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.
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.