Life after Ilya Kovalchuk is not off to a barn-burning start for the New Jersey Devils.
They're winless in their first four, heading into Friday's game with the Calgary Flames, with a remade team featuring six new faces, most brought in as a response to Kovalchuk's decision to forgo the final 12 years of a 15-year, $100-million (U.S.) contract and play in the Russia-based KHL.
Kovalchuk is the first elite Russian NHL player, still in his prime, still considered an elite contributor, to return to the KHL. But he's part of a growing exodus. that has been going on for a half-dozen years.
Most of the key Russians – from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Gonchar – went home last year to play in the KHL during the NHL lockout. But all drifted back in January. More importantly, all except Kovalchuk returned to North America this season, even though there were major financial incentives to stay in Russia.
Malkin is in the final year of his NHL contract, but instead of testing the waters overseas – and turning down a reported $15-million (U.S.) in tax-free dollars from his hometown team, Magnitogorsk Metallurg – he signed an eight-year, $76-million contract extension to stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Datsyuk, 37, wants to play one year in Russia before his career ends, but the Detroit Red Wings convinced him he has lots left in the tank and coaxed him to sign for three more years.
The NHL's Russian content peaked in the 2000-01 season, when 89 players from the former Soviet Union played in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. By 2007-08, the total was 45.
Last season it was down to 37, and so far this year only 24 players have played in the NHL, with a handful of others on rosters, but missing because of injury. (Alexei Emelin, Fedor Tyutin), in the minors (Dmitry Orlov), sitting on the end of the bench (Nikolai Khabibulin) or waiting for a pro opportunity (Ilya Bryzgalov). But even if – or when – they all get in, The number will likely top out at 30, the lowest in decades.
"The KHL is an unusual place," said former NHL coach Paul Maurice, who spent last year coaching Magnitogorsk. "For an NHL player who's on the fringe, and isn't necessarily tied to North America by birth, there's a real opportunity there.
"You can make a lot of money. It's a shortened season. The league is definitely improving. There are some positives to going over there. Even in light of the Yaroslavl tragedy, it is viewed as an option for some of those guys – and for agents. And it will become easier for that class of player to go there."
(In September of 2011, a jet carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed and killed all but one aboard, including the KHL squad's Canadian-born head coach, Brad McCrimmon.)
Last season, in part because of the lockout, the KHL got a major boost because, for the first time since its inception, fans could see Russia's biggest stars, live and in person.
Even after the NHL labour situation was resolved, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk lingered a few extra days to play in the KHL all-star game. Then, this summer, Kovalchuk decided to return permanently, after playing upwards of 25 minutes a game for the Devils and coach Peter DeBoer – and helping them get to the Stanley Cup final two years ago.
"I did not see it coming, but he's always been a passionate guy about Russia – always," DeBoer said. "If you were having a conversation about Russia, he was the first guy to let everyone know what a great country it was – and that was genuine. It reminded me really of how Canadians talk about our country." I saw that right from day 1, when I started working with him. "It was one of those things that shock you when it happens, but when you look back, it's not a surprise."
The KHL was formed in 2006-07, replacing the Russian Super League, and its presence immediately made a shift in how the NHL drafted Russian players. In 2006, 16 Russians were taken (down from a high of 45 in 1992). Twice – in 1992 and 2000 – the number of Russian drafted players topped 40. Ten other times, it was 25 or more.
But since 2007-08, the numbers are down to single figures – seven, nine, six, four, six, seven and eight Russians chosen in the past seven drafts, respectively. NHL teams will risk a draft choice on Russians with a high upside, but they are rarely trying to find journeymen or third liners to fill out their rosters.
Still, the back-and-forth is not entirely a one-way street. Last year, the KHL lost two of its most visible players, Finnish-born goaltender Karri Ramo and defenceman Anton Belov, to the NHL. Ramo signed with the Flames, and Belov, the top defenceman in Russia last year, joined the Edmonton Oilers.
Belov was the top defenceman in Russia last season, while Ramo had four solid years with Avangard Omsk after starting in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Beyond them, several of the top young Russian prospects in the game – Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas Stars), Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres) and Nail Yakupov (Oilers) – are all here, trying to establish NHL careers.
Among them is Devils centre Andrei Loktionov, who grew up idolizing Igor Larionov, German Titov and Slava Kozlov.
Whereas many young Russians will bail out of the NHL early if they don't catch on right away, Loktionov took the road less travelled. He spent a year playing junior hockey in the OHL for the Windsor Spitfires and then has been up and down between the minors to the NHL for the past three years.
Loktionov came up through the Los Angeles Kings organization with fellow Russian Slava Voynov, who caught on as an NHL regular two years ago, and was an important contributor to L.A.'s championship season in 2011-12. Loktionov couldn't crack the Kings lineup and was traded to the Devils last year for a fifth-round pick.
"I was playing too long here – four years, in the OHL one year, and the next three years, up and down," Loktionov said. "I didn't want to throw away those years to go back to the KHL.
"If I get a chance, I play here – because this is the best league right now. It was my dream to play in the NHL – and I'm in the NHL. I'm so happy."
Because NHL paydays are governed by an entry-level salary cap, young Russian players can frequently make more money playing at home, where teams can pay whatever they like. Thus far, the Washington Capitals have been unable to persuade Evgeny Kuznetsov, a former first-rounder (26th overall in 2010), to join them – even with the lure of playing with Ovechkin.
While there is no one-size-fits rule as it applies to Russian players, Maurice believes: "There's a lot of meat on the bone with the idea that the NHL is the best league in the world – and it's viewed as such from the KHL perspective. I think Kovalchuk is a real outlier in all this. Normally, what you see is, a player does that [goes home] at 35."
Or if he doesn't wait until he's 35, it's generally because he's run out of NHL options – such as the Kostitsyn brothers from Belarus, or Alexander Radulov, twice now formerly of the Nashville Predators. (Radulov is a top player in the KHL, but wasn't a fit in Nashville, which tried to bring him back at playoff time two years ago, and the experiment was a flop.)
Teams eventually run out of patience. Some players, such as Nikita Filatov, who was the sixth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, failed to catch on with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators. and never adjusted to North America. Sometimes, it is because of the style of hockey; other times, because of the lifestyle and the language barrier.
The KHL wants to eventually be a viable option for the Ovechkins and not just the Filatovs, but for the moment anyway, it isn't slicing too deeply into the NHL talent pool at the highest end.
"The real telling sign would be if you had an elite player that was North American born that left to play there," Maurice said. "That, you never see."
Maurice coached Malkin for a half-year in the KHL and said Magnitogorsk "would have loved to have him back and I don't think money would have been an issue at all. They've got lots and they would have offered him that.
"Magnitogorsk is not Moscow and, during the lockout, Malkin could have played for any of those big-city, big-market teams. So I have a lot of time for the fact that he came back to play in his hometown," Maurice said.
"The one thing I would take away from coaching Malkin is, he is an absolute pure performer. He worked his ass off in practice. He drove himself to be as good as he could be. Now, maybe I'm putting words in his mouth, but in his mind, the NHL is the best stage to push himself – and I think he loves that. I really do."
Maurice was on the ground all of last year in Russia, which was divided into two distinct seasons – one in which the Russian NHLers were present, and the other after they disappeared. Through it all, hovering in the background, was the fact Russia would play host to the Winter Olympics in February of 2014.
"There's a different dynamic there for those guys," Maurice said. "In some ways, sport is almost all they have there, so it's such a huge deal. When you think of the world championships, it's viewed so much differently than we do in Canada. Everything is all about that tournament. My God, the Olympics this year, it's so important to them.
"The players feel that. They do. There is a lot of Russian pride in those players, and that's not a negative thing. For those guys, if you grew up in that town, that's home.
"Now, they can be paid very well, live at home, be rock stars and if raising their families in that culture is important to them, it's a viable opportunity. …
"But they do still aspire to the NHL. Their heroes are the great Russian players who've had success in the NHL. Everybody wants to be Malkin and Ovechkin, so there is still that draw."
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