Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nonis: Russians can't have it both ways

Kiril Koltsov, Avangard Omsk

From The Province, "Russian League Just As Willing To Poach", 8/27/06:

Canucks GM Dave Nonis didn't come right out and say it, but you sensed his gag reflex involuntarily activated when he read about the Russian hockey world's outrage over the NHL's pursuit of Pittsburgh super-prospect Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin, in case you've missed it, slipped away from his club team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, during a tour of Finland a couple of weeks back and popped up in Los Angeles, engendering a furious response from the Magnitogorskians who claim they have a valid contract with Malkin. Young Evgeni, however, seems to prefer his current locale in El Segundo and will probably play in the NHL this season unless the Russians can convince the international tribunal in The Hague to intervene.

Now, for veterans of the first wave of Russian hockey players, the Malkin story has a familiar ring to it. The claims. The counter-claims. The confusion. The 38 people who claimed to be Malkin's agent. But as much fun as it is to revisit the good old days, this is 2006, not 1990, and you'd hope we'd be past this nonsense by now.

"Kiril Koltsov (a Canucks blueline prospect) had a valid contract in place when he left Manitoba last season to play with Omsk," said Nonis. "He's a different level player than Malkin but the principle is the same.

"It's a situation I'm not thrilled about."

As is the case with most everyone in the NHL. The question is, what can they do about it?

As much as the Malkin flapdoodle harkens back to a different time, the NHL's issues with the Russian Super League are a little more complex than they were 16 years ago. True, there is still considerable confusion over the manner in which business is conducted in the Motherland.

But the plain fact is the Russian league provides an alternative for players who believe they are being squeezed by their NHL clubs. And that isn't going to change as along as the Russians offer salaries that are competitive with the NHL.

"NHL teams have preferred to eliminate the middle class," said agent Mark Gandler. "They want to pay their stars and give everyone else the minimum wage. My job as an agent is to deliver what's best for my client in the long run."

And that's where the Russian league comes in. This offseason, Gandler signed three of his clients to deals with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and that development has peeved the NHL mightily.

The three players-- Tampa's Evgeni Artyukhin and the Islanders' Sean Bergenheim and Denis Grebeshkov-- aren't exactly first-ballot Hall of Famers. But they are prospects with an upside who could make more and play more in Russia than they could in the NHL.

Nonis has some first-hand experience with these matters. Backup goalie Mika Noronen you know about. This summer the Canucks also wanted to re-sign checking centre Artem Chubarov after he played in Omsk last season. The problem is Chubarov signed with Dynamo this summer for about $1.4 million US, which is considerably more than the Canucks were willing to pay.

If that wasn't enough, Nonis would like to sign draftees Evgeni Gladskikh-- "He could probably play in our league," the GM said-- and Denis Grot, but both are comfortably ensconced in Russia. The Canucks would even forgive Koltsov but the young blueliner isn't overly keen about returning to North America.

This problem started to intensify two years ago when the Russians opted out of the IIHF's agreement with the NHL. That agreement called for the NHL to pay $200,000 for players it signed from Europe but the Russians, as you might have guessed, thought they could do better.

That agreement is now about to expire and efforts are being made to include the Russians in a new deal. You'd figure they'd be amenable to the idea after losing players like Alexander Ovechkin, Nikolai Zherdev and Malkin without compensation.

But let's just say over the years they haven't been overly predictable in these affairs.

Also, the latest news on Evgeni Malkin as his "two weeks' notice" reaches its end is that there's no news regarding either a contract for Malkin with the Penguins or any legal filings by Magnitogorsk.