Hockey fans have known since April that the NHL will not be sending players to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Most of the focus since that decision came to light has been on the star players under contract — like Alex Ovechkin or Jonathan Toews — and whether they will try to defy the league’s wishes and go anyway.
The first few weeks of the NHL’s free agency, however, has shown us an emerging trend not from those players under contract, but from Russian free agents. The Olympics have added another wrinkle to negotiations for those players.
Since the start of the NHL’s free agency on July 1, a handful of second- and third-tier players have opted to sign in the KHL, Russia’s top hockey league. Flyers forward Roman Lyubimov and Blackhawks goaltender Lars Johansson officially signed with CSKA Moscow at the start of July, along with former NHL first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko and former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Nikita Nesterov.
In Lyubimov’s case, the 25-year-old forward specifically cited the Olympics as the reason for his return to the KHL. Also citing the Olympics as a reason for playing in the the KHL next season? Coveted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, who recently said he wasn’t going to return to the NHL after rumors of his return lit up this offseason.
Here’s Kovalchuk’s statement on re-signing in the KHL, from CSKA Moscow.
“One of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games. In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there.”
Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov actually “considered” playing in the KHL as well, but the team gave the 25-year-old an “an offer [he] couldn’t refuse,” according to Russian Machine Never Breaks. Kuznetsov also said the Olympics were a “significant factor” in his consideration to play in the KHL, but his new eight-year, $62.4 million deal with the Capitals was enough to keep him stateside.
Since April, the Russian Hockey Federation has made it known that it was interested in bringing Russian free agents back into the fold for the upcoming Olympics while keeping the ones it already has. However, a handful of the bigger names on the market have elected to stay in the NHL. Alexander Radulov signed a five-year, $31.25 million contract with the Stars. Andrei Markov is still weighing his options, but a return to the Canadiens could be likely now that the market is drying up.
Most notably, however, is Evgeny Dadonov returning to the Florida Panthers on a three-year, $12 million deal and 30-year-old forward Vadim Shipachyov signing with the Golden Knights to herald in a new hockey age in Vegas. In the end, money speaks louder than anything else.
This give and take between the NHL and KHL is nothing new for the two hockey leagues. The KHL is hockey’s second-biggest league behind the NHL, and players from both leagues have flip-flopped between them for some time. During the most recent lockout in 2012, many NHLers took their talents to the KHL to continue playing hockey. More than a handful of KHL players like Artemi Panarin and Nikita Zaitsev have found homes in the NHL.
The Olympics is just the latest snag between the two leagues, and one that has given the KHL a leg up with certain players who consider the 2018 Winter Games a high priority. Russia as a whole is well-known for its pride on the success of their national hockey team, and its disappointing fourth-place finish behind the United States in the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi was considered a national nightmare.
While Russia has medaled in five of the last six IIHF World Championships — including two gold medals — the Russian Hockey Federation sees the Olympics as a unique opportunity to succeed in 2018 without the NHL backing normal hockey heavyweights in the United States, Canada, and Sweden.
Where the NHL seemingly gets back to almost equal footing in this relationship is the money, and if teams can offer enough of it to sate players’ appetites. It’s why lower-tier players like Lyubimov and Grigorenko have taken deals in Russia, because they fetch similar or higher pay in the KHL while also getting the bonus of potential Olympic time.
Players like Markov — who said he’s “too old” for the Olympics — and Dadonov are still playing at an NHL caliber, and clearly command a good chunk of money and term on the free agent market. The Olympics may be a priority for the Kuznetsovs and Radulovs of the NHL, but the money tipped the scales.
Kovalchuk is quite the outlier in that case, in that his talents are certainly in demand for NHL teams but he decided to stay in the KHL instead. Part of his reasoning to stay in the KHL for one year is that the New Jersey Devils hold his rights until next season, after which he becomes an unrestricted free agent. But a one-year deal also gives him the best of both worlds: A chance to play in the Olympics in the upcoming season, then a return to the NHL for a lucrative contract in the next.
And that one year is key, because the NHL and KHL don’t have a transfer agreement like other European hockey leagues do. Players who sign in the KHL have to commit to that time, unlike other European leagues like the Swedish Hockey League that pay transfer fees for players who go to the NHL.
While the NHL free agent market is quite dry after the floodgates opened on July 1, it’s possible that more players will flock to the KHL as the summer moves along. Players like Markov, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, and Shane Doan might all consider it because of their age and for one last chance at Olympic glory before retirement.
With the addition of Kovalchuk to the mix, however, it’s clear that the Olympics are a big factor for Russian free agents in where they want to play for the next upcoming season. Whether or not this trend takes other coveted free agents off the market, it’s one to keep an eye on as we roll through the slow summer months to come.