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.