It seems that yesterdays post struck a nerve and stirred a little debate, controversy, and best of all discussion. Overall, something welcome during the summer doldrums.
So let's expand upon it.
There seems to be three points of contention:
1. The stigma of the European player
2. The comparison of the KHL to the Russian leagues during the Cold War
3. The quality of players in the KHL
To detail point #1: The stigma of the European player as less physical and more offensively-minded has been around forever. While many readers have correctly pointed out that certain players such as AO, Zdeno Chara, and (my favorite) Peter Forsberg have combined incredible talent with the ability to play physical, the spectrum of European hockey is not necessarily represented with those few examples.
In any statement there are, of course, exceptions. However, it doesn't necessarily represent the majority. Nobody likes to stereotype, but the greater talents of Europe have erred on the side of offense, not physicality. For example, Russian players Pavel Bure, Sergei Federov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Alex Mogilny, and Valery Kharlamov. These players possessed great talent, but did so with their scoring. Similar with other European players such as Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved, Markus Naslund, and Daniel Alfredsson.
And understand this: this is not a criticism, degradation, or knock on the European players or style of play. Saying that the European style of play is more offensive-based than North American is no more insulting than saying Tom Renney prefers a defensive system while John Tortorella uses an offensive system.
If you were fortunate enough to watch the Soviet teams of the 70's, you saw tremendous speed, skating ability, talent, and creativity. This offense was eons beyond the competition, which is what made the US victory in 1980 so impressive.
A victory doesn't get dubbed a "Miracle" without such an unforseen result.
Which segues into point #2 in comparing the KHL with the past Russian leagues. There was a misconception yesterday that I was comparing the current KHL to the past Russian leagues in terms of the stranglehold on Russian talent and political pressure. That is simply not the case nor was it the intention.
The point was that Russian players are going to grow up watching, idolizing, and emulating players from the KHL like they did during those times when they would watch Vladislav Tretiak and other national team players.
This can breed nationalism and a desire to want to play for their home club, not necessarily the NHL, which is a good thing for Russian hockey and creates good competition internationally.
However, like the Soviet leagues and teams of the past, the KHL does have some political influence, though not to the extent of the Cold War. For example, take the recent case of Evgeni Malkin. Scott Burnside had written a nice piece a couple seasons back explaining the difference between the past Russian situation with hockey players and what Malkin went through.
However, the Russian government did surround Malkin's parents home after he "escaped" and there were rumors of threats made to the family's business. While this is not the "gun-point" situation of the past, it does illustrate a government presence with Russian hockey which ultimately carries into the KHL.
Consider the lack of a transfer agreement as well. Russia has been the greatest proponent of not allowing Russian players to transfer to the NHL. The Czech Republic has also been in the forefront for not signing the transfer agreement. These European leagues want to keep their talent at nearly any cost and if you want that player in the NHL that badly, you better pay big.
This creates the contentious situation where players can't freely go between leagues or teams. In turn, scenarios like Malkin's arise, which is reminiscent of the control during the Cold War era.
Yet, there are still a number of players that are leaving the NHL for the opportunity to continue and play a predominant role on a team and making top dollar for it. Jagr, for example, saw the potential to be the poster-boy for the KHL and took the larger contract and the increased role on his team over another NHL contract.
And the players being lured overseas by greater dollars is a good thing. Anyone would take an opportunity to live nearer to home for more money. While the KHL is not as financially stable as the NHL (aside from the Phoenix Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning) they are providing a viable alternative to the NHL at comparable (if not better) money.
This will also keep NHL contracts more manageable in the salary cap age. The recent Zherdev decision is a prime example. The Rangers, or any other NHL club, would not pay his exorbitant salary demand. The KHL seems willing, so he is going back to Russia.
Had the Rangers taken the salary award, it would have set a precedent for similar players to be making that much money. So the NHL is devoid of a potential star-talent, but it is also devoid of another bad contract.
Which brings us to our final point: the quality of talent in the KHL. There is no arguing that the NHL is the top talent in the world, at this time. Second-tier talent and the occasional star players have migrated overseas, but your premier talent still gravitates toward the NHL.
However, as leagues such as the KHL and SEL (Swedish Elite League) gain more prominence, funding, support, and respect, players will be more inclined to join those teams, particularly from home.
The home-grown talent is only now beginning to have a viable professional option in their hometown. Prior to the strong emergence of these leagues, young players only had the NHL to look to. Now, it seems that they can see a future career with sustainable franchises in their own countries.
Will this tremendously impact the talent pool of the NHL? Perhaps in time, but not for the foreseeable future. And with the overall world economic instability, things can change on a dime.
But there certainly is a trend amongst us where European leagues are gaining influence and the influx of European talent in the NHL seems to be declining.
However, on the flip side, more players will have the ability to play at the professional level as more teams and leagues pop up. Will the talent pool be thinned because of it? Time will tell...
UPDATE: Though no announcement has been officially made, it appears that the Rangers have signed physical defenseman Francis Bouillon, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, to a one-year $1 million deal. Not a bad signing if it is true. Reports are coming out of various Montreal media outlets. Awaiting official confirmation...