The idea of a highly-paid superstar choosing to leave North America to join an inferior league in the prime of his career seemed laughable just a few days ago, but it's now a realistic possibility.
But even as the first Russian superstar to leave the NHL in the prime of his career and sign with a KHL team, per Dmitry Chesnokov, Kovalchuk's departure from North America is more of a unique situation rather than the beginning of a movement of Russian players choosing to take their talents to the KHL.
The proof is in the number of Russian stars who have recently decided to re-sign with NHL teams instead of becoming a free agent and exploring the opportunity to return home.
Even the veterans such as Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Gonchar who played in the KHL during the lockout and are nearing the final stage of their brilliant careers chose to remain in North America.
|Player||Team||Contract Signed||Prior FA Status|
|Evgeni Malkin||PIT||8 years, $76 million||UFA in 2014|
|Pavel Datsyuk||DET||3 years, $22.5 million||UFA in 2014|
|Sergei Bobrovsky||CBJ||2 years, $11.25 million||RFA in 2013|
|Sergei Gonchar||DAL||2 years, $10 million||UFA in 2013|
|Slava Voynov||LAK||6 years, $25 million||RFA in 2013|
|Alexander Semin||CAR||5 years, $35 million||UFA in 2013|
One reason the chances of many Russian players suddenly choosing to bolt from the NHL are small is largely because of the KHL's economics. Not many teams can afford mega salaries for stars like Kovalchuk.
“This league is not a viable business at this point,” said former NHLer Randy Robitaille. “How can it be when a good salary in a local plant in Russia is only $600 or $700 a month? To make it a real business you need to sell at least 15,000 seats and have corporate boxes and they have almost no teams with that.
When the NHL salary cap inevitably increases, there will be more money for teams to invest in players, and the league will be a great financial option for Russian players compared to the KHL.
The new CBA has not prevented star players from earning high salaries, which is why the best Russian players will always be well compensated in the NHL, giving them the best of both worlds (a good salary and the chance to play in the best league).
In addition to the handsome salaries that Russians can earn in North America, the level of competition and amount of quality players is highest in the NHL compared to every hockey league in the world.
Hockey players are highly competitive by nature, and this means that they want to achieve championship success against the best players in the world. The only place to accomplish this is in North America, because even though the quality of the KHL has improved since its creation in 2008, it's still not anywhere close to the caliber of the NHL.
The only real concern for NHL teams following Kovalchuk's retirement is the likelihood of the top Russian prospects staying in the KHL instead of joining the North American clubs that drafted them.
It's much easier to convince a recently drafted prospect such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, a first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, to remain in the KHL compared to Kovalchuk because he's not signed to an NHL contract yet. Players like Kuznetsov also get the opportunity to earn a much higher salary in the KHL than they would on their entry-level NHL contracts, which influences their decision to remain in Russia.
But in 2013, the KHL isn't a real threat to the NHL when it comes to the world's top stars deciding where to play, whether they are from Russia or other European countries.
The large majority of the best Russian players are competing in the NHL and enjoying lots of success along with the benefits of financial security. Kovalchuk's retirement isn't going to drastically change this situation.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.