A week ago, the NHL made St. Louis Blues centre Jori Lehtera its first star of the week after he scored four goals and six points in three games, including a hat trick against the hapless Buffalo Sabres. It was a great example of the kind of talent the KHL boasts; after scoring less than a point per game in the world’s second-best league in 2013-14, the 26-year-old Lehtera now has 20 points in his first 20 NHL games.
A few days after Lehtera topped the NHL’s weekly honours list, the Toronto Maple Leafs placed centre Petri Kontiola on unconditional waivers with the objective of terminating his contract. Kontiola, who had been signed to a one-way, $1.1 million contract over the summer, had failed to make the team out of training camp and then went pointless over 11 games in the minors.
He’s now headed back to the KHL, as yet another example of a star in the world’s second-best league who simply couldn’t cut it in the NHL.
Between them, Lehtera and Kontiola nicely captured both the possibilities and the problems for NHL teams banking on KHL stars.
One important thing to recognize is that factors other than pure talent go into how effective players are at going from one league to the other.
The KHL is often lampooned because of how frequently North American minor leaguers end up as stars; every time Brandon Bochenski contends for the scoring title or Kevin Dallman scores at a point-per-game pace, there’s somebody waiting to crack a joke about the league.
It’s true that sometimes North American journeymen have shockingly good careers overseas, but it’s also important not to forget what Russia has done to some of the NHL’s top stars.
In 2004-05, for example, Dany Heatley and Vincent Lecavalier went over to what was then the Russian Super League; they combined for 23 points in 49 games. Both would crack the 50-goal and 100-point marks in the NHL within two seasons of leaving Russia.
That’s not to say talent isn’t a factor—it certainly is. The NHL is a more skilled league than the KHL, and sometimes a player who shows well at the lower level can’t get it done when the competition clicks up one notch.
Bochenski is a great example because before he was a KHL star, he was an AHL star. In his mid-20s, he went on an insane run with Chicago’s affiliate in Norfolk, scoring 33 goals and 66 points in just 35 games. That kind of production earned him another NHL shot, but he could only score in bursts in the majors; in 156 games, he put up 68 points, decent but not good enough to land a career as a scorer.
He’s an example of the prototypical “AAAA player”: Too good for the minors but somehow not able to translate that to major league play.
But the equation goes beyond talent.
Todd Nelson, the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, skated on both sides of the Atlantic during a decade as a player. One of his jobs now is helping European prospects adapt to the North American game, and he noted in an interview with the Edmonton Journal that one of the problems many have is getting used to stop-and-start style demanded in the NHL:
With Europeans you find they like to circle to maintain their speed. That’s one of the things we often have to break European players of, because we want stops and starts facing the play. Especially when you’re coming back into your own zone, when you come back through the slot, you’re doing a good job defensively, they circle wide...whereas we stop and work the middle out. I’m not saying all Europeans are like that, but those are some tendencies we see, so that’s an adjustment for them.
But it’s not necessarily that Europeans play the game the wrong way and North Americans play it right; different styles can be effective in different leagues.
“I had to make an adjustment coming from North America [to Europe],” admitted Nelson. “Here in North America its more straight lines, you have to have good puck support and you have to move the puck quickly… Over there they’d say, ‘Carry the puck, let somebody come and then move it.’”
Culture shock can be a problem, too. For a player moving in one direction or the other, he’s leaving behind his family and friends—nearly everyone he knows. He’s moving to a new city, a new country, and often needs to deal with massive changes in language and culture. In a game where the smallest mental edge can make a difference, that can represent a formidable challenge.
Given the differences in the level of competition, the significant shift in playing style and the difficulties of adapting to an entirely new environment, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that many players who perform very well in the KHL struggle in the NHL.
But as Lehtera’s example demonstrates, when it works out, it can work out beautifully.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.