Jan 092011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Team Russia wins gold at 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships

The National Hockey League (NHL) is the world’s best hockey league.

The question is, how much longer will it be the only destination for the world’s best players?

The European invasion of the late 1970s, followed by the fall of Russian Communism in the late 1980s, opened the door for the world’s best to earn a substantial income playing NHL hockey.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) certainly didn’t look like it would threaten this fact when it launched in 2008. Sure, the oil money that backed the league was significant, but a generation of Russian players were raised to look West for money and hockey fame.

Malkin. Ovechkin. Kovalchuk. These players were exposed to the NHL through scouts, agents and their national heroes, who all played overseas. There was no way they would abandon their NHL dreams to play in the new KHL.

Thus, the KHL launched as a league featuring well-paid players that were too old, too slow, or too borderline for the NHL.

However, two-plus years since the KHL launched, Commissioner Alexander Medvedev and the Russian Hockey Federation have put a plan in place to ensure the KHL can evolve into a true NHL competitor.

That plan? Shutdown the Russian hockey pipeline to North America, and play politics with the national team.

First, by refusing to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL, North American interest in the best young Russian hockey players has cooled. Young talent is an investment, and without a transfer agreement in place there’s no guarentee an NHL team will see their investment ever pay off.

Secondly, Russians are leveraging international competition – the type of hockey most of their youngsters dream of playing – to promote and reward KHL players.

Our first glimpse of this as North Americans was during the 2010 Winter Games. The 2010 Russian Olympic Hockey team had nine KHL’ers on it. Anyone who watched the tournament saw that those players received some favourable ice-time from coach Viacheslav Bykov, with rather mixed results.

The 2011 Russian Junior team invited seven Canadian Junior Hockey League players to camp, but only kept one for the tournament – goalie Igor Bobkov. Every other player on the roster was from the KHL. The result? A shocking gold medal victory.

It’s pretty easy to see that this type of protectionism could eventually lead a new generation of Russian hockey players to choose the KHL over the NHL.

Which means the day will soon come that all of the world’s best players aren’t playing in the NHL.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Interesting spreadsheet by the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle about the average age, height and weight of NHL teams. Biggest surprise? Perhaps that Florida is the 7th oldest team.
  • One reason why the Blue Jackets have fallen on hard times of late – their defence, which played so well through the first quarter of the season, has really fallen back to earth.
  • A lot of talk in Toronto about how Mikhail Grabovski has come into his own this year. The biggest difference? He’s hitting the net more than he ever has before with his laser shot.
  • A 9-3 loss to Toronto is a reminder that Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was once considered too inconsistent to be a number one goalie.
  • The acquisitions of both Dwayne Roloson and Jamie Langenbrunner confirm that, despite financial issues for each franchise, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars are gunning for the playoffs Of the two players, expect Roloson to have the biggest immediate impact. The Lightning don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Islanders did, and Roloson, despite his age, has fewer miles on him than most 41-year old goalies.
  • All discussion that Lagenbrunner could replace Brad Richards if he bolts the Stars as a UFA is ridiculous. Langenbrunner at this stage is a complimentary, veteran presence. He’s not a top-six guy.
  • Word out of Edmonton is Shawn Horcoff is ahead of schedule to return from his knee injury.
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