Kontinental Drift: Is the KHL Facing an Exodus?

The Kontinental Hockey League may already be in its offseason, but the league could play a hand in the upcoming National Hockey League free agency period.

The KHL crowned SKA St. Petersburg as Gagarin Cup champions, but that was the highlight of a tumultuous season that saw teams not participate due to political unrest and financial problems. It’s also been riddled with players wanting to go to North America.

KHL Hit by Economic Sanctions

Before the 2014-15 season started, Lev Praha (Prague, Czech Republic) and Spartak Moscow (who will be back for next season) both decided to sit out due to financial issues. Ukraine-based HC Donbass in Donetsk couldn’t play because to the ongoing unrest caused by the conflict between the army and separatists.

There was some good news as legendary club Jokerit Helsinki and the expansion HC Sochi joined the league. HC Lada Togliatti returned after a few years away from the loop.

However, some of the teams struggled due to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries. The penalties have caused the Ruble (the unit of pay in KHL contracts) to tumble and hit clubs in the wallet.

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The ruble lost over half its value and that really hurt some of the North American and other European-based players. Canadian-born goalie Jeff Glass vented to The Hockey News about this.

“It’s not good here right now,” Glass told thn.com in a telephone interview. “Guys are looking to get out. I’m not trying to expose the league, but none of this is right and the players are getting hosed right now and there’s no representation here. Everything had been fair up until about last season and things seem to be falling apart right now. And the ruble is making it tenfold because everyone is starting to panic.”

Moscow-based club Atlant Oblast was one of the clubs that had trouble making payroll for its players and staff. The club will not participate in the 2015-16 KHL season (link is in Russian) due to continued money woes. There are a few other clubs that are feeling the pinch.

The Exodus is Here?

There are always rumors about what players might switch between the two leagues, but this crisis has put that speculation into overdrive.

Dinamo Riga in Latvia tried to sell Marcel Hossa and others in order to get an infusion of cash. Hossa ended up being released and going to MODO in Sweden, but Dinamo did announce that it will be back for next year.

Hossa is not the only player is on the move. Alexander Burmistrov is rumored to be coming back to North America, and so are Alexander Radulov and Viktor Tikhonov. Every week seems to bring about a new Ilya Kovalchuk  returning-to-the-NHL rumour.

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One player that will already be making the jump to the NHL is Steve Moses, who signed a one-year deal with the Nashville Predators. Moses was the record-setting scorer in the league with Jokerit.

Jokerit Plays against Ak Bars on 11 December 2014 in Kazan, Russia.
Steve Moses of Jokerit is bolting the KHL for the Nashville Predators.

Other departures include Anton Slepyshev going to the Edmonton Oilers, Artemy Panarin going to the Chicago Blackhawks and Evgeni Medvedev signing a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.

KHL Still Fighting

However, the league is still fighting back. There are talks that a transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL could be in the works. It means that players could move between the two leagues as long as a soccer-style transfer fee is paid.

The leagues currently operate under a “memorandum of understanding” where teams have to wait until a contract is voided before a player can jump leagues. This could be a good way to shore up revenue for the Russian league if NHL teams pay these fees for players in the Russian league.

The league also announced that it turned a profit for the season. Some of the teams may be struggling, but the league will be able to distribute some of its gains to the teams that could use the money.

The KHL has done some strange things in the last couple of months, like Russian Senator and former league executive Slava Fetisov wanting Russian players to not be allowed to play in the NHL until the age of 27 or 28. The league possibly doesn’t hold the same opinion as Fetisov. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl also drafted Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek to get North American hockey fans into a lather.

The Verdict

I don’t wish any team or league to fail. It stinks for the fans, players and anyone that has a job with the team. The current saga with the Arizona Coyotes and the City of Glendale is a reminder of that. The league may be better off, but I feel for the fans in Arizona.

I have that same feeling for the fans of teams in the KHL. It must be a terrible feeling not knowing if your team will be able to keep the stars they love around for the next season.

I do hope the league stabilizes itself because it provides a place to play the sport the players love.

Dan Mount is a Nashville Predators staff writer for The Hockey Writers. You can follow him on Twitter, @DanMountSports.