How Good is the KHL?


There has been some notable shifts in the balance of European hockey in the past half decade, and the emergence of the Kontinental Hockey League is front and centre in that.  So how exactly has it changed the power structure of the various leagues?  I've decided to go through the statistical information that has been made available in the KHL's 3 year existence and just look at how difficult it is for players to hit the scoresheet in the KHL.  In short, I'm establishing some KHL Equivalency ratings, based on the work done by Gabe Desjardins regarding NHL Equivalencies.  The results should give some pause to the perceived hierarchy of the professional hockey leagues.

First things first, I have adjusted the statistical totals of the players to coincide with KHL scoring rates.  I've used the figure of the KHL awarding 1.53 assists per goal, while adjusting goal totals based on the offence levels of each league to normalize them to the KHL's standard (which varies depending on the years involved from 5.42 GPG to 5.56).  I've used Desjardins' Assist per Goal historical average for various leagues to simplify the process.  For some leagues, the sample size is still quite small, for others, it's quite significant.  The point of this exercise is to not create a base for predicting performance, but to establish competitive value, so those factors are important considerations.  As part of the normalization process, I focused exclusively on forwards.  All statistical records were drawn from Elite Prospects as well as the corresponding league's official websites.  If you're not familiar with the leagues I've listed, you can check out last summer's European Hockey for Dummies series.

KHLE
League NHLE KHLE Players
NHL (all years)

1.00

1.61

50

NHL (2008-11)

1.00

1.53

34

AHL

0.44

0.79

47

Elitserien

0.78

0.76

29

SM-Liiga

0.54

0.64

29

National League A

0.44

0.60

23

Czech Extraliga

0.74

0.58

41

Slovak Extraliga

N/A

0.51

13

Belarusian OL (07/08)

N/A

0.48

22

Deutsche Eishockey Liga

0.52

0.43

10

Belarusian OL (post-KHL)

N/A

0.36

54

KHL-NHL Gap

A few things of note:  the numbers seem to indicate that the KHL's NHLE rating is 0.62 overall, and 0.65 if you discount the first KHL season.  That's astonishingly low compared to the Russian Superleague's NHLE number of 0.83.  It's also much lower than the numbers I've seen used to project Jaromir Jagr's performance next year.  I think this is reflective of a few things, namely that the players going back and forth between the leagues aren't necessarily the KHL's top players, as we usually have assumed in the past.  The reverse is also true:  the players the KHL takes from the NHL don't necessarily become KHL stars.  The KHL's best talent is largely homegrown, paid salaries that are too rich for the NHL's CBA to handle.  We see a similar trend at the NHL's entry draft, where the top Russian talents don't reflect the order in which even Russians are selected, let alone by global order. 

The second theory I have about this discrepancy is that the NHL is indeed stronger than it was even 5 years ago:  there has not been an expansion of the NHL for 11 seasons and the massive expansion of talent from North America in that time period have made the NHL a higher quality league.  It is notable, however, that after a four team expansion in 2008-09 from the Russian Superleague's 20 team format, that the KHL has made up some ground on the NHL.  However, it's still got a long way's to go. 

Rest of Europe

In comparison to the rest of Europe, the KHL looks pretty dominant.  The Elitserien comes in a comfortable second place, followed by Finland's SM-Liiga and Switzerland's NLA.  The Czech Extraliga has taken a big hit in recent years, and the best Czech players not in the NHL no longer play in their home country.  The KHL has become a popular destination, and there is a fluid exchange of players between the leagues.  Indeed, when you consider the size of the Czech Extraliga (14 teams), it becomes probably the top foreign source of talent for the KHL.  The Czech league now finds itself on similar ground to the NLA, when it once competed with Sweden's Elitserien for competitive level. 

AHL Discrepancy

Well, where did that come from?  According to NHLE, the AHL ranked below the Swiss League in terms of talent level.  However, according to KHLE, the AHL is stronger than every other European league, including Sweden's Elitserien.  How can this be?  This is likely due to a more selective talent pool making the jump from the AHL to the KHL than from the AHL to the NHL.  AHL players often get opportunities in the NHL due to injuries, rather than due to promotion.  For the KHL, they bid on top AHL players and often are able to offer better salaries than what the NHL can provide them due to CBA restrictions.  The KHL is also less likely to call upon low-talent goons from the AHL than the NHL does, with the notable exception of Vityaz Chekhov.  There are a lot more natural barriers to player exchange between these leagues, and this is a key point when judging league talent level using this methodology.  NHL teams are similarly selective in choosing Czech and Russian talent, and in recent years the restrictions on player movement between those countries have really affected the reliability of the data.

We need to do a lot more of these type of comparisons to get a more complete picture of league quality.  Still, I think it is fair to say that the AHL is a much stronger league than the NHLE metric considers it.  Certainly with the rise in American and Canadian talent over the past decade it would make a lot of sense that it has made gains on the European leagues. 

The Minsk Effect

Dinamo Minsk were the top team in the BOL, Belarus' top circuit, before they were added to the KHL.  The KHL did similar things in Astana (Kazakhstan) and Riga (Latvia), but the BOL was considered a much higher quality of league to begin with than what Kazakhstan and Latvia had.  The BOL remains a top source of talent for the KHL even today, but the league is not what it once was.  With top Belarusian players now having a larger presence in the KHL than the old RSL, the BOL has suffered greatly.  The league before could compete with the lower 'elite' European leagues, but now it is definitely a step below the likes of Slovakia and Germany.  It's a tradeoff that Belarus has made to have a team in the top league, and while they once sought having as many as four KHL teams in their country, the pressure to do so seems to have dropped.  It's quite possible the state of their own national league is playing a role in the prevention of more KHL teams.  Look for a similar effect to take place in Slovakia and perhaps even the Czech Republic with the establishment of Lev Poprad.  As you can see, Slovakia's KHLE is only slightly higher than what the BOL's was in 2007-08 (0.51 to 0.48).

I'll have more involving feeder leagues for the KHL in my next article. 

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