For years – decades, actually -- NHL teams shied away from drafting Russian players, fearing they would be too difficult to sign and retain.
The formation of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008 heightened those concerns, highlighted by the saga of Alexander Radulov, who left the Nashville Predators to sign with the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa, only to return to the Predators and return again to the KHL, where he is making $9.2 million a year.
When Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from the final 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract with the New Jersey Devils earlier this summer, Capitals coach Adam Oates expressed his concerns.
“It’s still tough, because you build your team around a player and when that player leaves … it’s not a precedent we want to start, for sure,” Oates said. “It will make it difficult for many more Europeans to come over because general managers won’t trust them.”
Since the Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin with the first pick of the 2004 NHL draft, the 27-year-old Russian has fulfilled every aspect of his two NHL contracts, the first paying him $11.5 million in his first three seasons and the second set to pay him $124 million over a span of 13 years.
Which leads us to the comments made on Friday by Moscow Dynamo general director Andrey Safronov and translated by our friends at Russian Machine Never Breaks.
“Ovechkin has a current contract with the Capitals,” Safronov said. “Can we try to pull him out? We’ll talk, we’ll look at each other and will have some result.
“Right now all Russian national team players want to come back to their homeland. KHL shows its force and credibility. And finances are important too. Taking taxes in account, playing in Russia has become way more attractive for players.”
Ovechkin still has eight years and $79 million remaining on his contract with the Capitals and, aside from his threats to remain in Russia during last year’s lockout, he has given no indication of wanting to follow in the footsteps of Kovalchuk.
But nine years after its inception, the KHL is as strong as ever and remains a viable option for players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is set to begin his fifth straight season with Traktor Chelyabinsk despite several overtures from the Caps to play in the NHL.
With this being an Olympic year, Ovechkin will answer lots of questions about his love for his country and his desire to represent Russia.
It appears the KHL is already making attempts to tap into that national pride.