The NHL is regarded by all as the best hockey league in the world, with the best players on the planet. While 30 rosters in 2011 boasted players from Canada (521) to Kazakhstan (1), Ukraine (3) to the U.S. (234), there is really not a close second when it comes to quality of play. There are leagues across the globe, some more viable than others, where players develop and hone their craft. But making it to the NHL is the ultimate goal.
From a pride to a financial standpoint, every player knows that to be the best, you have to compete against the best. The fall of Communism and the Eastern Bloc opened the gates for a new class of players to compete with the elite on a nightly basis, instead of waiting for international tournaments. As the availability of Eastern European and Russian players have consistently shown us, there is plenty of talent all over the world.
There has to be some talent leftover to fill the rosters of the other leagues though, right?
The KHL has gotten a lot of run lately because of the large sums of money that team ownership can throw at players. Preying on the stipulations in the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, the KHL can pay rookies more money from the start. The current negotiations between labor and ownership for a new agreement could make playing abroad even more attractive with more verbiage concerning young player contracts.
The only real competition the NHL has previously faced from another hockey league was from the WHA from the 1970s. The World Hockey Association was a legitimate league that had the signature of a young spark plug named Wayne Gretzky in their stable. The NHL ultimately absorbed the smaller league after long and expensive legal battles drained the upstart league's bank account.
The KHL is trying to do the same thing as the WHA, but on a more global scale. The league is comprised of 26 teams, with 20 based in Russia and the other six in neighboring nations Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Latvia, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Financed by billionaires of questionable repute, the KHL has attempted to fleece the NHL for years, but has managed to only pluck the leftovers and also-rans from the NHL. For now. The issues that folded the WHA—courts and money—don't apply to the KHL. Rich owners and a collective middle finger to the NHL and the IIHF have made relations between the two leagues contentious to say the least.
The NHL's relationship with the IIHF seems to be the only bit of leverage that it holds with the KHL. European players' desire to play for their country internationally could be subject to discipline if they disregard contractual obligations and jump leagues for a bigger paycheck.
This isn't to say that the KHL and others are void of talent. Some players don't adjust well, and want to return to the comforts of home and family. Some players leave because they have a dispute over their contract, and others leave because there is no contract offer on the table to dispute.
The desire to add credibility to their team and bring butts to their arenas means that Alexei Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr can sign blockbuster, tax-free deals in the KHL while they are well past their prime.
There are some players who have yet to come across the ocean for the NHL, even after being drafted. The drafting team holds the rights to the player for two years, who must ultimately decide if he will sign a contract with that team.
Other competitive European leagues are the the Elitserien or SEL (Swedish Elite League), SM-liiga (Finland) and Czech Extraliga (Czech Republic). Leagues in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy are also viable, but the level of play drops considerably.
The NHL seems to be winning the bidding war for the best talent in hockey so far. The talent playing abroad seem to have a previously unsuccessful NHL/AHL career in common. The desire to play for the highest dollar will almost always bring the borderline NHL player abroad, but the best talent overseas might have different reasons for staying closer to home.
Here are the top free agents (no drafting rights to the NHL) playing outside the NHL right now.
Remember this? One trick pony Rob Schremp was even impressed by this goal. This goal alone is why Maxim Afinogenov should get picked up by an NHL team.
His last year in North America he scored 61 points on the Atlanta Thrashers. At 32, Afinogenov still has a lot left in the tank, but he seemed pretty determined to get back to Russia.
He signed a five-year contract to play in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg in 2010.
Most people remember the name Patrick Thoresen as the guy who took a Mike Green slap shot to the junk-region. Since the final year of his contract in that year (2008), Thoreson has been collecting paychecks from the NLA in Switzerland and the KHL in Russia for the past three years.
A teammate of Russian Alexander Radulov, Thoresen helped Salavat Yulaev win the Gagarin Cup, the KHL championship in 2011, becoming the first Norwegian to do so. At the 2012 IIHF World Championships he finished second in scoring, one point behind some guy named Evgeni Malkin with 18 points in just eight games for Norway.
Kevin Dallman is a prime example of an NHL player who couldn't keep a roster spot with the big team. A frequent flier between Boston/Providence and Los Angeles/Manchester, the mobile defenseman could never quite stick at the NHL level.
Fast forward to four years after his last game on North American ice and Dallman is the Bobby Orr of the KHL. Averaging over a point per game this past season for Barys Astana, Dallman has carved out a nice little spot for himself in the KHL. However, his family may not be welcome back in Kazakhstan.
Dallman has signed a two-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg after not being offered a contract with his Kazakhstan team.
Konstantin Barulin is regarded by many to be the premier goalie in the world not playing in the NHL. The 27-year-old Russian was drafted nine years ago by the St. Louis Blues, but never came to terms with them.
A regular at the KHL All-Star game the past three seasons, Barulin helped Russia take the gold this year at the IIHF World Championships.
Ovechkin and Ilya Nikulin are good friends off the ice.
One of the best defensemen in the world to never suit up for an NHL game, Ilya Nikulin was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2000, but never signed with them. His Russian contract allowed him to leave for the NHL, but Nikulin decided to stay in his homeland.
Not even the influence of one of his best friends, and godfather to his son, Alex Ovechkin could lure the talented Russian to the NHL. A regular on the Russian national team, Nikulin tasted gold with some of his NHL pals this summer at the World Championships.
Another Russian who shunned the NHL was the Dallas Stars' 2000 draft pick Alexei Tereshchenko. A three-time KHL All-Star, he was also a member of the 2012 World Championship team. A smaller, but quick two-way center, Tereshchenko chose to stay in Russia for his career.
More than a curiosity for his size, Mikhail Anisin is apparently AWOL from the Dynamo Moscow as their training camp begins. At 5' 5" Anisin has a pretty good scoring touch in spite of playing for six different teams before the age of 25.
Though his agent has denied that he is holding out for a larger contract, it's hard to think of another good reason that the Russian mite could be missing.
While perusing his highlights I came across this and enjoyed it thoroughly!
Probably won't be getting his job back in L.A. anytime soon.
Erik Ersberg was a promising young talent in the Los Angeles Kings system. After mixed results over four seasons with the Kings franchise, Ersberg took off for Russia. He has been playing in the KHL ever since winning the Gagarin Cup as league champions in 2011 for Ufa Salavat Yulayev.
The former Swedish goaltender of the year in 2007, Ersberg just signed with HC Donbass of the KHL.
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks when they were still "Mighty" in 2001, Mårtensson only played six games in Anaheim. After bouncing between Cincinnati and Southern California, Mårtensson bolted back to mother Sweden and the Elitserien with Linkoping HC.
He seemed to get his groove back on the international ice, and has been a presence on the SEL and KHL scoring charts ever since.
After being drafted by the New York Rangers in 2006, TomáŠ Záborský couldn't seem to match his scoring feats from Saginaw with the Rangers' Hartford affiliate. Since then, Záborský has been lighting the lamps with his NASCAR style jersey in the Finnish SM-liiga for Ässät (which is pronounced as funny as it is spelled).
Another small Russian cracks the list with young Panarin of the KHL's Vityaz Chekov. He scored two goals, including the game winner in the finals of the 2011 World Junior Championship over Canada.
Blessed with speed, heart and a nose for the goal, the 20-year-old Panarin has been overlooked by many scouts. Another solid year in the KHL will change all of that for the young Russian.