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Russian troubles see players return to NHL; KHL's money woes; Leafs' Soshnikov's former team now disbanded
23 сентября 2015 года. Traikos, Michael. National Post
Nikita Soshnikov wanted out. It was late March and the Russian forward was leading all KHL rookies in scoring. But as he was having a breakthrough year, his team was simply breaking apart.
Financial troubles were plaguing Atlant Moscow, which had lost its main sponsor and in December was forced to sell off some of its star players. That initially led to more ice time for Soshnikov, who responded with 14 goals and 32 points. But a few months later, the 20-yearold and nine other players were sold to a rival team in what amounted to another salary dump.
Soshnikov finally had enough. The undrafted free agent signed a three-year contract to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was not long after that his former team, which had been one of the near the top of the league in attendance, disbanded.
"Guys are coming over and I want to play in the best league in the world," Soshnikov, speaking with the help of a translator, said when asked why he decided to leave the KHL. "It's not about the ruble and stuff like that. It's more like 'Why not me? Why can't I play in the NHL?' So I came here and started playing and try to make the team."
Soshnikov's situation is not exactly unique. While the KHL was initially perceived as a talent-poaching threat to the NHL when it opened its operations - according to
QuantHockey.com, the number of Russians in the NHL dropped from an all-time high of 73 in 2000-01 to just 29 in 2012-13 - the cases of players leaving are becoming few and far between.
KHL teams are folding. Sponsorships are drying up. And because of a ruble that is now worth .65 cents on the U.S. dollar - it has lost 50 per cent of its value since the start of 2014 because of plummeting oil prices and sanctions due to the conflict in Ukraine - players are no longer making the kind of money that they once were. In some cases, they are not even getting paid.
"They were stealing from our families while operating and preparing the club for the upcoming season by signing new players," Canadian-born goaltender Mark Dekanich, who played for Medvescak Zagreb, said in an email to Postmedia News. "All who did not return to play for Medvescak are in the same situation." The result is that the Russians are returning to the NHL faster than ever. Thirtyfive were in the league last season and more appear to be on their way.
Alex Burmistrov, who spent the last two seasons playing for Kazan AK-Bars, is back again with the Winnipeg Jets, while the Chicago Blackhawks signed undrafted Artemi Panarin, one of the KHL's top scorers last season. Seventhoverall pick Ivan Provorov was one of 17 Russians selected in this year's NHL Entry Draft, a significant increase from the eight that were selected in 2013.
"I just think that every year more guys are coming here," said Rinat Valiev, a 2014 thirdround draft pick of the Leafs who left Russia to play for Indiana in the USHL three years ago. "They're drafting more guys to the CHL and they're signing more guys to the NHL. Before, guys were scared to come over. But now a lot of guys are leaving and playing here."
According to the Canadian Hockey League, there were only 11 Russians selected in the 2011 import draft. That number grew to 22 this year, including Sudbury centre Dmitry Sokolov, Windsor defenceman Mikhail Sergachev and Acadie-Bathurst winger Vladimir Kuznetsov. All three are considered potential first-round picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
"Momentum is the word.
And momentum is shifting, there's no question about it," said player agent Mark Gandler, who represents Provorov and Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin, who was a 10th-overall pick in 2013. "The league has changed. The KHL was making a ton of money and putting a ton of pressure on parents and young kids by throwing a ton of money at them. Now, the amount of money is not that much, particularly when you view the exchange rate."
It is not just that more Russians want to come to the NHL and play. The perception from NHL general managers has also drastically changed. With more Russians in the league, teams are less afraid of investing a draft pick or development time into a player that in the past was always considered a flight risk.
"I know when I was in New Jersey several years ago, we were all hesitant to draft (Russian) players, simply because we did not think they would come over," said Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello. "I am a little surprised that it shifted so quickly. But I think a lot had to do with what was going on in the league and the unhappiness with players who were playing for certain teams and the folding of certain teams.
"The majority of the players want to come. This is where they want to be."
And it seems that the NHL is more than happy to welcome them with open arms.
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