Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Declining Russian Presence In The NHL

There are less Russians in the NHL than there used to be. This decline has begun with the lockout and the new CBA. It is alarming because there are some NHL talents who in years past would have played in the NHL but are not playing there anymore. The loss of players from the NHL talent base reduces the overall talent level of the NHL.

There are less Russians in the NHL today because the NHL has made it less economic for players to come from Russia to play in North America. The Russian League has more money than ever before and is able to play their elite players a few million dollars a year tax free. Meanwhile, the NHL has reduced the amount of money available to entry level Russians. In part, they have done this with a salary cap, which forces teams to decide where they want to spend their money. Those left without the bigger money contracts they feel they deserve return to Russia to play. This has sent players such as Alexei Yashin, Aleksey Morozov. Danny Markov and Oleg Kvasha back to Russia. More alarming is the way the NHL has reduced the amount of money young unproven players can get in North America. The re-entry waiver system keeps players in the AHL making $100,000 a year or less. Any minor league player making more than that amount must clear waivers to get called up to the NHL. Any team claiming a player on re-entry waivers is only assessed half his contract (thus making him a bargain) while the other half is charged to his previous team as a penalty. This makes it so that any Russian player in the North American minors is earning less money than he would in Russia by a significant margin. It has sent many of them home instead of learning the North American game in the AHL. This costs the NHL several players who have the potential to be talented NHL players.

This situation is made worse by the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia. Most major European hockey nations have an agreement whereby the NHL pays some money to bring players from these nations to the NHL. This money helps to pay for development of future players and the cost of development of the new NHL player (at least in principle). The European nations tend to believe that they are not getting enough money in transfer costs from the NHL, but they have little leverage to negotiate a raise. The negotiation of these amount has been done in a "take it or leave it" style by the NHL. Russia is, so far, the only nation to reject this agreement. This means that Russian contracts do not have to be honored in North America and North American contracts do not have to be honored in Russia. A Russian player who signs in North America can decide that he is unhappy there and leave in mid-contract to sign in Russia. In principle, things could happen in the other direction also, where a Russian player leaves Russia in mid-contract to sign in the NHL, but with the waiver system in the NHL it is far less common. A player cannot pack up in mid-season from the Russian league without having to clear waivers to play in the NHL. If the player is at all valuable, he won't clear waivers so this is a non-starter idea for NHL teams to obtain talent.

Sure enough some players do leave Russia for the NHL each summer. Russia gets no compensation for their losses (for example Evgeni Malkin). However, they gain when their talent base expands by adding disgruntled NHL players who leave in mid-season to return home to Russia. Without a transfer deal, Russia gets more players in their league than they would have with one, but it costs them some money. They usually lose the best of their young talents, but they get to keep far more than they would have with a transfer agreement.

It is only mid-November, but already five players have left North America to play in Russia. Gone are Roman Voloshenko from the Minnesota Wild, Igor Grigorenko from the Detroit Red Wings, Darius Kaparaitis of the New York Rangers, Konstantin Pushkarov of the Dallas Stars and Maxim Kondratiev of the Anaheim Ducks. Each of these players could have been useful to an NHL team this year. Many are young enough that they could have significant futures in the NHL, but more likely than not, none of them will. This loss of talent is Russia's gain, but it is also the NHL's loss. The NHL had been the league where all the best players in the world came to play. It no longer is. Some of the best players in the world are in Russia and lost from its talent base. This weakens the NHL.

To illustrate the drop in Russian talent, here is the number of Russian players who played in the NHL in the last few years:

Number of Russian NHL Players By Season
Season Number of Players
2002/03 57
2003/04 57
2005/06 40
2006/07 35
2007/08 27

While it should be noted that this season isn't over yet, so it is possible that more Russian players will wind up playing this season, the trend is clear. Before the lockout, the NHL had a stable 57 or 58 Russian players playing a year. That number has dropped steadily since then. So far this season only 27 Russian players have appeared in one or more NHL games. That is a drop-off of at least a team worth of players. Sure somebody (usually a North American) is found to fill these spots, but he is not as good as the Russian player who would otherwise be in the league. This lowers the overall talent level in the NHL. This makes the league weaker than it could be. This is not a good thing for the NHL. The NHL has set up a situation where economics keep about half of the NHL worthy Russians out of the league. There is a situation where a Russia player who comes to North America must make the NHL immediately or he will likely return to Russia where he can make more money. This prevents players from getting the seasoning they may need in the AHL. This reduces the overall talent level the league has. As an NHL fan, I am unhappy with this.

NOTE: The Russian Elite League does not attract only Russians to play there. Recently, Tony Salmelainen of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who is Finnish, abandoned the Maple Leaf organization (he was in the AHL) to play in Russia.

Hey, Ron Maclean just referenced this post on HNIC...or a post just like it.
I was just about to say the same thing. He also said something about regretting not being able to give credit to the source...
Sure somebody (usually a North American) is found to fill these spots, but he is not as good as the Russian player who would otherwise be in the league.
Evidence for such a claim?

The fact that under normal circumstances the job would have gone to a Russian player is evidence. The guy getting it now is at best the second choice.
Whay are you talking about - "not as good as the Russian player"? Good riddance to these over-hyped overpaid slackers. The players that have gone back are marginal NHL players at best. The league has been full of these guys that supposedly have all kinds of talent and promise but never seeme to deliver. For every Ovechkin, there are 6 Russian bums that thought they could come here, make the odd great rush, float around, and collect a big paycheck. It started with Krutov and has continued every year. And then they all use Mark Gandler for an agent to demand a ridiculous salary and actually threaten to go to Russia if they don't get their demands met. The GM's are finally smartening up and telling these guys - "don't let the door hit you on your lazy ass on the way out". Look how few were drafted this year. The Russians have been here for 20 years. Where are the stats to back up the hype? Scoring champs - zero, MVP's - zero, Conn Smythe - Zero. Team Leaders - Zero. Grit & Character players (i.e. playoff leaders) - less than zero. The jig is up. Stop the rhetoric about this supposed loss. You're a disgrace to say that a North American player is a second choice. Check the stats buddy.
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