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Mar. 01, 2010 - Chris Gates

NHL is only place for prospects

From the looks of it, the National Hockey League is going to stay the best league in the world for a long time to come.

Although the emergence of the Kontinental Hockey League, or KHL, has stolen away some high-profile veterans, most coaches believe prospects still aim their goals at making the NHL.

“I think a lot of players in North America, and even in Europe, as players, want to play the best hockey possible and in the best league possible…at the highest level,” Coach Mike Foligno of the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League said. “The highest level of hockey today…all eyes and fingers point to the NHL. It’s been that way for a long time and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

“The NHL is one of the best leagues in the world and I think that any hockey players that aspire to play at the highest level are still going to be focused on playing at the NHL level.”

Most players to leave for the KHL, for the most part, have been veterans of the NHL. Jiri Hudler, Sergei Zubov, Sergei Fedorov and Richard Zednik are the most notable names to sign in the KHL after playing the 2008-09 season in the NHL.

Others have left the NHL because of careers that fizzled in the American Hockey League.

But very few have traveled straight from a major junior career to the KHL.

“The North American kids, I don’t think you’re gonna see Canadians and Americans heading over there,” Coach Chris Byrne of the Ottawa 67’s said. “Until a certain age, you’re not even allowed to not play junior and go over there. So I don’t see that as happening.

“I think with some of the younger European prospects, if they don’t get to play in the NHL they might be making choices to stay and play in that league.”

The only such impact coaches and officials see as a possibly legitimate threat is to the major junior league’s import drafts. Many players overseas may opt to play closer to home in the KHL.

Still, coaches believe that the NHL is at the forefront of most players’ minds — North American or not.

It didn’t hurt to see Team Canada and Team USA play for the gold medal in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, either. Both teams had rosters 100 percent from the NHL. And Canada defeated Russia handily, 7-3, when Russia had eight KHL players on its roster.

“The KHL is still in its infancy stage,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something that [for] our players…[is] even on their radar. I think their goal is to play in the National Hockey League. Saying that, we do have an import draft. It could affect our import players (that we) bring over here for a year.”

On June 25th, we’ll find out.