Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Another Duck Bites The Borscht

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

News came down this week that recent Ducks acquisition Petri Kontiola signed a 2-year agreement to play with Metallurg Magnitogorskin of the Kontinental Hockey League, the same team making a push for the services of Sergei Fedorov. This marks a second consecutive loss of a notable Ducks prospect to the KHL, following Geoff Platt's defection to Minsk last year.

The KHL appears to be operating on steady feet after last month's redraft, which cut some key (read inflated) players' salaries between 20 and 50%. Its days of stealing NHL superstars may be over, but the KHL remains an attractive (and better paying) alternative to the US minor leagues.

Daniel, the Ducks and David McNab seem comfortable with slow development, but I doubt there's anything 'comfortable' about it for the players waiting in the AHL or ECHL, as opposed to the kids finishing their time in the NCAA or the Canadian juniors. Is the Ducks' prospect pool in perennial danger from KHL poaching? And do you think the KHL can change the face of the NHL from the ground up, by stealing depth players instead of superstars, as they'd originally intended?

I don't think the Ducks talent is in serious jeopardy. Like you said, the KHL is struggling. More importantly, the league only allows 5 foreign players per team, which means that defectors will be a slightly minor issue for us. There's only so much space for foreigners, and the North American 2-way power forwards that better fit our system aren't going to have many opportunities out in the KHL. In fact, I would imagine that the clubs out there would rather use those limited slots for more established foreign-born players.

I actually think the KHL will be worse for Russian-born players and other Eurasians in the long run, if it is used as a developmental type of league. Pretty soon, it will be dealing with a situation similar to that of Japanese baseball, only worse. 18-year-olds will sign, get paid a little and then defect, leaving the league bereft of superstar talent. Also, if this starts happening, the NHL clubs will just stay away from young talent during the draft, and then poach the talent when the first contract is up. This might give people the impression that it will provide the KHL the growth it wants, since NHL teams won't be drafting Russian stars, but the fact is, the money is in the NHL, and the KHL might keep 1/2 of its major talent.

There will be enough force to draw the talent back to the NHL anyway. Two of the best young Russian players are already in the NHL: Ovechkin and Malkin. There will still be an influx of Russian talent. Even if the young stars are spending their time away from the AHL and ECHL, they will still find their way back to the NHL, because it is still where the best talent plays.

When it comes to prospects, the most important thing is ice time. If some of these players are developing in a separate league, then the only thing the NHL clubs really need to start worrying about is how to scout teams in Russia so they can start picking up the free agents who want to win the greatest trophy in sports. It will become the same as teams picking up free agents who don't get drafted in college. I'm sure we'll find a way to make it work out for us.

The combine started today, and I hear the first question to every KHL invitee was, "Will you come and play in the NHL?" as though the kid wasn't sitting there.

I agree that the NHL/KHL agreement to mutually respect contracts took steps to neutralize poaching. That, along with the KHL's new five-player limit next season, will be key in stemming temptation amongst NHL players. However, I think the danger here is not that anyone will stay in the KHL or even that they go in the first place, but that they'll break ties with the team that drafted them, develop in the KHL and raise their value before they return to the NHL. In the Salary Cap Era, that has to be a nightmare for teams trying to manage their draft picks, assets and development.

From a player's perspective, if you're not a part of your NHL team's long-term plans, of course you'd want to leave the AHL and ECHL. In the KHL, you get a shorter season, a better paycheck and the ability to prove yourself with some NHL-level teammates. Why not spend a season keeping pace with Sergei Fedorov, and prove your old team was foolish not to call you up?

But I think the vindication for these overlooked players could ultimately damage the NHL's farm system. Five players per team may not seem like a lot, but if you poach a few players of borderline talent from every AHL team, some AHL franchises will start to fail. How can every team afford to rent the players and staff from its NHL affiliate when they're putting nothing but career AHL players on the ice? The Ducks are already having trouble getting their money from Iowa, and the Ducks' playoff scoring this year was 42% CHOPS. Also, as a GM, how do you sign serious one-way contracts with guys that have never played in your system or under your minors coaching staff? And with your minors team depleted of future NHL players, how do you not?

I don't think the Ducks' homegrown assets are in danger, though they may be hesitant to acquire borderline-bust players from other teams, now. But I do think that, though the NHL keeps its superstars, the KHL will still have an impact on the league. Fewer teams will be able to keep players on sweetheart entry-level deals. AHL teams will have fewer future NHLers. And the risk/reward on depth players may change dramatically.

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