Russia's Kontinental Hockey League has been in the news recently after Evgeni Nabokov terminated his contract with KHL club SKA St. Petersburg. Also Kyle Wellwood and Atlant Mytishchi parted ways over conflicting reports of whether he returned to the U.S. to be with his pregnant wife or if he was cut based on his performance.
Wellwood signed with the St. Louis Blues and Nabokov has yet to sign with another team.
Critics of the KHL will say that these two cases prove that the KHL isn’t competitive enough with the NHL; they might leave but they’ll have buyer’s remorse and want to return to the NHL.
Most NHL fans and North American players don’t take the KHL seriously as a competitive league. The majority of KHL players are Russians who have seen all they can out of the NHL and are returning to their homeland to see some final action before retirement.
But for some, the KHL is an alternative to spending years in the AHL, with routine call-ups to NHL level (see Chris Bourque). Or it is a way for Russians to return to where they are most comfortable; and with the large paychecks as well.
Alexei Yashin, who left the NHL in 2007 for the KHL, believes that the KHL is competitive enough to vie for the top talent. So is the KHL a legitimate league, competing for the top hockey talent on the same level as the NHL? It remains to be seen. After all, the KHL has only been around since 2008. They’re still in the process of building an elite and competitive league.
But they’ve already managed to attract some of the top Russian talent from the NHL back to Russia (Nabokov, Maxim Afinogenov). Currently, the KHL is an alternative to the NHL for most Russian players, but for NHL superstars like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the KHL doesn’t offer them what the NHL does.
As for the North American players, I don’t think most of them see it as a viable alternative. But after the KHL has been around longer, perhaps they’ll be able to attract North American talent overseas too.
Here are some predictions for other players that will abandon the NHL for higher paychecks or more ice time in the KHL.