Super Series is quite clearly showing the hockey world the recent decline in the Russian hockey system. When a reduction in NHL calibre players from Russia is coupled with the lack of a Russia - NHL player transfer agreement, the salary restrictions to players under the NHL salary cap and the increasing size of contracts in the Russian Elite League, there is a significant drop in NHL players coming from Russia. In fact, some NHL players are leaving the NHL for Russia. This hurts the NHL as it reduces its talent pool.

It is informative to look at the five players who left Russia to play in the NHL for the start of the 2006/07 NHL season. Due to the lack of a player transfer agreement, there was considerable effort spent to make these players available including defections and lawsuits. Did teams fin this effort worthwhile?

If the team in question is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the answer is clearly yes. Evgeni Malkin joined the Pens and scored 85 points and won the Calder Trophy. Players who are ready to jump into the NHL as stars will always make it. They are rare cases. Most NHL players are not stars the second they arrive in the league. Even in the case of those who eventually develop into stars, many are not stars at first.

The other four players who came from Russia for the beginning of the 2006/07 season were not stars. They are Enver Lisin (who scored 2 points in 17 games before returning to Russia), Alexei Kaigorodov (who scored 1 point in 6 games before returning to Russia), Alexei Mikhnov (who scored no points in two games before returning to Russia) and Andrei Taratukhin (who spent the entire season in the AHL but is now reported to be on his way back to Russia). All told, the four non-Malkin Russians produced a total of 3 points 25 games.

The problem is that players who are not immediate stars in the NHL likely face salary cuts to come to the NHL. This is especially true for those who wind up in the AHL. They must learn to live in a new culture and are likely homesick. It is a hard barrier to climb. Given the pretty good conditions at home in Russia, why should they bother? These players were considered top prospects in the world before their short NHL stints. Likely many could have solid NHL careers, but may never have the chance.

Sometimes these players get second chances at the NHL. It appears that Enver Lisin will attend Phoenix Coyote training camp this year (though that is uncertain at this point). Were he able to stick with the Coyotes he might have a good NHL career. Often a second chance is all a player needs (for example Alexander Semin has proven to be a good NHL player on his second chance).

The pipeline of Russian players to the NHL is drying up. In part this is because Russia is not producing as many NHL quality hockey players as they used to and in part this is because there is less incentive for players to leave Russia for the NHL. Last year, five players came from Russia to the NHL for the first time. Only one had any success at the NHL level. With poor success rates like that, should any NHL team bother with Russian players unless they are the rare player ready to jump into the NHL as a star?

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