NHL Players Most Likely to Leave for Russia's KHL

April WeinerCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2011

NHL Players Most Likely to Leave for Russia's KHL

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    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.

1. Sergei Gonchar

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    Over the summer, the 36-year old free agent defenseman Sergei Gonchar signed a 3-year contract with the Ottawa Senators. This came after Gonchar spent five years in the up-and-coming Pittsburgh club that included league superstars Sidney Crosby and fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins are arguably a better playoff contender than the Ottawa Senators who are struggling this season—third from last place in the Eastern Conference, as compared to the Penguins who are competing with the Flyers for best record in the Atlantic Division and entire Eastern Conference.

    Despite Gonchar’s no-trade clause, leading observers to believe that he is complacent with a club that offers him stability, the veteran may get fed up with the team’s struggles and depart for greener pastures.

    Gonchar likely still has a few solid years left in his tank and a KHL club would likely gladly pick him up for a lucrative deal. Even if he waits his contract out, I see Gonchar finishing his career in Russia where it began in the Russian Super League.

2. Ilya Bryzgalov

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    After finishing the 2009-10 season as number three on the list of most wins for goaltenders, at the midway point of this season, Bryz has been relegated to number 17.

    This is not entirely his fault; he does play for the struggling Phoenix Coyotes. Barring injury the 30-year old has plenty of years ahead of him in his career, but continued unsuccessful NHL seasons may cause this goaltender to seek refuge in his homeland.

    Bryzgalov's contract with the Coyotes is up after this season. Reportedly, the Coyotes are eager to sign him to an extension (as they should considering his talent), but it's all speculation on where Bryz will land next.

3. Andrei Markov

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    The 32-year old Montreal defenseman is out the rest of this season with a knee injury.

    Knee injuries are tough, some players are never the same again. Markov may decide to return to his native land for a better deal, if this is the case.

    Markov’s deal in Montreal is up after this season, but following a season that ended early due to injury he may not be a prime prospect in the NHL free agent market during the offseason. Surely though, he would be highly sought after on the KHL marketplace. It’s a lot of speculation, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Markov leave for the KHL.

4. Alexander Frolov

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    Alexander Frolov is in a similar boat as Markov. The 28-year old free agent signed a 1-year, $3 million deal with the New York Rangers over the summer. He is now out for the rest of the season following a collision this weekend that resulted in a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee and a sprained MCL.

    A devastating injury like this for the young player could be detrimental to future NHL deals. Prior to sustaining his injury, he wasn't producing quite like the Rangers had in mind upon signing him.

    He may be able to find better deals across the pond in the KHL, after of course, a significant recovery period.

5. Nikolay Zherdev

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    Nikolay Zherdev has been back and forth from the Russian leagues to the NHL for years now.

    In 2009, following a contract dispute with the New York Rangers, Zherdev returned to Russia signing a  one-year deal to play for Atlant Moscow Oblast of the KHL. Then in 2010, Zherdev made his return to the NHL by signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Yet another one-year deal for Zherdev. 

    If past precedent is an indication of the future, Zherdev will be signing another one-year deal in 2011 with another KHL club. But no worries, he will probably be back to the NHL after another year continuing to go back and forth between the two leagues. Clearly, both leagues have something to offer the young Zherdev.

6. Alexei Ponikarovsky

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    Alexei Ponikarovsky spent almost nine full seasons either playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs or in their system.

    Before the trade deadline of the 2009-10 season, Ponikarovsky was moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, during the 2010 offseason, the free agent signed a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings.

    After playing for three different teams during the 2010 year, Ponikarovsky may seek stability and a longer contract. NHL clubs may be unwilling to commit to him, which might lead him back to the Russian leagues.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ponikarovsky return to Russia to play in the KHL.

7. Alexei Kovalev

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    Alexei Kovalev is probably nearing the end of his hockey career. In 2010, the 37-year-old was not included on the Russian national team’s Olympic roster, perhaps the biggest sign of his nearing retirement.

    Kovalev’s two-year contract with the Ottawa Senators is up after this season and he may not be able to get another acceptable offer from an NHL club. He may follow in the footsteps of other veteran Russian players and return home for the final years of his career.