In April, the NHL announced that it would not be sending players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, with Commissioner Gary Bettman saying the league did not want to disrupt its regular season.
Among those affected by that decision are several players from Russia, and some are apparently deciding to leave the NHL and head to the KHL — Russia’s top hockey league — so they can participate in the Games.
When NHL free agency kicked off July 1, Philadelphia Flyers forward Roman Lyubimov, Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender Lars Johansson, former first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko and former Tampa Bay Lightning defender Nikita Nesterov, decided to sign with the KHL. The trend was first reported on by SB Nation’s Mary Clarke.
Two of the players, Lyubimov and Ilya Kovalchuk, said the Olympics played at least a part, if not the main reason, in their decision to return to the KHL, in which they have played in the past.
Ex-#Flyers F Roman Lyubimov returning to KHL on 3-year deal with CSKA Moscow. Agent Dan Milstein cites chance to play in Olympics as reason.
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) July 3, 2017
“One of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games. In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there,” Kovalchuk said July 9, via CSKA Moscow.
Kovalchuk wanted to return for the 2017-18 NHL season, but the New Jersey Devils were unable to secure a sign and trade deal for him, according to an article in Yahoo Sports on July 9.
After the NHL’s decision, the Russian Hockey Federation said on April 5 that one of its goals was to bring back Russian hockey players from the NHL so its players could compete in the Olympics.
“We accept the National Hockey League’s decision. At the moment, we are continuing our World Championship and Olympic Games preparations,” Arkady Rotenberg, the board chairman of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, said in a statement. “Now, we have two tasks. The first is to keep KHL players in Russia instead of moving to the NHL in the summer. The second task is to bring Russian players home from the NHL if their contract is expiring.”
Some Russian players — including several of the most prominent — have elected to stay in the NHL: Alexander Radulov, the Dallas Stars right wing, signed a five-year, $31.25 million contract with Dallas; Evgeny Dadonov, a wing, re-signed with the Florida Panthers for three years and $12 million; and forward Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year deal worth $9 million with the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said he thought about playing in the KHL this season, but instead re-signed with the Caps for eight years, $62.4 million.
It’s unknown if players who are under contract, such as Alex Ovechkin, will defy the NHL and play in the Olympics anyway.