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Russian Factor Becoming An Issue In The NHL Once Again?


You see this topic just about every single season. Around the NHL Draft you'll see young prospects from all over the world. But there is one group that always seems to have a little cloud over them. The Russians.

It's now known as "The Russian factor". What is this? For those who don't know, The Russian factor is when you either have a drafted Russian player or even a Russian free agent who is at flight risk. Meaning almost at any moment he could leave your team and head home to Russia and play in the KHL.

Possibly the biggest example of this is Alexander Radulov. Radulov who came from Russia to play junior hockey in Canada (for the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL) was drafted into the NHL by the Nashville Predators. He was signed to his entry level contract which was a standard three year deal.

After playing two years of his three year deal Radulov bolted from Nashville and signed with KHL's Salavat Yulaev Ufa. You can go look up what happened after that between the NHL and KHL and even the IIHF that's not really the point of what I'm going to try to tell you here.

In the years following the Radulov situation you had NHL teams weary of drafting Russian players because they weren't sure if they were wasting a draft pick on a player who would never come over to play for them. Somewhere between the Radulov fiasco and present day the Russian factor has cooled down a little bit.

Now it could be back and Valeri Nichushkin is a big part on why. After a lengthy holdout this off-season Nichushkin who was an RFA signed with KHL club CSKA Moscow. As an RFA this isn't a bad thing. This is miles away from the Radulov situation, but it is nonetheless a situation in my opinion.

According to sources Nichushkin didn't want to play for Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff. This defines the Russian factor. One thing Nichushkin didn't like (albeit a fairly big thing) and he won't sign with his NHL team and leaves for home for two years or more.

Is this a bad thing? No, not really. Am I against Valeri's move to the KHL? Not at all. He's a free agent he can do whatever he wants and clearly he thinks moving to CSKA will help him now and in the long term. What I'm here to tell you is the thing we call "The Russian factor" is starting to creep back into reality and there have been several examples in the last couples of seasons.

Evgeny Kuznetsov is another example I'll use here. Kuznetsov was drafted in 2010 by the Washington Capitals late in the first round. He went on in the next couple of seasons to star at international competitions and become a very good KHL player.

When a European player gets drafted most fans are OK with leaving a player alone for a year or two. Let the kid stay at home and develop before coming over to a new country new culture and new hockey. Kuznetsov let the Capitals and their fans wait for nearly four years.

Alright no big deal he ended up coming over anyways and now is one of Washington's best players.

But seemingly ever since Kuznetsov got to the NHL he has dropped hints that he won't be in America long. Even before Kuznetsov arrived in the United States he told a Russian media outlet that he would like to return to the KHL when he is around 30. That would mean Kuznetsov played in the NHL for eight seasons, a pretty short NHL career. Was he telling the truth to that media person? Who knows, we all fluff people when we think we are disappointing someone.

On top of that Kuznetsov just came out the other day and said something else that should cause some concern .When asked about fellow Russian and Team Russia teammate Nikita Kucherov's contract holdout with Tampa Bay Kuznetsov said this, "If I would be in his position, I would be signed in the KHL for sure... I would sign and say bye. That's me. I would buy a beach house and a couple Rolls-Royces.". Not exactly something you want to hear if you're a Capitals fan with Kuznetsov having just one year left on his contract.

This isn't exclusive to young players though. Remember Ilya Kovalchuk? He "retired" from the NHL to return home to play in the KHL. Kovalchuk who played in the KHL during the 2012-13 NHL lockout made New Jersey Devils fans worry by not sounding very anxious to get back to the NHL after the lockout had ended in January of 2013. When asked about staying in the KHL after a match with SKA Saint Petersburg Kovalchuk said, “It cannot be excluded,”.

Kovalchuk did in fact return to the NHL and the Devils just days later and played out the shortened season. Just six months later however the 30 year old Kovalchuk retired from the NHL and went home to Russia to play out his career. Kovalchuk had 12 years remaining on his contract worth $77 million at the time of his retirement.

And finally just this past season Pavel Datsyuk retired from the NHL and now plays in the KHL with CSKA. Datsyuk a little different since he is eight years older than Kovalchuk was at his retirement age and Datsyuk having a much easier contract to swallow (just one year at $7.5 cap hit).

Honestly if you ask me I have more of a problem with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk than any young kid. If you have a contract you honor that contract to the end, no questions asked.

You can't blame any of these players though. They have options. They can play at the highest level thousands of miles away from home for millions of dollars and a chance to win the most coveted hockey trophy or you can stay at home still play at a very high level and make millions as well.

I don't want this to sound like I don't like these players either. If you want to go home and play that's great. Russia and North America are very different (at least from what I hear and know) so if these guys don't want to stay they shouldn't be forced.

But this is why there is a Russian factor. Valeri Nichushkin does not get along with his coach or feel he is treated right among the coaches. Instead of trying to find a way out of Dallas and onto another NHL team he goes to the KHL. Kuznetsov comes out multiple times saying stuff about the KHL. And "older" Russians retiring from the NHL in order to get home and play.

The Russian Factor seemed to die down in recent years but after several decisions and comments made by players I wouldn't be surprised if the factor comes back up in the very near future. 

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I can hear the haters now. Capitals forward and captain Alex Ovechkin publicly stated how he does not care for the current playoff format and I can guarantee on some comment section or on facebook or Twitter someone said this, "He doesn't like the format because he can't win." No doubt someone said this somewhere.

After a Team Russia practice in Pittsburgh (of all places) Ovechkin said this to CSN Mid-Atlantic.

"The schedule in the playoffs is kind of weird, because you play first team and fourth and then you play against Pittsburgh. Then you think why need to win Presidents' Trophy to play against the best team? It's tough to think about, it's kind of weird, but there's nothing you can do." 

This isn't something I've put a lot of thought into. Going back to realignment and the changing of the playoff format I always thought you would have to beat the best teams in the playoffs at some point anyways who cares when that time comes. After hearing Ovechkin's comments though I've thought about this more and I now think he's right.

The 2015-16 Washington Capitals season was one of if not the best season in franchise history. In 2009-10 they reached 121 points but just 54 wins compared to this past season getting 120 points but scored 56 wins. Back in 2010 it was all offense, and when the games got tighter in the playoffs that came back to bite them. Six years later the Capitals were very good offensively but one of the best on defense as well. This Presidents' Trophy winning team was supposed to do much better.

Being the best team in the league and in the east Washington rightfully got to play the worst playoff team in Philadelphia. The Capitals easily breezed through the first three games before things got a little tight and the Flyers got back to back wins. No problem in the end, the Caps won game 6 in enemy territory and onto round two.

This is where things get fishy. This is where you look at Ovechkin's comments and pick out one line in particular.

"why need to win Presidents' Trophy to play against the best team?"

That's a hell of a question that I had never thought about. NHL teams play 82 games in the regular season. If you're the best team in your conference or even the entire league shouldn't that mean something?

It did just a couple of years ago. The best team in each conference played the worst team in the conference and if they won they would face the worst remaining seed. That seems logical right? We ask these guys and these teams to beat each other up and sacrifice their bodies 82 times a year, the best teams should get some sort of advantage.

Instead these days the NHL seems to fixed on rivalries and creating new and reigniting old rivalries. Need any proof of this just look at NBC's Wednesday Night Rivalry where some of the games on this night was Flyers vs Blackhawks, Red Wings vs Capitals and Blackhawks vs Rangers twice.

More proof. Look at what the current playoff format forces. Rematches. Thanks to this format the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings have gone at it in the first round two of the past three years. That's two years where one great team was knocked out early. Go to the east where the Penguins and New York Rangers have played in the playoffs for three straight years and have met in the first round the last two.

Possibly the worst match-up was this past playoff season. It was a bad match-up because it was so great, let me explain. Blackhawks vs Blues in the first round. That was in my opinion the best playoff series this past year. It happened in the FIRST ROUND. The Blackhawks who had won three Stanley Cups in the past six years are out early. Why are these two great teams matching up so early?

So just for fun lets go back to the old playoff format, The top seed plays the eight seed, two vs seven and so on and so forth. This is what the playoffs would have looked like in round one.

Capitals vs Red Wings

Penguins vs Flyers

Panthers vs Lightning

Rangers vs Islanders

Stars vs Wild

Blues vs Predators

Blackhawks vs Sharks

Ducks vs Kings

I don't know about you but based on these match-ups you don't need the current format. Right here there are four interstate playoff series. I can't find one series that doesn't have something interesting. Blues vs Predators doesn't really have a big story but I think it'd be a great series.

Going back to the Capitals, I think they win that series vs the Red Wings and would go on to play the worst remaining team out east which was Tampa Bay. Still a tough team and I think the Capitals would actually lose that series but at least for the NHL it's not one vs two in the second round. On the other side of the east bracket you have Penguins vs Islanders, Crosby vs Tavares round 2 (round 1 being in 2013).

In the west, I don't think the 2016 Stanley Cup finalists Sharks get out of the first round. I think the Blackhawks win that series and instead of Blues vs Blackhawks in round one we get that match-up in round two. In my bracket the Stars would play the Ducks in round two. I won't get much further into the brackets I'll let you decide what happens based on the match-ups above.

The NHL in my mind is so anxious for rivals to meet in the playoffs that later rounds can sometimes be a little boring. With the current playoff format you had Blues vs Blackhawks in round one when it could have been a little later and helped ratings. Instead of Capitals vs Penguins in round two it could have happened in the Eastern Conference Championship, imagine Ovechkin vs Crosby winner goes to the Stanley Cup.

The NHL wanting rivals playing in early rounds is knocking out great teams and creating some bad TV. Would you rather see Chicago vs St Louis in round two or Nashville vs San Jose? Tampa Bay vs New York Islanders or Penguins vs Islanders.

Wednesday Night Rivalry, only rivals playing in the Winter Classic and divisional playoff system, the NHL is so focused on rivalries and it's hurting them. In this system winning the Presidents' Trophy doesn't mean anything other than home ice which is increasingly a non factor. A team just proved it was the best in the league over six months and 82 games and they should get an advantage. Instead in this system they might have to play their toughest opponent in round two. To answer your question Ovechkin, there is no point on winning the Presidents' Trophy.

The playoff format is weird. If you ask me the only reason it exist is because the NHL wants rivals meeting and meeting more often. You'll most likely get Capitals-Penguins more often if they play in round one or two than if they both have to get to the conference finals. Same goes for Blackhawks-Blues and Sharks-Kings.

The NHL had a ratings problem these past playoffs, maybe if the best match-ups didn't happen in round one the ratings would have been better in late May and June when teams were fighting for a spot in the Finals or even the Stanley Cup. 

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Good And Bad Things About The Upcoming World Cup Of Hockey

Winslow Townson/USA Today

Hockey fans, it's August. You know just as well as I do the eighth month of the year is probably the worst time for hockey fans. Somewhere in the middle of August you're usually in a situation where you are a month and a half removed from the Stanley Cup Final and a month and a half away from training camp and preseason.

But this late summer is different for another reason. Hockey and news is just around the corner thanks to the reincarnation of the World Cup of Hockey. The games are just about a month away starting on September 17th but just like any other team going into a season or tournament they need camps and practices.

It's the month where news is scarce. The draft and free agency is long gone and the majority of teams have their teams set for the next seasons training camps. This summer would have been much of the same if it weren't for a rookie who wouldn't sign for his draft team and Patrick Roy doing Roy things and leaving the Colorado Avalanche late in the offseason.

With that being the case, rejoice hockey fans, we are just a short week and a half away from hockey. For Team USA their camp starts in Columbus, OH on Monday the 5th and the same goes for Team Canada (in Ottawa, ON). Team USA and Team Canada will even play some exhibition games before the tournament begins the most anticipated being vs each other on both September 9th and 10th.

Earlier hockey. That is probably the best thing about this World Cup of Hockey. It's high level, important hockey in early September when usually you have to wait until early October for good hockey.

But not everything is great about this World Cup. There are plenty of bad things and some more iffy things. What we're going to do here is go through the good and the bad of this tournament. Since we have been looking at the positive up to this point lets start with the good.

Earlier hockey, already discussed, next point.

It's an international best on best tournament. Who doesn't love that? It's why we love the Olympics. You have stars from across the NHL teaming up. On Canada you have Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos and John Tavares while on Team USA you have Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski etc. Watching these players and former rivals team up for their countries is always fun to watch.

On the other hand Team North America could be the most fun thing of the World Cup. When it was announced that in this World Cup there would be two teams not really representing a country there was a pretty good amount of criticism. Rightly so, when you have a international best on best tournament you want countries teams, not gimmick teams.

Since teams have been named though I think one of the gimmick teams has become very interesting. If you take Canada out of the equation team North America might be the most talented team in the World Cup. They already have one of the best players in the entire sport in Connor McDavid teaming him up with fellow 2015 draftee and media rival Jack Eichel, 2016 number one pick Auston Matthews, NHL veteran Sean Couturier and young solid defensemen Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones and Shayne Gostisbehere.

The European audience probably could care less about this team but for fans here in America this could be the most interesting team in the entire World Cup.

This being the first World Cup in a long time it could be fun. We're going into this event having no idea how it's going to work. It could be a huge success which would be very fun to watch and get into or it could be a massive failure which is sometimes fun to watch too. This obviously isn't the Olympics and it very well could be an epic failure but I think the majority of hockey fans are going into this World Cup with some sort of intrigue. Bottom line I think this is going to be fun.

So that's the good stuff. Now the bad things.

It's a big tournament in preseason. You have star players on these teams that NHL teams are relying on. Injuries could and most likely will happen. I think as exciting as this tournament could be, you are going to have a lot of fans watching with one eye closed hoping they don't see their star seriously injured.

The argument you could come up with here is it's not the Olympics that take place in mid to late February. A star gets hurt there and your missing the rest of the season and some of the playoffs. If I'm a fan I want my star getting hurt in September not February.

Good argument, but we've seen plenty of times a team get off to a bad start and not being able to recover. The last thing the San Jose Sharks need is their number one center Jumbo Joe Thornton or their number one defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic going down for a couple of months right off the bat. This isn't exclusive to the Sharks you can say this for just about any other team.

There are two most important times of the season the start and the finish. Play well in just one of those and you run the risk of missing the playoffs. Teams want to go into the season healthy and having an important tournament right before the season puts stars health at risk.

As we talked about earlier one of the gimmick teams is quite interesting. You have young players from North America, we here in North America will be interested in how they perform on an international stage against the very best. The other gimmick team in my opinion is just bad. Team Europe. This team is basically a team full of stars not from Sweden, Russia, Finland or Czech Republic. This is a team where players come from a country that the NHL says "That countries international team is not good enough for us." Harsh but true.

But the NHL can't possibly leave some of these players out of the World Cup. The whole point of this tournament is to get the best players in the world playing in a single event. How can you have a guy like Anze Kopitar who Wayne Gretzky himself called the third best player in the world sitting on the sidelines? How can you have future hall of famers like Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara not play in this best on best competition?

Slovenia and Slovakia apparently just aren't good enough for the NHL which is pretty much true. So how do we get these guys in the World Cup? Make a best of the rest team. That will look good right?

Why should these countries care? If Kopitar wins does Slovenia care? If Chara and Hossa win for Team Europe does Slovakia feel some sort of pride? How much does Europe care?

That questions bleeds into my next point very easily. How much does Europe care? Does this tournament to them end up like the World Championships to North Americans. A nice tournament for Stanley Cup playoff losers. Do Europeans look at this as a nice preseason competition? If you have a World Cup but only one continent in the world cares, what's the point.

And this may be the biggest concern for fans. This is a just a tournament so the NHL can get out of going to the Olympics in 2018. Fans may not like how the NHL has to stop play for about three weeks every four years but they deal with it, why? Because they get to watch a best on best hockey competition at the Olympics.

There are probably two sports tournaments that when people even just say the tournaments name glitter comes flying out their mouths, the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Sure the Olympics might be declining in interest specifically among young people but it's still the Olympics it will draw because of its name alone. The World Cup of Hockey won't do this.

I'm not going to go into the topic to much but the NHL needs the Olympics. It's easier to drag casual fans to hockey and to the NHL from the Olympics. Hockey fans will watch the World Cup, I don't think casual fans will watch or give a damn about it. The only reason I am a hockey fan and even now a hockey writer is because of the Olympics in 2010. That's all I'll say about that.

We'll close out the bad stuff just like the good stuff. This is the first World Cup. Again, it could be fun and I think hockey fans will watch but if it's not a huge success why should fans care whenever the next one is? If the NHL decides to in fact go to the Olympics in 2018 why should we care about this second rate tournament?

Look at FIFA for this argument, everyone knows the World Cup is the biggest and best soccer tournament. Soccer at the Olympics is not very important at all. Just flip it for hockey.

The World Cup of Hockey. An NHL tournament that gives us earlier hockey and a best on best competition. Great, I'm on board. Not sure I'm going to care about the next World Cup though and I'll be watching my teams players through cracks in my fingers hoping they don't get hurt.

It has two gimmick teams neither of which I'm sure works on a grand scale. And this is honestly just a way the NHL is trying to get out of the Olympics and more casual fans will watch Olympic hockey rather than the World Cup of Hockey.

Just like everything else in life the World Cup of Hockey has its ups and downs. It's up to us fans to decide whether this has more ups or more downs. In my opinion it has more downs. Now it's your turn to decide.

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