They were going to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to be the highest paid hockey player on the planet. They were going to expand to the Czech Republic and Ukraine, becoming an Eastern European mega-league. With exhibition games against NHL clubs in the lead up to the NHL's regular season launch, there was even co-operation as the league looked to become a partner with the game's top dogs in New York and Zurich. They had signed some high priced, talented young players who had a record of success in the NHL in previous years, players like Alexander Radulov, Nikolai Zherdev, Jiri Hudler and Anton Babchuk, in the prime of their careers. So how did the KHL lose all it's momentum in just one summer?
It all started with the merger of two legendary Russian clubs: HC Dynamo Moscow with HC MVD. The merger brought two Moscow area teams, founded in post World War II Stalinist USSR, under one banner, but lead to the voiding of many contracts as a result. Jiri Hudler, who was signed with Dynamo, opted out of the final year of his deal and has since returned to the Detroit Red Wings as a result. The merger leaves the KHL with three teams in Moscow: the new team UHC Dynamo, CSKA Moscow, and Spartak Moscow. Another club who played in the 2009-10 season, Lada Togliatti, was dropped by the league for inadequate financing.
No problem, right? There was an expansion coming, and those teams could be replaced! Well, the KHL had six applicants for expansion teams back in April, including teams in three new countries: HC Budivelnyk from Kiev, Ukraine; Lev Hradec Králové from the Czech Republic; and Vetra Vilnius from Lithuania. The Vetra bid was withdrawn due to a lack of funding, and the Lev Hradec bid was nixed by the Czech Ice Hockey Association in an unanimous decision. The KHL also considered bids from another Moscow group, a team from Tyumen in central Russia, and an oil rich team called HC Yurga in Khanty-Mansiysk. HC Yurga and HC Budlivelnyk were eventually accepted by the KHL as new teams for the upcoming season.
But even that 2 for 2 exchange didn't work out. A new arena project in Kiev was delayed and HC Budlivelnyk and the KHL decided it was best to not launch the new team this season as a result. So the KHL is down to 23 teams for 2010-11, and the prospects for expansion weren't bolstered by the talent they were able to draw. In fact, it looks like a net loss for the KHL this year in the talent department: top young players like Hudler, Anton Babchuk, Nikolai Zherdev, and Linus Omark have left the KHL this season for the NHL. In return, the KHL has added players entering the twilights of their careers: 34 year old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov got SKA St. Petersburg's big money (4 years, $24m) that they had originally set aside for Kovalchuk, and Pavol Demitra just signed yesterday with Lokomtovi Yaroslavl. They were able to retain Jaromir Jagr for another year in Avangard Omsk, while his longtime Czech national teammate Dominik Hasek refuses to retire (even though he's 45) and signed with Spartak Moscow.
Perhaps it was too predictable. After all, after two years of the NHL's salary cap remaining in the $56m range, the $2.6m bump in the salary range has meant a greater market for players to stay with NHL teams in 2010 compared to a year ago. But the KHL has really skewed the way Russian players are viewed in the NHL, and it perhaps reached a tipping point where younger players are now trying to seperate themselves from the KHL as soon as possible so as not to limit their career options in North America. Recently, Alexander Avtsyn bought out his final year of his contract with UHC Dynamo to sign with the Montreal Canadiens. Alexander Burmistrov, the highest drafted Russian player since Nikita Filatov, achieved the goal by playing with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, despite being viewed as a lesser prospect than HC Sibor Novosibirsk's Vladimir Tarasenko. In each of the last two NHL entry drafts, the top Russian taken was playing major junior hockey in Canada (Dmitry Kulikov went 10th overall in 2009).
With the KHL not willing to poach players under contract to NHL teams anymore, the league seems to have lost a bit of its mystique and power amongst players worldwide. The league was founded as a renegade group of oil tycoons wanting to bring the best hockey in the world to Russia, and there was a bit of revenge for the NHL taking "their players" away from them for little compensation. Now that the KHL has to wait for players to no longer be under contract with a team, their negotaiting power is less. Alexander Radulov could not re-negotiate his contract with the Nashville Predators, and he certainly couldn't negotiate with any other NHL team. The KHL could poach unsatisfied players quite easily. When the players become free agents, even restricted free agents, the KHL is now negotiating with 30 NHL teams for the services of players.
And it also doesn't help when we hear stories like that of Igor Misko. Misko, a player for SKA St. Petersburg, died of a heart attack at the age 23 this past year. Team doctors had not been able to detect any defects or irregularities, even with stricter guidelines following the tragic death of Alexander Cherapanov in 2008. It could be just a freak occurence, one that could have happened in North America. But with the images of Cherapanov's death still fresh in the hockey world's thoughts, it can't help but shine a bad light on the league.
It's really too bad. I didn't want to write a negative article on the KHL this summer, I really do hope the league succeeds as I believe it has great potential to grow the game's popularity worldwide. Unfortunately, it's starting to look like a retirement circuit for European players... the equivalent of the Senior's tour in professional golf. If more and more young players opt out of the KHL, I also fear it will hurt Russia's standing in international competition. It is still a relatively young league, but if the first two seasons were seen a step forward for Russian professional hockey, this coming season has to be looked at as a step back. If the KHL can't retain their young talent (and Radulov is a free agent next year, BTW), then the league will only be comparable to other European leagues... and not as the WHA style rival to the NHL that the founders boasted about upon its creation.