The KHL was formed in 2006-07, replacing the Russian Super League, and its presence immediately made a shift in how the NHL drafted Russian players. In 2006, 16 Russians were taken (down from a high of 45 in 1992). Twice – in 1992 and 2000 – the number of Russian drafted players topped 40. Ten other times, it was 25 or more.
But since 2007-08, the numbers are down to single figures – seven, nine, six, four, six, seven and eight Russians chosen in the past seven drafts, respectively. NHL teams will risk a draft choice on Russians with a high upside, but they are rarely trying to find journeymen or third liners to fill out their rosters.
Still, the back-and-forth is not entirely a one-way street. Last year, the KHL lost two of its most visible players, Finnish-born goaltender Karri Ramo and defenceman Anton Belov, to the NHL. Ramo signed with the Flames, and Belov, the top defenceman in Russia last year, joined the Edmonton Oilers.
Belov was the top defenceman in Russia last season, while Ramo had four solid years with Avangard Omsk after starting in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Beyond them, several of the top young Russian prospects in the game – Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas Stars), Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres) and Nail Yakupov (Oilers) – are all here, trying to establish NHL careers.
Among them is Devils centre Andrei Loktionov, who grew up idolizing Igor Larionov, German Titov and Slava Kozlov.
Whereas many young Russians will bail out of the NHL early if they don’t catch on right away, Loktionov took the road less travelled. He spent a year playing junior hockey in the OHL for the Windsor Spitfires and then has been up and down between the minors to the NHL for the past three years.
Loktionov came up through the Los Angeles Kings organization with fellow Russian Slava Voynov, who caught on as an NHL regular two years ago, and was an important contributor to L.A.’s championship season in 2011-12. Loktionov couldn’t crack the Kings lineup and was traded to the Devils last year for a fifth-round pick.
“I was playing too long here – four years, in the OHL one year, and the next three years, up and down,” Loktionov said. “I didn’t want to throw away those years to go back to the KHL.
“If I get a chance, I play here – because this is the best league right now. It was my dream to play in the NHL – and I’m in the NHL. I’m so happy.”
Because NHL paydays are governed by an entry-level salary cap, young Russian players can frequently make more money playing at home, where teams can pay whatever they like. Thus far, the Washington Capitals have been unable to persuade Evgeny Kuznetsov, a former first-rounder (26th overall in 2010), to join them – even with the lure of playing with Ovechkin.
While there is no one-size-fits rule as it applies to Russian players, Maurice believes: “There’s a lot of meat on the bone with the idea that the NHL is the best league in the world – and it’s viewed as such from the KHL perspective. I think Kovalchuk is a real outlier in all this. Normally, what you see is, a player does that [goes home] at 35.”
Or if he doesn’t wait until he’s 35, it’s generally because he’s run out of NHL options – such as the Kostitsyn brothers from Belarus, or Alexander Radulov, twice now formerly of the Nashville Predators. (Radulov is a top player in the KHL, but wasn’t a fit in Nashville, which tried to bring him back at playoff time two years ago, and the experiment was a flop.)
Teams eventually run out of patience. Some players, such as Nikita Filatov, who was the sixth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, failed to catch on with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators. and never adjusted to North America. Sometimes, it is because of the style of hockey; other times, because of the lifestyle and the language barrier.