Tuesday, June 02, 2009

CHL Playing Russian Roulette with KHL

Yesterday's Kontinental Hockey League (made up of teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia) draft provided a few surprises for the North American, and particularly the Kingston hockey scene. The first surprise of course was when the hockey community over here discovered that this draft happened yesterday. In fact the 89th pick in the draft, Taylor Hall, says that he "didn't even know there was a draft." The second surprise for Kingston Frontenac fans came when they saw that Erik Gudbranson had been selected 62nd overall in the draft by Dynamo Moscow. This ending a week in which Gudbranson was called up to a Canadian Men's U-18 training camp as well.

After being drafted by Moscow, Gudbranson immediately confirmed that he plans to be at Frontenac training camp, come the start of the season. Hall will most likely ignore the call as well, opting to stay with Windsor for his last season before the NHL draft. So it looks as if the KHL's first attempt to pry young players away from the CHL, before they are eligible for the NHL draft, will not end well for the new look Russian League. It does however bring up a few interesting questions about the future of the CHL.

Gudbranson and Hall both indicated that impressing NHL scouts in their final season before their draft year, was the main reason they chose to stay in Ontario. The CHL has traditionally been the main route for players to enter the NHL draft. In the 2008 NHL draft twenty out of the thirty players taken in the first round, were taken from CHL teams. However the KHL and several other highly rated European Leagues may be challenging this old system.

Although popular in some countries like Sweden, and Russia the European Leagues receive next to nothing with respect to coverage in North America. In fact the most anyone ever hears about these leagues over here is during the Spengler Cup. On the other hand the CHL gets lots of coverage because it boasts "the next generation of NHL players". CHL attendances often shoot up when players like Tavares and in the past Crosby come to town. Local interest increases, as does national interest. Rogers Sportsnet often shows games featuring high profile players, and other sports stations give ample time on hockey shows to CHL prospects. The reason the CHL has this pull, is because of the high profile prospects that play in the league. European hockey leagues seem to be out to take away this pull and give North American hockey fans extra incentive to follow their leagues.

The CHL is a junior league, and a league in which most of the players will end up playing hockey as a past time. The KHL offers a very different proposition to young NHL draft prospects. It is a professional league, where young players will get exposure to a professional environment, and possibly higher level hockey. The biggest pull of the KHL to these young future-NHL players is the lower age restriction. To be drafted in the NHL the minimum age is eighteen. Gudbranson and Hall are both two young for this year's NHL draft, but both were selected in the KHL draft at the minimum age of seventeen. The KHL is trying to become the final step for junior players looking to get to the NHL.

The problem is until players start leaving to the KHL, the majority of scouts and media attention will stay in North America. So the players who are almost certainly NHL bound like Gudbranson and Hall won't want to take risks before their draft year. They are doing everything they can to ensure they are taken as high as possible in the NHL draft. The target of the KHL should be fringe players. The players who need that extra boost to make the NHL. These fringe players are the ones who are more likely to take that extra risk. The exposure to a professional environment may give these players that extra boost, and if they struggle at least they have a future in professional hockey even if it is not in the NHL. If these players start to make the jump to the KHL, other more established players may head to the KHL.

These new prospects would force the North American hockey crowd to start following and keeping tabs on the KHL. Although the limit on five foreigners per team in the KHL is not likely to change anytime soon, increasing the quality of these five players will attract this media attention to the domestic players as well. This is exactly what the KHL, and most European Leagues are looking for,but it also would represent all of the CHL's worst fears.

NOTE: Zach Kassian of the Peteborough Petes was also taken in the KHL draft 56th overall.

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