One glance at the list of KHL scoring leaders is enough to show the impact of the NHL lockout. Alexander Radulov, a former first round pick of the Nashville Predators, who has been among the league's best players over the last few years, is the current scoring leader with 35 points in 25 games. But hot on his heels are a pair of NHLers who have seen much less actionEvgeni Malkin, now skating with Magnitogorsk Metallurg, has 28 points in 20 contests, while Ilya Kovalchuk has the same total in just 18 games played. Malkin has the same points-per-game average as Radulov. Kovalchuk's is superior.
Others stand out, too. Sublime two-way center Pavel Datsyuk has picked up 22 points in the 17 games that he has played for CSKA Moscow. 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupovwho would be playing his rookie season in Edmonton if not for the lockouthas played just 13 games but has as many goals as Kovalchuk (10) and more than Malkin or Datsyuk. In net, Semyon Varlamov has the best save percentage among regular goalies (.948) while Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky has gone 9-1-1 with a .924 save percentage.
Of interest is the lack of a North American presence.
The vast majority of NHL players in the KHL are from Europe originally, though there are exceptions. Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski signed in Minsk, Belarus, while Ryan McDonagh plays for a surprisingly North American team in Astana, Kazakhstan. Joffrey Lupul recently made the trip over and this week played his first game with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.
The unlikely scoring leader among the North American contingent, however, is none other than Tim Stapleton.
Stapleton, a 30-year-old who earned the majority of his 118 NHL games with Winnipeg last seasonhe picked up 27 points in 63 contestshas 11 goals (one more than Kovlachuk), and 19 points in 25 games. Like Pavelski and Kane, he signed with Minsk. But while the two bigger name NHLers have struggledPavelski has one assist in seven games while Kane scored once in a dozen contests and recently parted ways with the teamStapleton has thrived.
Some of that might have to do with commitment. Unlike Pavelski and Kane, who will return to the NHL whenever the lockout ends, Stapleton is going to be playing in Russia all season. The Jets declined to re-sign him when his contract ran out this summer, so early in July Stapleton signed with Minsk. He is here for the duration, and has no big-league contract to fall back on if he struggles.
A more likely explanationgiven that plenty of NHL players are doing just fineis that there is a definite adjustment factor for players who haven't played in Europe previously. Hockey may be hockey, but the large ice and the different standard of officiating in the KHL make for some significant adjustments. It is something that the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh noticed quickly after signing in Kazakhstan:
"The big ice sheet changes the game a lot. The game at times can be real slow and methodical but also can become high tempo when teams start opening up and taking chances. You try and hang onto the puck as long as you can because it can be hard to get it back on the big ice
There is a ton of skill on our team and the teams we're playing against. You really have to make certain you're always in good position, because the passing and playmaking skills are very sharp with the players in this league."
This idea is supported by what happened during the last lockout, the one that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season. That year, one team in particularAk Bars Kazanbrought in no fewer than 11 NHL players, including three North American stars: Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, and Brad Richards.
The outcome of those signings turned out to be far less than Ak Bars hoped for. Richards, the best of the lot, scored seven points in seven games before injury knocked him out of the lineup. Dany Heatley played in 11 games and recorded just four points. Only Vincent Lecavalier was a constant presence in the lineup, and he managed a disappointing 15 points.
Yet all three would be stellar when NHL hockey resumed. Over the next two NHL seasons, that trio would combine for 234 goals and 552 points, an average of 92 points per year. Heatley alone would twice top the 50-goal and 100-point plateaus in the next two years. Talent clearly wasn't the issue.
That fact is also in evidence this year. In the NHL, Stapleton is not nearly as valuable a player as a Pavelski or a Kane. Others excelling in the KHL this year were afterthoughts during their NHL careers. Randy Robitaille had some decent seasons and a 500-game NHL career but never topped 40 points; he's one of the KHL's more productive scorers after a much less impressive 2011-12 campaign. Brandon Bochenski is another who showed flashes of ability in the NHL but has really hit his stride overseas; last season he had 58 points in 49 games.
The difference in playing style can make NHL journeymen and minor leaguers look like stars in Russia; it can also make NHL stars look like journeymen. The lesson for KHL teams has been not to rest their hopes on players who haven't shown they can handle the Russian game.
In many ways, it's a mirror image of what NHL teams look for in foreign-born players. Players from all over Europe routinely come to North America to play hockey in the major junior systems here. Not only does it show a willingness and an interest to be in playing in North Americasomething NHL teams love to seebut it helps them to adapt to the North American game.
For NHL teams, it should also serve as a warning not to give up on the struggling Russian (or Czech, or Slovak, or whatever) too quickly. If players like Kane, Pavelski, Heatley, and Lecavalier can look so impotent overseas, it stands to reason that some highly-talented Europeans might flounder early on in North America.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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