The numbers don’t really add up, but they say an awful lot about the global hockey landscape right now.
Petri Kontiola’s new one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs is worth $1.1 million — a tidy sum until you factor in that he paid a little more than $600,000 to orchestrate his exit from the Russian-based KHL. As a result, he’ll essentially be playing for less than the league’s minimum salary of $550,000 next season.
That’s a pretty strong statement about the allure of the NHL and Kontiola is far from the only player making it.
Leo Komarov is on his way back after signing with the Leafs earlier this week and Jori Lehtera ended a game of cat-and-mouse by agreeing to a deal with the St. Louis Blues. Then you have Montreal’s free agent acquisition, Jiri Sekac, and Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who joined the team late last season.
Top Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending prospect Andrei Vasilevsky recently secured his KHL release, too.
Those may not be big names to the majority of North American hockey fans, but they were all important players in Russia. Kontiola (Traktor Chelyabinsk), Komarov (Dynamo Moscow) and Lehtera (Sibir Novosibirsk) each led their respective teams in scoring last year while Sekac (Lev Prague) was second and Kuznetsov (Chelyabinsk) fourth despite playing 20 fewer games than his teammates.
They all had important roles and big minutes in the KHL. They all dreamed of going somewhere else.
“I think that players all know that the NHL is the best league; it’s got the best players,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong told Sportsnet earlier this week. “You can make good money in the KHL but if you want to compete against the best you have to be in the NHL.”
The economics of the Russian-based league have been questionable since it launched in 2008 and recent events won’t do anything to quell that notion. Lev Prague fell just one win short of the Gagarin Cup in late April and still ceased operations earlier this week.
Donbass Donetsk and Spartak Moscow also won’t return next season — although the league plans to remain at 28 teams with the rebirth of Lada Togliatti and addition of Jokerit Helsinki and HK Sochi.
However, from a distance, the KHL doesn’t look quite as mighty as it once did. We are only one year removed from Ilya Kovalchuk walking away from the New Jersey Devils and a contract worth $77 million, but that was more of a family decision than anything else. Other Russian players might eventually follow suit, but there doesn’t appear to be any great migration on the horizon.
If anything, the trend worth monitoring is how many players are leaving Russia.
Kontiola, Komarov and Lehtera played 14 KHL seasons between them and were teammates on the Finnish team that won bronze at the Sochi Olympics. Each of them made it a top priority this summer to find work in North America.
“All of those guys really want to play in the NHL,” said a well-placed source in Finnish hockey circles. “They all made big money already in KHL. So it’s not about the money anymore.”
Until now, money has been the one advantage that the KHL enjoyed, especially when it came to fringe players who didn’t want to risk the possibility of earning peanuts if they were sent to the American Hockey League or top prospects that were able to earn much more than they would on an entry-level contract in the NHL.
Then you had a situation like the one Komarov faced last summer, when Dynamo gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The KHL team tabled twice as much money as the Leafs — $2 million — and that doesn’t even factor in Russia’s lower tax rates or the fact he had no escrow deductions to worry about overseas.
Still, when I caught up with him in February at the Olympics, you could tell that Komarov had some doubts about his decision. He strongly hinted that his return to Moscow hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped.
“I really like it there (in Toronto) man,” he told me. “It’s probably the best city I’ve played in, the organization is huge and all the fans and players were nice to me.”
It should come as no big surprise that Komarov returned, although the Leafs had to give him more term (four years) and a higher cap hit ($2.95 million) than most figured he would command.
For Lehtera, the move to the Blues was a long time coming. He was drafted in the third round by the NHL team in 2008 and twice previously engaged in serious discussions about making the jump.
“Both times the KHL team stepped up and gave him an offer that he wanted to take,” Armstrong said. “I think he was still defining himself and still becoming comfortable as a player, and he was making a lot of money in the KHL and was concerned about the difference if he had to play in the American Hockey League at the time.”
Lehtera paid approximately $1 million to terminate his contract with Sibir this off-season, but unlike Kontiola he didn’t have to shoulder that load on his own. The 26-year-old had leverage in negotiations with St. Louis because he was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent if he chose to wait one more year to come over.
In other words, the Blues needed to pay more if they wanted him now.
They ended up giving him a deal worth $3.25 million this season — $1.6 million came instantly in the form a signing bonus — and $2.25 million in 2015-16.
“It was difficult because obviously it’s a much larger cap hit to our team,” Armstrong said.
For this player, at this time, it was a risk worth taking.
St. Louis is in need of offence after a disappointing first-round playoff exit and Armstrong believes that Lehtera will click with former KHL linemate Vladimir Tarasenko. In fact, he expects the new addition to “produce and produce right off the bat.”
“We’re not making him out to be the saviour by any stretch, but he’s a good NHLer,” Armstrong said. “We think he’s going to be a player that can step into our group of nine and help us.”
Help from the KHL?
Yes, the talent pipeline is suddenly flowing in this direction again.