Friday, July 04, 2008

The KHL Is For Real

It has been reported that Jaromir Jagr has signed a two year contract with Avongard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). This is the fledgling Russian league that will play its initial season in 2008/09 and attempt to challenge the NHL's claim to be the best hockey league in the world. Jagr has signed for around $23 million over two years (tax free).

Jagr is the first big name superstar player to join the new league. His signing is likely the equivalent of Bobby Hull's signing with the WHA. It gives the league instant credibility and will help it attract more proven NHL players.

Jagr played in Omsk during the 2004/05 NHL lockout and enjoyed his time there. He learned yesterday that his time with the New York Rangers is over when the Rangers signed Markus Naslund and Dmitri Kalinin, thus committing the salary cap money that would have been used for Jagr to other players.

The KHL already has the best players who were in the Russian League last year including Aleksey Morozov, Alex Perezhogin, Oleg Saprykin and Alexei Yashin. They have attracted other European stars including Tony Martensson and Mattias Weinhandl, the two top scorers in the Swedish Elite League last season. They have attracted fringe NHL players including Chris Simon, Marcel Hossa, Wade Dubielewicz and John Grahame. With Jaromir Jagr in the fold they will likely attract more talent. This league will likely have roughly as much talent as the WHA had in its first season.

The KHL will have 24 teams grouped into four divisions. Here they are:

Bobrov Division
Atlant Mytishchi
Dimano Minsk
Metallurg Novokuznetsk
Salavat Yulaev Ufa
Severstal Cherepovets
Spartak Moscow

Chernyshev Division
Ak Bars Kazan
Barys Astana
Dinamo Moscow
Neftekhmik Nizknekamsk
Torpedo Nizny Novgorod
Vitay Chekhov

Kharlamov Division
Amur Khabarovsk
Avangard Omsk
Dinamo Riga
Lada Togliatti
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
Sibir Novosibirsk

Tarasov Division
Avtomobilist Ekaterinburg
CSKA Moscow
HK MVD Balashikha
Metallurg Magnitogorsk
SKA St Petersburg
Traktor Chelyabinsk

The league will play 56 games in its initial season and will have a playoff including the top 16 teams. It is hoped that the league will expand to 30 teams for the 2009/10 season, including teams in Sweden.

The league is not without its problems. Some of its teams will be playing in facilities that are not good enough to house junior teams in North America. Here is a google map showing the location of the teams. Distances between cities are immense. The two furthest teams in terms of distance are Amur Khabarovsk and Dinamo Riga are over 6600 kms apart (compare this to the NHL where Vancouver and Miami, Florida are about 5600 kms apart), however these two teams are placed in the same division as one another.

The era where the NHL is the league with all the best players in the world is over. Some top level players will be in the KHL (starting with Jagr). The competition between the leagues for players could get fierce. The lack of a transfer agreement means that players may jump between leagues during the course of the season (the NHL has rules to make this very unlikely, but it is not clear the KHL will follow suit).

Jaromir Jagr jumping to the KHL does a lot to legitimize this new league. It will be a rival to the NHL. It will have some of the best players in the world. How well it does and how this impacts the NHL are still open questions.

"How it affects the NHL" is something I have only vague concerns about. "How it affects the NHL fan" is what I'm much more interested in.

There's a distinct difference. Whether or not the NHL can claim to be the "best hockey league in the world" is really only a topic for debate, not really something that will affect gate sales. After all, although players may move to Vladivostok to play on some team there, fans won't.
At this point the NHL is clearly the best league in the world, but it is no longer the league with all the best hockey players in the world.
What I want is for the KHL to get a TV deal with some Canadian sports network so that I can watch TV hockey all hours of the day and night (gotta love the time differences to Russia).
This is a league that the nhl should be worried about. The rules in the KHL leave it open for teams to come after players under nhl contracts.. If you sign a player under an nhl contract his contract will not count against your cap. To me this sounds like a league who wants to ruffell some feathers.
GOOD, I really hope it suceeds. Remember the NHL before the influx of all the European players. Yeah, it was exciting back then. The NHL and the Europeans is a relatively new thing to the NHL, it wasn't like that in the 80's and the NHL only had the best players in the world in the mid 90's to present time. A 56 game season in the KHL with most of the rosters being made up of subpar players won't make the best players in the world. Yeah, they have signed some good players but come on, even Jagr is nearing the end of his career.
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I think that it is great that we can have a player like him in the KHL. I hope that he can add a lot to the team.
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