Before leaving for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League at the start of the NHL lockout, Alex Ovechkin suggested that he and his fellow countrymen might stay there if a new collective bargaining agreement reduced their salaries.
So it wasn’t far-fetched when Ilya Kovalchuk considered staying in Russia in January, even as hockey in North America resumed without a salary rollback.
“There was tremendous pressure placed on all of the top Russian players at the end of the lockout to stay in the KHL,” player agent Allan Walsh said in an interview Friday. “And they were offered huge money—upwards of $10 million—just to stay and play the balance of the season.”
Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and other stars, like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk, returned. While Malkin and Datsyuk recently signed contract extensions to keep them in the NHL long term, Kovalchuk announced Thursday he was retiring at the age of 30 to go home.
That voided the final 12 years and US$77 million of his contract with the New Jersey Devils and ended what was believed to be months of indecision about his future. But Kovalchuk’s departure also raised a host of questions about what’s next, and whether his move will start a trend of Russian players bolting for the KHL.
Most tend to believe it’s an isolated incident, with two agents and one former agent and general manager singling out the once-in-a-generation circumstances that led to Kovalchuk leaving and the Devils permitting him to go without keeping his contract in place or preventing him from signing with a KHL team.
“I don’t think it’s an epidemic or anything like that,” agent Mark Gandler said. “I think each person makes his decision based on the circumstances that he’s in, based on his environment, his family, his upbringing.”
When Kovalchuk decided to file his voluntary retirement papers, he all but blocked himself from returning to the NHL. Coming back would require him to sit out a year or get approval from all 30 teams.
“I think these are very unique circumstances,” said agent J.P. Barry, who represents Malkin. “How many players would want to remove the NHL option from their future? Because by doing this voluntary retirement, they’ve essentially done that.”
Malkin did not want to do that, and he had a choice to do so in the near future. The Pittsburgh star’s current contract expired after the 2013-14 season, and Barry said there were multiple offers from KHL teams for Malkin’s services.
Malkin began his professional career in what was then the Russian Elite League and played 37 games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL during the lockout, so he knew the deal. He signed an eight-year, $76-million contract with the Penguins.
“Eyes wide-open,” Barry said. “He has a good sense of what the league is, and when he came back, he realized he wanted to play in the NHL and that’s why the extension got done.”
Not long after, Datsyuk signed a three-year extension worth $22.5 million, stamping out any speculation that he might go home to the KHL after next season. Ovechkin has seven years and $79 million left on his deal with the Capitals.
Naturally, Kovalchuk’s move led some to wonder about the possibility of other Russian superstars doing the same. That doesn’t seem likely.
“I would be shocked by that because Pavel just had a chance to do that and he didn’t even need to retire. Malkin could’ve done it too,” said Brian Lawton, a former agent and former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “Let’s say it was Malkin, you can rest assured that the Pittsburgh Penguins or if it was Ovechkin the Washington Capitals are not going to stand up and say, ‘We agree.’ They’re going to say, ‘Hey, I’m tolling your contract, and if you ever come back to North America again, you’re playing for me at this pay rate.'”
Barry pointed out that the Devils could have tolled Kovalchuk’s contract or suspended him without pay. The Nashville Predators did that with winger Alexander Radulov when he signed in the KHL in 2008 despite having a year left on his NHL deal.
New Jersey instead took the short-term hit of needing to replace Kovalchuk while getting out from the weight of his long-term contract that now will only show up as a $250,000 penalty on the salary cap through 2024-25.
“I think this was a very unique situation in that you had a player that didn’t want to play here anymore, and you also had a team that agreed to it,” Barry said. “I don’t exactly see that happening that often.”
It’s also rare that high-profile players want to leave the NHL for the KHL, even Russians who would be going home. It happened with 21-year-old Winnipeg Jets centre Alexander Burmistrov last week, but that’s more of the exception than the rule.
Gandler, who represents Burmistrov, Carolina Hurricanes winger Alexander Semin and Chicago Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell, wants players with NHL aspirations.
“The majority of players I choose are those who not only would like to play in the NHL but whose lifetime dream is to play in the NHL,” Gandler said. “And those who, in my opinion, can and should play in the NHL based on their talent and abilities. Yes, absolutely I see it in their eyes what they want to do.”
Gandler and other agents know all about the allure of the KHL to some players.
“It’s bit of an easier living than playing in the NHL: less abuse you take, no doubt about that, you play fewer games,” he said. “That sometimes plays into the equation. But that is true for any player from any country.”
Particularly for Russian players who want to go home. Gandler’s experience has included clients not wanting to play in their hometowns because of the sky-high expectations, but the lockout gave many a taste of the KHL.
Six months after the lockout ended, Walsh blames commissioner Gary Bettman in part for paving the way for Kovalchuk’s departure.
“Everyone played: Datsyuk played, Malkin played—they all played in the KHL, and they all had a great experience,” Walsh said. “(KHL president Alexander) Medvedev knew those guys needed to have, each of them, an amazing experience, and they did. And it opened the door. So Gary, you shut down the NHL and now the NHL has lost a premier player, and how many more are they going to lose?”
Likely a few more. Czech-born Jaromir Jagr left the New York Rangers for Avangard Omsk in 2008, and Walsh said his European clients routinely get several KHL offers when they become restricted or unrestricted free agents. Gandler said Bickell even got a few offers before heating up as part of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run.
Whether more big-time players will give up their NHL careers and lifestyles for the KHL is still unknown. Russian teams know they cannot provide the same atmosphere or level of play, which means they must do more.
“The only incentive they can give you, in theory, is money,” Gandler said.
Or the ability to play in St. Petersburg, as Kovalchuk is expected to do. Barry’s agency, CAA Sports, and Walsh’s, Octagon Hockey, represent KHL players and provide information about the jump.
But for star players, offers like what Kovalchuk reportedly received don’t come along too often.
“With practically all players, it’s never a discussion,” Gandler said. “For my clients, I will tell you that it just practically never happens.”