Russia’s Sochi loss highlights weak KHL

Photo: Julio Cortez/AP

They come across my iPhone weekly, updates from the Kontinental Hockey League’s media relations department with news of who has been chosen as the latest Players of the Week, or Month. I always scan the list, just to see if one of the names strikes a chord. More often though, it is an Alexander Yunkov or a Sergei Smurov getting the honours. Names I’ve never heard of. Players I never expect to see in person.

But more and more, we’ll spot a Nigel Dawes, a Brandon Bochenski or a Curtis Sanford among these award winners. Normally I would think, “Well, one of these ex-pats had a good week. Good for him.” But then you see the names again and when you look at the KHL statistics something becomes clear: These players who can’t hold jobs in the National Hockey League are some of the best players in the KHL. Guys like Melville, Sask.’s Shaun Heshka, MacTier, Ont.’s Chris Lee, or 37-year-old American Deron Quint—whose NHL career stalled a full decade ago—are not just grabbing the odd Player of the Week award. They are three of the top-five scoring defencemen in the KHL. Bochenski and Dawes stand fourth and fifth in KHL scoring at the Olympic break. Curtis Sanford leads the league in shutouts.

The facts are, most of those players can’t play in the NHL but are standouts in a vastly inferior KHL. It’s a league with a few really good players, but not a really good league at all. We are aware that the Finnish lineup that defeated Russia 3-1 Wednesday has 11 non-NHL players on its roster. Eight play in the KHL and another three play in the Finnish Elite League. In fact Jokerit, the richest Finnish club team with a storied history, will jump to the KHL for next season. For whatever reason.

Russia, meanwhile, used nine KHLers in its failed Olympic effort, sprinkling them in amongst some of the world’s elite talent like Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk. The fact that Russia has not won a best-on-best tournament since 1981—and since 1998 has mustered just a single silver and a single bronze at the Winter Olympics—goes far beyond the inclusion of several players from local club teams, one of whom is Ilya Kovalchuk, obviously a world class player. But still, as the team was chosen, we kept hearing about how the Russian hockey federation wanted to make a statement about how KHL players could compete against anyone in the world.

Then they took an exceedingly average NHL defenceman from the Edmonton Oilers, Anton Belov, whose standing as the reigning Defenceman of the Year in the KHL tells us much about the level of play over there—he has barely made an impact on one of the weakest bluelines in the NHL with Edmonton this season. Russia also carried failed NHLer Viktor Tikhonov, who wore a "golden helmet" as the all-star centre in the KHL last season. If Tikhonov and Belov were Canadians, they wouldn't have been among our top 100 choices. But they played for Russia in what was clearly an over-estimation of the KHL's level, a bull-headed decision where national pride got in the way of roster selection.

And as the Games close for this ill begotten project and the KHL contingent has provided just one goal for Mother Russia by someone not named Radulov or Kovalchuk, the tweets arrive about how Ovechkin and Malkin were at odds with the coaching staff about the team's over use of KHL players. Ovechkin choked at these Games with just a single goal. He needed to produce more than that. But perhaps if the support group could have carried him like Sweden's has for Daniel Sedin, and Canada's has for Sidney Crosby, the Russians would still be alive in this tournament.

I'll keep watching those KHL weekly updates, tracking Nigel Dawes' assault on the scoring race, and Chris Lee's run at Defenceman of the Year. But for those who say the KHL is even close to the NHL's level? Well, you'd never know it by what we're seeing at these Olympics.