Could The KHL Become a Destination for NHL RFA Holdouts?

Center Ryan O’Reilly currently remains in the midst of a contract standoff with the Colorado Avalanche, with reports out of Denver suggesting there’s no end in sight.

Until last week, O’Reilly was playing with his brother for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, in the first year of a two-year contract paying him $4 million per season. He and the club mutually agreed to terminate the contract so he could return to North America to receive treatment for a nagging foot injury.

Up until that point, O’Reilly’s KHL contract provided him with a measure of leverage over the Avalanche in his contract talks.

Whether or not O’Reilly is worth the five-year, $5 million per season he was reportedly seeking is debatable.  The fact he was earning $4 million US per season playing major-pro hockey in Russia when the Avs were offering between $3.25 -$3.75 million per season on two- and five-year offers made it easier (prior to his injury) for him to maintain his contract standoff with the Avalanche.

Under the new NHL CBA, a player who played in Europe during a season whose rights are still owned by an NHL team doesn’t have to pass through waivers if he still has waiver exemption remaining.

One wonders if, over the next decade, the KHL might be used by some NHL restricted free agents as bargaining leverage in negotiations with their NHL clubs.

During the previous NHL collective bargaining agreement (CBA), there was speculation the KHL might represent a threat to siphon off some of the NHL’s better players from its talent pool.

It was suggested the NHL’s salary cap could prevent some teams from spending what it needed to retain their top restricted free agents, making them easy pickings for KHL clubs offering far more money, albeit on short-term contracts.

But apart from signing away Alexander Radulov from the Nashville Predators in 2008 ( a year before the expiration of his entry-level contract), the KHL became more a destination for the NHL’s cast-off RFAs.

The Russian league’s growing pains – real and rumored horror stories of culture shock, poor quality of play, missed paydays, lousy accommodation, arduous travel, questionable health care and mob ties – factored into nullifying its supposed threat to the NHL’s talent pool.

The recent NHL lockout, however, may have changed the perception of the KHL among some NHL players. A number of them experienced the Russian league for themselves during the lockout, and while some didn’t find it to their liking (mainly North American-born players), most seemed to enjoy the experience.

While the KHL still lags well behind the NHL in many ways, it has improved in recent years. A number of teams are still run by oil oligarchs, but they can offer up  tantalizing, short-term contracts which could entice a NHL RFA star coming off an entry-level contract.

It’s assumed only Russian or European players would employ the threat of KHL contracts as leverage in contract negotiations with their NHL teams, but O’Reilly’s recent deal with Metallurg suggests the possibility more North American-born NHLers could give consideration to that option.

Under the previous CBA, an RFA had to be re-signed by December 1 to be eligible to play the remainder of that NHL season. That deadline usually provided leverage for the NHL team, as the holdout player risked losing an entire season’s without pay if they failed to sign before December 1.

Inking a one- or two-year contract with the KHL for more money could swing that leverage back to the player. Why accept $5 million over two years in the NHL when you could earn two or three times that much in the KHL? Even if made ineligible for the rest of that NHL season, the holdout player would still be participating in a major pro hockey league, drawing a significant wage in Russia.

A potential stumbling block, however, is that by missing an entire NHL season, the player still wouldn’t be any closer to UFA status or arbitration status, as HNiC’s Glenn Healy recently noted in discussing the current contract negotiations of O’Reilly and Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.

Still, a first-time RFA opting to play overseas during a contract holdout might consider that risk worthwhile in order to get a better deal, either from his current NHL team, or by forcing a trade of his rights to another club.

Of course, any NHL RFA employing that tactic would have to find a KHL team willing to provide them with an “out-clause” for when they reach agreement with their NHL club on a new contract. The result could be NHL holdout players appearing in only a handful of KHL games.

The restricted free agent would also have to realize the possibility their NHL club might wait them out, hoping a taste of culture shock drives them back to North America. The NHL is still the top professional hockey league in the world, with first-class facilities, travel, health care, accommodations and above all, financial stability. Even the most broad-minded players seem to prefer the NHL over the KHL.

Still,  the possibility of an NHL restricted free agent star using the KHL as a contract leverage tactic appears a plausible scheme

The KHL hierarchy has made no secret of its desire to compete with the NHL, and that includes bidding competitively for talented free agents. Despite being dismissed a a serious threat to the NHL talent pool, the KHL could consider being used as a leverage tool as just another step on the road to full competitiveness with the NHL.

1 Comment

  1. It certainly gave Rino some leverage and may still do so. At this point, the Avs need him more than he needs them and that can be the case with other key players in the future. That being said, most hockey players (particularly North Americans) want to do one thing in their career: win a Stanley Cup. The money in the KHL may be nice but the lifestyle is different, there truly are cultural issues to deal with and, as observed by the tragedy with the Lokomotiv team last year, the travel issues are serious. If I’m a hockey player, all I may care about is making as much money as possible in the time I’m given for my career and that is my right. I may feel as though the team I play for in the NHL undervalues (and underpays) me and/or that I am squeezed by the cap on my earning potential. If I’m a young, single guy without kids, the KHL may seem extremely viable.

    The Avs management does have a tendency to lock themselves into a set value for a given player and Radar may be overvaluing himself but the bottom line is that he isn’t playing hockey right now for anyone but the Avs need his scoring, his defense and his leadership. The club may be thinking ahead to when the cap goes down but this is a guy you want in your uni. That translates to overpaying him a bit (in your own mind) but not allowing he and his agent to have a free-for-all. Give him the $4-4.5 mil deal for the next 4 years.