NHL Could Face A Problem with Entry-Level Stars.

Among the flaws in the NHL’s previous collective bargaining agreement was its restrictive limits upon entry-level contracts.

Under that agreement, the NHL implemented draconian caps on entry-level base salaries and bonuses, while limiting contract tenures to between one-to-three years, depending upon the player’s age upon joining an NHL team.

In the final year of that CBA (2011-12), base salaries were limited to $975K, and with bonuses capped out at $3.775 million.

When that CBA was first implemented (2005), there was no rival league which could offer more lucrative salaries to budding young stars. If those players wanted to play major pro hockey, the NHL was the only alternative, even though some would earn far less than their true value on entry-level contracts.

Since then, the rise of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League has provided promising Russian stars an opportunity to earn far more early in their professional careers than they ever could in the NHL.

Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov earns more in the KHL than he would under an NHL entry-level contract.

Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov earns more in the KHL than he would under an NHL entry-level contract.

That’s one reason highly-touted Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov postponed his NHL debut by inking a two-year, $10 million contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk last summer.

It’s also why Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin put off his NHL debut until 2011-12, when he was 24 and only having to play one season under an NHL entry-level contract.

I noted this problem at length last fall in this space, and several times on The Face Off Hockey Show, suggesting it could become a growing problem if the NHL failed to suitably address the issue in the next CBA.

In its typical shortsighted wisdom, the league did nothing, ensuring the same strict rules for entry-level contracts remain in place, ignoring the threat from the expanding KHL.

Indeed, during the last round of CBA negotiations, the NHL tried to lengthen the maximum term on entry-level contract from three to five years, which would’ve exacerbated the problem. Thankfully, the term limit remains three years for players between the ages of 18-21.

The NHL seems content to believe only a handful of young Russian players will opt for the early riches the KHL can offer, while Russia’s very best young players will follow Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to North America.

But imagine if the equivalent of Ovechkin or Malkin decides to play in the KHL during their early professional years.

Ovechkin and Malkin were “can’t-miss kids”, guaranteed superstars when they were drafted first and second overall respectively in the NHL 2004 Entry Draft. They swiftly went on to fulfill their promise, and along with Sidney Crosby became the top superstars in the NHL, helping to lift the league out of the post-lockout doldrums.

But what if the next Ovechkin and Malkin decide to keep their talents in Russia because the KHL pays them far more?

The NHL would be missing out on bankable superstars,  while the KHL could use those young players to build its legitimacy as a challenger to the NHL’s supremacy.

NHL supporters could either dismiss or downplay this threat, limiting it to only Russian players, but that would be shortsightedly stupid. Why assume only young Russians would be enticed by the opportunity to earn bigger bucks in the early years of their careers in the KHL?

What’s to prevent the next Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson or Nicklas Backstrom from heading to the KHL to earn more money in their late-teens and early-twenties? They could remain closer to their home countries, avoiding the culture shock of the North American game and lifestyle until they were mature enough to adjust.

It’s assumed promising young North American players grow up preferring to play in the NHL and would therefore have no interest playing for big money in the KHL.

All it would take, however, is one 18-year-old North American “can’t miss” prospect – the next Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos or Patrick Kane – to jump to the KHL for just one big-money season, and the NHL would be in an uproar.

This potential problem could have been avoided if the league and the NHLPA had either eliminated the cap on entry-level bonuses, or significantly increased the cap ceiling on those bonuses. Either would then allow a young superstar to earn a salary commensurate with his performance.

Currently this hasn’t become a serious issue for the NHL. Kuznetsov is the only notable young prospect opting to play in the KHL for bigger bucks.

As long as it remains a limited issue, the NHL will have no reason to lift its tight controls upon its entry-level players.

But the KHL is growing, and if it should succeed in enticing more budding talent to its ranks over the course of the current NHL CBA, it could create a significant problem for the NHL, putting a significant dent into its young talent pool while creating legitimacy for its overseas rival.


  1. “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along now, move along.” -Gary Bettman

  2. I partially agree with you. I think this is a problem for top tier talent, but not of the Crosby, Ovi type talent. Those can’t miss, face of the league type players will still come here because there is one thing the NHL cannot control … SPONSORSHIP! Those players will make sooo much money in advertising, sponsorship, commercials ect ect that the Russian market doesn’t match. As long as you are a big enough name to hit that level of fame then you are fine in North America, your money will be insane (really for Canadian born stars like Crosby).

    Though you could very well be right about any of the tier just below and under.

    • Well considering that young players don’t have their break out year until their third season, those endorsements won’t be coming his way until after that. I think if I was a top pick I would bolt to the KHL and get me paid. I think letting young players earning their big paycheck via capless bonuses only makes sense. Anyone disagree paying for performance?

      • Nope. I agree.
        The idea that players will make more money with endorsements is foolish. The number of players that can attract sponsors is limited and they (the sponsors) all seem to gravitate to the super elite. Only a hand full of players are in this position and even fewer in the first couple of years of their careers.
        Example: Name me 5 players who have been in commercials not named Crosby, Ovie or Malkin?
        If you can, of those 5 how many have been in more than 1 or 2 commercials?
        Not a lot of guys.
        This isn’t golf.

        • BTW, Crosby made $4 million in endorsements last year as per Forbes mag and he was number 1.

        • Stamkos, Toews, Kane, Iginla and Brodeur.

          I agree that many players don’t get great endorsement deals, but please limit your generalizations.

  3. The shortsightedness of the NHL is particularly surprising since this isn’t exactly the first time they have gone through something like this with a rival league luring young stars away. Remember the WHA with Gretzky and several others? Maybe they plan on merging with the KHL as well.

  4. I would agree that the KHL is a growing concern for the NHL as the KHL continues to expand and the NHL has trouble finding owners for teams that already exist, but I don’t think there’s any true danger just yet. Evgeny Kuznetsov said that one of the things that is pushing him toward the NHL and away from the KHL is the fact that half of the games he plays are in mostly empty arenas. The NHL has one of the most faithful and rabid fan bases in all major sports and many arenas are mostly or completely filled for every game. These guys are super competitors and they want to ply their talents where they are appreciated and I don’t think we should discount the fact that a half-empty arena is a significant deterrent from stars in NA and Russia from wanting to make their careers in the KHL.