Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Russian Dominance

One only needs to look at the top scorers in the NHL to see that some of the most dominant players this season are Russians. If we look at the top point scorers in the NHL we see Russians in first (Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals), second (Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins) and fourth place (Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings). Only Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames breaks up a one-two-three Russian leader board. Similarly in goals scored, Ovechkin is first, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers is second and Malkin is fourth. Again it is a third place Iginla breaking up a Russian top three. This Russian dominance is contrary to the fact that the number of Russian players in the NHL is in decline.

The decline in Russian NHL players is due to the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia and the increasing amounts of money being paid to the Russian Elite League players, which prompt some Russian talent to stay home instead of joining the foreign NHL. In fact, there are plans to start a potential new league in Europe with hopes of rivaling the NHL. Though it is reasonable to be skeptical of that goal, a new league would draw talent away from the NHL. So far this season, there have been thirty Russian players who have played one or more NHL games. That is down from 57 prior to the lockout. Talent is already being drawn away from the NHL.

The skeptics will argue that the elite Russian talent still comes to the NHL. That is clearly true when one looks at the scoring race. However, some proven NHLers are having good seasons in the Russian Elite League right now and would be able to contribute to any NHL team, were they in the NHL. A quick look through the Russian Elite League shows there are teams with former NHLers Aleksey Morozov, Alexander Perezhogin, Oleg Saprykin, Alexei Yashin and Maxim Sushinsky all leading them in scoring. There are other teams led by players such a Jan Marek and Sergei Mozyakin, who most think could be good NHL players if they had the chance. This is a loss in the overall NHL talent pool.

Right now, the very best Russian players are coming to the NHL because that is where they can make the best money but will that always be so? It is not too farfetched to imagine that if a new European league gets off the ground they may offer a huge contract to one of the proven Russian superstars in the NHL (much like the way the WHA signed Bobby Hull). Given the lack of a transfer deal, any of Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk or Datsyuk could jump to the new league despite their current NHL contracts. The money to stay in Russia is getting continually better, in part because it is largely oil money (and oil is a hot world commodity) and because the US dollar is dropping relative to other currencies worldwide, so the difference between Russian and NHL salaries is closing.

There is also the problems of entry level contracts and two way contracts (with re-entry waivers) that limit how much a player can make when he first comes to North America (in many cases he would make more money staying in Russia at the start of a career). This means that unless a player is an instant star when he gets to North America, there is a good chance he will return to Russia. That makes it very hard to keep Russian talent in the NHL and some of those players lost might have gone on to be NHL stars if given a chance. There are many players who have developed into NHL stars in the past who were not ready when they first hit the NHL and these players would have been lost if they were Russians under the current system.

It is quite extraordinary that out of a talent pool of only 30 NHL players, three of the top four point scorers and three of the top four goal scorers are Russians. I think this is likely a bit of a fluke season for Russians. If Russia truly was this good and developing players, they would be a perennial champion in international hockey tournaments (they are not reigning champs in any of the Olympics, World Championships or World Junior Championships). This is a high point that has come because some Russian players have all had very good seasons at the same time and some other players who could be top scorers (such as Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, Joe Thornton, Vincent LeCavalier etc.) have not managed to keep up with them. I imagine next year we will see less Russian top scorers (if only because it would be hard to see more of them) and it is quite possible that we will soon be in a position where some potential top scorers have stayed in Russia instead of coming to the NHL. Enjoy your Russian NHL superstars today, there are reasons to imagine they may not last as dominant NHL players and if they don't it will be a big loss to the NHL.

Well, as far as i'm concerned, if the Russians want to play in Europe, its their choice and I haven't a problem with it , unless it causes NHL salaries to soar again. (as in all sports) These men are WAYYYYYYYY overpaid to play a GAME, that I had to PAY to play as a kid. If the Russians decide to leave the NHL LET them, don't inflate salaries to keep them here, we dont need them.
You don't need 3 of the top four goal scorers in the league? You don't need three of the top four point scorers in the league?
1) We doubt a Russian super league would siphon off many of the top players. The new proposed league over there will have a cap of about 27 million (US) probably not enough to lure the cream of the Russian crop.
2) Even with fewer games and no/less tax on their income the real money (right now) is to be made in North America. Also if anyone has visited Russia recently, its basically a 3rd world country. The standard of living over here is light years ahead of there.
3) We have seen some of the mid level/older(washed up?) Russians either stay home or go back. Very few would have huge impacts in the NHL. Sure some could/would make it here, but the best are IN the NHL
4) The only scenario we can see of these trends changing were IF a real unified European league were started that was designed to rival the NHL. Then, and only then would we see any significant/noticeable exodus of Russian/European born players from the NHL
Its already not only "washed up" Russians who are leaving. Alex Perezhogin is 24 years old and Oleg Saprykin turned 27 last month. Its very possible their best hockey is yet to come.

Obviously it would be nearly impossible for a new league next season to scoop up all the Russian talent, but they don't have to in order to make a big impact on the NHL talent pool. Just signing one star (a la Bobby Hull in the WHA) would do it. And presumably, if this leaguze succeeds in a few years they would be able to scoop up more stars.
1) It would seem that Montreal's 'loss' of Perezhogin didn't have a big impact on the team.
2) With an estimated 27 million dollar(US) cap its unlikely any Russian team could give any current/future Russian star a "Bobby Hull" contract.
3) We'd hazard to guess that the 27 mil estimate might be a bit high. Its not like the Russian league is going to secure a big lucrative TV rights contract
4) As we wrote previously, it would take a unified European league to be able to have the big bucks necessary to lure away talent from the NHL. The 140 mil Ovechkin contract, and Malkin soon to get his soon, will probably cause the reverse exodus TO the NHL! Yashin can stay! LOL
"You don't need 3 of the top four goal scorers in the league? You don't need three of the top four point scorers in the league?"

Nope, they can be replaced, there's plenty of players ready to take their places....I have nothing in particular against Russian players but, I always think that people living in Russia have as much right to watch their own best as anyone. I have no great love for mercenaries, who only come here for the money anyway.

You are forgetting that Russian money is tax free. The equivalent of $5 mill US is as much as any NHL player is making when you consider the taxes in North America. This league could do that, if they find a taker.


The beauty of the NHL is it is the best players in the world competing against each other. Should it lose (some of) its best player, that is no longer true and that would be a real loss to the fan.
Russian money may be income-tax free, but goods and services are less available, and it's by far the more dangerous country. There also isn't as much protection for the players AS players - the team controls their rights more completely.

Most likely, this is all stemming back to the bitterness over the lack of a transfer agreement, especially in recent cases. (I had done a post a while back about Evgeny Malkin's situation, prompted by a fine article on SI.com. Sorry about the self-link but it's easier than writing it all back up.)

The beauty of the NHL is it is the best players in the world competing against each other.

When I started watching hockey in the late 1960s, 90% of the players were Canadian and the league was a lot better than it is now; if we really need to compete against Russians, we can always have another Summit Series....now THAT was hockey! (Despite the fact that the Russians were the biggest high-stickers and divers I've ever seen.......nothing much changed there!)
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