A trend continued at the NHL entry draft over the weekend - the Russians are not coming.
While there were twice as many Russian players selected in this year's draft compared with 2010, when a mere four were taken, an overall slide that began in earnest in 2005 has not stopped. And every NHL executive asked for a reason named the same culprit - the Continental Hockey League (KHL).
Ever since the KHL began enticing young Russian players, usually with money, to stay and play at home rather than develop for a year or more in the North American junior or minor leagues they are electing to stay home in increasing numbers. In response, NHL teams draft less and less of them every year.
"I think what's happened to the Russian player is the real good ones you know are going to come over and play, they're locked in to play [in North America]" Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray said. "But the [Russian]guys are like a normal Canadian kid, where he has to go back for development or go to the American Hockey League for a year, we find that they don't want to stay.
"They get encouraged to go back, get money to go back to the KHL. So [the players]have no patience and therefore we don't take the chance on them."
All of the NHL people questioned said the trend does not mean Russia is producing fewer hockey prospects, even though the four players taken in 2010 was the lowest since Russians were first drafted by NHL teams beginning in 1969. The high mark was 1992 when 45 players were selected, with the sharp decline starting in 2005 when 11 players were taken compared with 24 the previous year. It was no coincidence that the infusion of money from wealthy Russian businessmen into the KHL began around the same time.
By the 2010-11 season, there were 27 Russians playing in the NHL, down from 60 in 2001-02.
While relations between the NHL and KHL are better than they were a few years ago when players like Alexander Radulov walked away from an NHL contract with the Nashville Predators to sign with a KHL team, there is still no formal agreement between the leagues. They have agreed to respect each other's contracts but Radulov is still playing in the KHL, which still rankles Predators GM David Poile. Another problem is the Russian Hockey Federation's refusal to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL.
"The KHL has most of these players signed up and committed for the long term," Poile said. "So it's a draft pick that you may not be realistically getting in the short term or the long term.
"The St. Louis Blues took Vladimir Tarasenko last year [16th overall] He was a very highly-rated player, so everything being equal he would have been taken higher in the draft. But not everything is equal any more when you're taking the Russian players."
This means a change in how some teams bring in young Russians. Murray, for example, traded for 21-year-old Russian forward Nikita Filatov at the entry draft. He was taken sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008 but has bounced between the NHL, AHL and KHL ever since. Murray is hoping a change of scene will bring out the best in Filatov, who told him he wants to play in the NHL.
"We traded for Filatov partly because of ability and he indicated he wanted to try and stay here, so we took that chance," Murray said. "If he doesn't make it, I'm sure the first thing he'll do is try to get a contract back there."
Russian players who are drafted now by NHL teams are usually ones who are already playing in the North American junior leagues or have indicated they want to play in the NHL. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, for example, made centre Vladislav Namestnikov the first Russian taken over the weekend at 27th overall in the first round.
But Namestnikov is the son of former NHL player John Namestnikov and grew up in North America. He plays for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Yzerman took three of the eight Russians drafted on the weekend. Since he did not have any high draft picks, he figured it was worth the gamble.
"Any player you pick in the second round or later, most are three to four years away," Yzerman said. "We felt in three or four years, if they're good players, they will be here. All the good players eventually come over from Russia."