Last Saturday, KHL president Alexander Medvedev was asked about the possibility of Russian superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin returning to their homeland to play hockey.
“Next season there may be pleasant surprises,” he told the Sport-Express reporter, according to translation work done by Russian Machine Never Breaks' Igor Kleyner. “Let's wait.”
It's an ambiguous—one might even use the standby Russian cliche and call it enigmatic—answer, and one that makes logical sense from Medvedev’s perspective. After all, such an answer does two things that work in the KHL’s favour.
First, it suggests that the KHL and NHL are true competitors for talent on relatively equal footing, and it reminds the powers that be in the NHL that the primarily Russian league has options other than renewing the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that prevents cross-league poaching.
These comments may represent simple political posturing by Medvedev, but there may also be some substance to them. If there is, the KHL would look beyond renewing its MOU with the NHL when the deal expires next summer. The next question is whether high-end NHLers like Ovechkin and Malkin would be willing to consider bailing on their North American teams if Russian offers started coming their way.
The second question is the really pivotal one in any of the individual cases. It's already been pretty conclusively demonstrated that not only players in specifically disadvantageous salary positions (Alex Radulov, or more recently Vladimir Sobotka) but even stars making major dollars (Ilya Kovalchuk) are willing at times to heed the siren call of the KHL.
Would Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin be susceptible in the same way Kovalchuk was? That's a question only they could answer. If the answer is in the negative, this speculation and all other like it is totally irrelevant.
If their answers are more negotiable, however, there can be no doubt that individual KHL teams would be able to put together the kind of monetary offers that would compete with and in some cases even exceed what those individuals would make in the NHL.
Consider that (according to Yahoo's Dmitry Chesnokov) Radulov's deal pays him north of $9.0 million per season in a friendly tax climate. Consider too that Kovalchuk is believed to have taken a raise to leave the New Jersey Devils, and may now be the highest-paid hockey player in the world if reporting done by SovSport.ru’s Pavel Lysenkov (via Yahoo) is correct.
Radulov and Kovalchuk are both good players, but neither has the stature of a Malkin or an Ovechkin.
The temptation won't exist, however, if the NHL and KHL again extend their MOU. While it might seem a no-brainer for the KHL to leave that agreement in exchange for the opportunity to grab Russian superstars, things aren’t quite that simple.
The budgets of individual KHL teams can vary widely—two famous teams were forced to withdraw from the league prior to the start of this season owing to financial issues—and the poorer clubs would suddenly face the possibility of their best young players walking out on contracts to sign with North American teams. Outside of a few rich clubs, the league really doesn't appear ready to go head-to-head in a pitched battle for players with a much healthier NHL.
So while it’s possible that we could see KHL teams stealing away contracted NHL stars, there are some formidable systemic and individual obstacles to surmount before it can become a reality.
At this point, it's more plausible to chalk Medvedev's comments to politics than it is to fret over the futures of Ovechkin and Malkin.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.