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Edmonton Oilers' Denis Grebeshkov, of Russia, celebrates his first goal in the NHL on the Phoenix Coyotes during the second period of NHL hockey action at Edmonton's Rexall Place on Thursday, January 10, 2008. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
Edmonton Oilers' Denis Grebeshkov, of Russia, celebrates his first goal in the NHL on the Phoenix Coyotes during the second period of NHL hockey action at Edmonton's Rexall Place on Thursday, January 10, 2008. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Frozen-out free agents following the money overseas Add to ...

In any other year, free agency would have been pretty good to Denis Grebeshkov.

The 26-year-old Russian defenceman is entering his prime, a former first-round pick who has averaged more than 21 minutes a game in his past two seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators.

A torn medial collateral ligament limited his effectiveness last season, but Grebeshkov had developed into a solid second-pairing defender the past two seasons, one who hoped to stay in North America and continue to improve.

Once the offers for free agents began to come in after July 1, however, it was clear his time in the NHL might be coming to an end.

After four weeks as a free agent, Grebeshkov agreed to a two-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the Continental Hockey League [KHL]on Wednesday, signing for slightly more than the $3.15-million (all currency U.S.) a season he made in the NHL last year.

He and his agent, Todd Diamond, fielded several offers from NHL teams, but all were between 30 and 40 per cent lower than his 2009-10 salary.

Unwilling to take that big of a financial haircut, Grebeshkov became a casualty of the salary cap woes facing so many NHL teams this summer.

"We just weren't prepared to throw away the prime of his earning power, at 27 and 28 years old," Diamond said. "Denis really wanted to play in the NHL, but we couldn't do it at a huge discount."

St. Petersburg is a bit of an anomaly overseas as one of the world's wealthiest non-NHL teams, and it has used its financial might to land goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (four years, $26-million) this summer and defenceman Sergei Zubov a year ago.

Having recently made a three-year, $42-million pitch for superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, there were reports out of Russia Wednesday that the club has increased its offer to 17 years - matching the disputed deal he signed with the New Jersey Devils last week.

Alexander Frolov, meanwhile, turned down a long-term KHL offer of more than $4-million a season to sign a modest one-year, $3-million deal with the New York Rangers on Tuesday.

"It was a very tough decision for me not to take the offer from Russia, but I wanted to stay in the NHL," Frolov told the New York Post.

Despite that kind of cash being thrown around, to date there has been only a small trickle of NHL free agents heading overseas. With more than 80 unrestricted free agents still frozen out by the market, however, some agents said it may be a matter of time before others realize they can make more overseas.

"We're seeing a shift in the marketplace this summer as the mid-tier player gets squeezed or considers the European [league]options," said Allan Walsh, a high-profile agent who represents free agents Ruslan Fedotenko, Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan. "Elite players will make elite money under any system."

As one would expect, many of those who have signed in the KHL the past few seasons have been Russian players winding down their careers.

Even so, that exodus has made an impact in North America. Consider that Nabokov and Grebeshkov are two of just 24 Russian players to play 40 or more games in the NHL last season, a number that has dwindled from roughly double that 10 years ago.

Financial restrictions there, however, limit how many free agents will sign in Russia. According to NHL agents, just eight KHL teams can afford to pay NHL-level salaries and the league has both a salary cap and a rule limiting the number of "imports" to six a team.

With the market as tight as it is, some players have begun to formulate backup plans, with free-agent defenceman Brian Pothier signing this week with a Swiss team on a deal with an out clause. If he doesn't sign with an NHL team before Aug. 15, he'll play in Geneva.

Grebeshkov's agent, meanwhile, said the choice facing many NHL players will be to continue to sit out or take a one-year contract for far less than what they're used to and try their luck in the market again next July.

Part of the reason Grebeshkov signed a two-year deal, however, is that it will take him to the end of the NHL's current collective agreement - and potentially better days for free agents.

"I don't think next summer is going to be any better than this one," Diamond said. "You'll have more guys that will leave. You're going to have a lot of unhappy players, guys who feel they should be paid more.

"This is the cycle of this [collective agreement]- it's showing its teeth."

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