Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Look to the East: The Looming Threat of European Money

Having briefly touched upon the subject of IIHF treaties and transfer agreements in a piece more than a week ago (see The Future Habs D: Transfers and Treaties).

Interestingly for Tobalev and I, this sparked a number of conversations with people actually at the tournament and who had been reading our piece. What's more, one friend who is closer to the game than us was able to enlighten us quite a bit on this topic. He mentioned that he found our piece timely, seeing as the IIHF transfer agreement was the talk of the town in Halifax and Quebec, where the Europeans were gathered for the games.

Obviously since I wrote that last piece, the championships have ended, Russia has won and celebrated like it mattered to them and no Habs are playing hockey anymore. Even so, the transfer agreement looms over the NHL, and indeed the Canadiens off-season planning, and deserves a second look.


The talk of the tournament


At the moment, apparently most of the talk on the transfer agreement is focused on which players from the NHL will jump ship and take a payday in Russia. This is because Russian teams, already in their off-season, have been making offers to many top players in Europe and North America. The money may be such that NHL will be left with no choice but to let these players go.

Far from being the only concern for the NHL, the Czechs are already looking at not entering into a new agreement, and the same might be true of Sweden. The general feeling at the tournament, apparently, was that no agreement would be reached in the near future, at least. So, one would speculate that even the teams from other leagues in Finland, Germany and Switzerland wouldn't be far behind either once the big players drop out.

Personally, I think this is serious, and I see the absence of the agreement with the European clubs potentially affecting the league in three ways:

1) A temporary drop in Europeans across the league

2) More aggressive (and possibly longer-term) NHL contracts with flight risk players

3) A shift in power among clubs (those that can still tap European talent vs. those that resort to North Americans who would be classed as minor leaguers at the moment)


Less Europeans

A drop in the numbers of Europeans in the league could be viewed as a good or a bad thing. I can hear Don Cherry's "Let them go!", even now.

For me, I would consider it to be a large step backwards. After all, the last time the NHL was replete of Europeans, there were only 21 teams. At that time, the top teams were the top teams, but the argument could have been made that there was still not enough NHL-level talent coming out of Canada and the US (to some degree) to support so many teams. Imagine now trying to stock 30 teams with Canadian and US players only. The initial drop in play would be difficult to take. Never mind that many European players are also among the more skilled and most excellent at skating – the direction we thought the league was meant to be headed.

Interestingly, in our discussion it also came up that Russia, after all, is not currently the greatest place in the world to spend your youth. This is particularly true of the Siberian towns where the oil magnates operate their mega clubs. Other than Russians, the feeling is that no one wants to sign for more than one year in Russia right now. The lifestyle has not improved to the point for anyone to go there too long.

NHL GMs should not be resting on their laurels,though. This situation could, and will likely, change as Russian living conditions improve and as the list of overseas options includes countries like Sweden and Switzerland. Indeed, one need only ask the North Americans who have made tracks over to those leagues rather than toil in the AHL or lower leagues. We speculated about Finns and particularly Swedes (who already show their desires to return home on plenty of occasions – Naslund, Forsberg). If Sweden and Finland drop out of the agreement, the problem of losing players could get more serious.

The inevitability of the drop is real, though – even with only Russia and the Czechs on the outs. People in the know keep stating how the money coming out of the European leagues is bigger than before and those teams can afford to poach a player or two from "big" NHL clubs. The simple fact there are many times more clubs in Europe will put the onus on the NHL to stem the tide – as opposed to hoping all European clubs run dry of cash.


More aggressive contracts

An initial reaction will no doubt be to hold onto the Europeans who figure large in the plans of your club. Pittsburgh and Washington will likely ante up big for Malkin and Ovechkin, and why shouldn't they. However, teams like Montreal, New York, Dallas, etc. who are currently riding a cast of middle range European talent may be asked to pay over the odds for their players.

While the tactic of aggressive contracts to Europeans could indeed help to stem the tide of Europeans out of the NHL initially, there are only so many big contracts a team, and the league can sustain.


Power shift

Following a partial loss of talent and vain attempts to offer contracts, I see certain clubs giving up on the Euro game. Others will stick it out. This is the power shift – with access to more talented players open only to those willing to put up with the hassle. I spoke about this potential shift in power in the last piece as well. I truly believe that with any change in circumstances there comes a pressure to adapt. The teams that adapt the quickest and best will be the ones who form "dynasties" in the near future.

I cited the scouting of Detroit (particularly in Sweden) as the foundation of their rise to prominence once the NHL opened its doors wholesale to the European leagues in the early 1990s. Similarly, a team who positions itself to perform real and serious negotiations with Russian teams now – and other European teams later – will reap the harvest of European surplus fed by the exodus of Euro NHLers.

When asked, our friend in the know agreed that having someone who knows how the system works would be very valuable to any team. He noted how teams in Europe do things so differently, an NHL team trying to negotiate the situation would need an insider who knows how the system works.

"Everyone calls it the wild west cause there’s no rules, it’s all gangsters and making/taking bribes."

Really, he said, it’s just a matter of being smart and getting a good Russian (for the current situation anyway) on your side.


What now for the Habs?

Obviously, it comes back to the Canadiens. While I am concerned about the NHL as a whole in so far as it provides the Canadiens with a league to compete with the best clubs in the world; I am not overly concerned with the plight of teams who may fall down because of a resistance to change or lack of adaptability. What concerns me is that the Habs get a leg up here for the next 10 years.

In terms of current players, the Habs probably have to resign themselves to losing Grabovski. We have been hearing that the word on the street is that he is at least entertaining offers. The writing seemed on the wall for him, as he keeps coming up short on lower lines and is not likely to unseat either Koivu or Plekanec for a top line spot.

The Habs will have to make serious strategic decisions, however, about key players like the Kostitsyns (are both to be kept???), Halak, and the youngsters in the pipeline (notably Valentenko.

As for mining the Russian league for talent at the current time, my friend and I were at a loggerheads. I suspect this is because there is no right answer.

My feeling is that the Habs should take advantage of the mass of NHL clubs who are clearly shying away from Russians by having a look at what's available – or at least letting young Russians know that Montreal is interested in players who want to play for the Stanley Cup.

My friend, who not only works in hockey, watched the World Champs and just generally is much better versed in this kind of stuff than I am warns the Canadiens GM to stay away:

There’s a reason these guys don’t play in the NHL. They aren’t driven by being the best in the world, or part of the best team in the world or a need to be challenged by the best. You don’t need someone or your team who plays the game for a living and cause it’s all he knows.



While I find his argument very convincing, I still find myself looking at Detroit again and thinking about finding the Russian Kronwalls, Franzens and Zetterbergs.

I don't know. What do you all think?

If nothing else, I think we'll all be talking about this soon enough, if not just now...

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