Monday, October 15, 2007

The NHL's Leaky Pipeline of Russian Talent

Before the lockout, the NHL was the league where all the best players in the world came to play. This is no longer true. One of the main reasons for this is that less Russian talent is coming to play in North America and staying there if they have to play in tougher situations.

There are several reasons for this. First, the Russian league is able to afford to pay large multi-million dollar (tax free) salaries to their biggest stars. Largely this is due to an influx of oil money into the Russian economy. Meanwhile, the NHL has reduced the amount of money a player can make in North America early in his career by bringing in re-entry waivers. This year, any player who makes more than $100,000 in the minors must clear waivers to get called up to the NHL. Effectively that means any player who wants to get called up to the NHL must be paid $100,000 at the most in them minors. A Russian player at a similar level would easily get paid more money than that staying in Russia.

This creates a situation where a Russian minor league prospect must trade off potential future salary gains if he becomes an NHL star against the current reduction in salary he is receiving to play in the minor leagues away from his homeland. There is the possibility that the player will get a much bigger total salary over his career, should he become an NHL star, but if he doesn't make it he loses out financially.

Because there is no player transfer deal with Russia a Russian prospect can leave North America even when he is still under contract. This creates a situation where a player has more opportunity to leave and thus fewer players make it to NHL level.

The latest player to give up on playing in North America and return to Russia is Roman Voloshenko of the Minnesota Wild. He is embarking on his third season in the AHL, where the Wild system is trying to teach him the defence necessary to play in Jacques Lemaire's team and this has cost Voloshenko in his offensive numbers. Voloshenko sees himself not getting closer to the NHL and losing money in the process. If he leaves North America, he is likely never coming back and his NHL career is likely over. There still is quite a bit of potential that Voloshenko could have a good NHL career

Voloshenko joins an ever increasing list of players with NHL potential (in some cases proven ability) who chose to play in Russia instead. This list includes Aleksey Morozov, Sergei Zinovjev, Artem Chubarov, Enver Lisin, Alexei Mikhnov and Alexei Kaigorodov. The NHL would be a better league if it was not losing this talent.

Here is TSN's story on Voloshenko returning to Russia.

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