On Kovalchuk, Nabokov and KHL

One of the bigger hockey news of the past weekend was a reported offer that KHL's SKA St. Petersburg extended to the pending free agent Ilya Kovalchuk. Leading Russian sports newspaper Sport Express broke the story, but did not cite any specific sources. Here is the English translation of the relevant part of the article by Mikhail Zislis that stirred up plenty of speculation in North American written media:

Financial heavyweights [of KHL] are still quiet - they are waiting for July 1st when free agency market opens again in NHL. It'll be then that we'll find out how good are the chances to see Kovalchuk, Frolov or others in Russia. Nonetheless, the New Jersey Devils forward is actively being courted by the ownership of SKA. The discussions are about a 3-year contract that includes not only a mind-blowing salary, but also a large signing bonus. According to sources, the average annual salary for Kovalchuk could be as high as 14 million dollars!

This is the kind of an offer that's impossible to reject. Not a single Russian athlete have ever earned this kind of money, and likely will not earn in the near future.

Assuming this offer exists, no one in the NHL can match the salary that SKA is offering to Kovalchuk. Even if the salaries were comparable, Russia taxes their residents at 13% tax rates versus 40+% that people like Kovalchuk are paying in this country.

However, I still disagree with Zislis on this and even if the offer is real, Kovalchuk is still going to reject it. Money is not everything that drives these athletes. When they are in their prime, they want to compete against the very best in the best hockey league there is. As great as the hype of Gagarin Cup is, it doesn't compare to the prestige of winning the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. That's why players like Ovechkin and Malkin stay here in the NHL when they could be earning higher salaries back home in Russia. The examples go beyond hockey - Russian top soccer player Andrei Arshavin rejected an impressive salary offer that came to stay and play in Russia as he was hitting his prime, and he is now playing in the English Premier League with FC Arsenal, where the level of competition is the highest in the world.

On top of that, KHL is still in its infancy as a business and as such, struggling to stay stable. Just weeks ago one of the most storied franchises Dynamo Moscow went out of business (which means the former Sharks favorite Alexei Semenov is a free agent again). The hockey players of Lada Togliati were not getting paid salaries for over 6 months last season and the club was forced to release 15 of them as free agents.

With this in mind, I simply don't see Kovalchuk starting next season anywhere else but the NHL. Not while he's still in his prime, and could still command one of the top NHL salaries.

But the news from Russia brought up the question that TCY already considered here at Fear the Fin a year ago, could the next Russian with an offer sheet from a KHL club be our very own Evgeni Nabokov?

Maybe, but not likely and here is why.

First, while Nabokov is older than Kovalchuk, he can still play some of the best hockey of his career, as we've seen during the last 20 or so games of this season. Out of the UFAs goaltenders that are seeking new contracts right now, Nabby is still at the top of that list. The era of cheap young goaltenders may be upon us, but should Nabokov remain a UFA on July 1st, there is no doubt he'll get at least several offers from the clubs around the league looking to strengthen their position in goal with experience. Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit could all be looking for an experienced goaltender, among others. By the way - if Doug Wilson decides to let Nabokov walk, we should all pray he ends up in the Eastern Conference. The last thing we want next spring is to face bitter Nabokov at any stage of playoffs. Imagine the nightmare, heartbreak and drama if he's actually playing for Detroit. The last time the Sharks had to face their bitter former goalie in playoffs didn't work too well for the Sharks.

Second, Nabokov has deep roots in North America. He played here for over 13 years, starting in the minors with Kentucky Thoroughblades and eventually becoming a starter with the Sharks in 2000/01 season. For comparison, he only played three seasons in Russia, before moving there from Kazakhstan. His wife is American, and his children were born here. We can only speculate on whether they're willing to leave the comforts of Northern California and trade them for Russian winters, but I know my American wife would not welcome such opportunity.

Third, up to this point, there has been absolutely no news reports linking Nabokov to KHL. The stories about Kovalchuk possibly getting an offer from KHL dominated the headlines since the last summer, as did the stories about Frolov. But when it came to Nabokov, I have not read any rumors or even questions for Nabokov if he'd even consider KHL as an option for next season. Perhaps it is because rich KHL clubs have yet to offer any big salaries to goaltenders. But the fact remains - there's been no information about any interest from Russia for Nabokov's services.

Not that Nabokov will never play in the KHL, especially since the big news in Russia this week is Dominik Hasek who signed a contract with Spartak Moscow, my favorite Russian team. Hasek even apologized for Nagano 1998 in his first Russian press conference. But there is a big difference between joining KHL as a 45 year old man who can't stop playing hockey even after winning every major trophy in the game, and joining KHL while still at the top of one's game.

Nabokov's return to the Motherland is just as unlikely at this point as Kovalchuk's.