Promotions are a great thing. Most of the time. Sure, you occasionally get one of those annoying 'lateral' promotions where they just change your job title, or they'll ask you to do more work for the same or less money.
However, occasionally you luck out and get the best kind of promotion, one where you're given a raise without actually doing any more work. That may be what lies in the future of many NHL players.
Flirting with the Devil
It was reported towards the end of the Olympics that the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the superleague that entertains Russian fans, intends to aggressively pursue current New Jersey Devil left wing Ilya Kovalchuk when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
This may sound like a lot of puffery, which the KHL has certainly engaged in before, but don't underestimate them. When it all boils down, these kinds of decisions for players are all about their wallets, and that's where the two sides of the pond diverge.
Kovalchuk is said to be seeking the maximum money possible and a double digit number of years in his contract – similar to Alex Ovechkin's (Ovie signed a 13 year, $124 million deal two seasons ago). This notion is bolstered by the fact that, after his trade, Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell said that Ilya turned down two separate offers of 7 years/$70 million and 10 years/$101 million*.
(*The contract offer was actually reported as some unknown amount that was at least $101 million.)
The current collective bargaining agreement in the NHL prevents Ilya's contract from being any more than 20 percent of a team's payroll — which, based on this year's salary cap, would be a maximum of about $11 million a season — right around the amount of Atlanta's final offer.
Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier and Evgeni Malkin are currently the only players in the league making more than $8 million per season, so Kovalchuk has two things working against him. First, there is no way he is more valuable than any of those four players. His current expiring contract already places him in the top 15 players in the league in annual salary, and there is no reason for him to anticipate a significant raise.
Secondly, the league's GM's have seen how miserably things can go when you sink that much of your payroll into one player (see: post-lockout Tampa Bay). There is no way Kovalchuk is going to receive more than $9 million a season at the absolute most.
To Russia With Love (and Money)
The KHL, on the other hand, can offer Kovalchuk that kind of money. Many of the KHL's top owners have very deep pockets. On top of that, he can pocket more of whatever salary is in his contract. In the NHL — again, according to the current CBA — players pay back 45 percent of their salary in taxes, NHLPA dues, and the like. In the KHL, that number is only 13 percent.
As a quick example, Ovechkin's contracted salary is $9,850,000 this season. His actual take-home pay winds up being $5,417,500. In the KHL, that amount would increase to $8,569,500 in his bank account. That's a 58 percent increase in net pay without any change in salary.
With numbers like that, Kovalchuk could easily get a very significant raise, even though he's already inked to a $7.5 million a year deal here in the States.
At least part of the reason for the KHL's pursuit of Kovalchuk has been Jaromir Jagr's expressed interest in returning to the NHL. The KHL prides itself on having some big names in the league, and right now — no offense to guys like Viktor Kozlov — Jagr is pretty much that guy. That being said, why just pursue Kovalchuk?
There were rumblings during the past year about Olympiakos — one of the best and wealthiest Greek basketball teams, a KHL-type team — making a hard pursuit for LeBron James. That, in turn, led to discussion of players skipping over the NBA for Greece and a big payday. What's to stop the Kontinental Hockey League from doing the same thing?
Just look at this summer's free agents. Patrick Marleau, Olli Jokinen, Tomas Plekanec, Matt Stajan, and Alexander Frolov represent just a fraction of the available pool. Could any of them honestly say they would hesitate to sign a deal that shows the same dollar figures but gives them nearly a 60% raise due to the tax difference? I really doubt it.
Obviously we are a far cry from some mass exodus to a Russian hockey paradise, but sports are certainly all about getting all the money you can while you're healthy enough to do so. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Kovalchuk left for the KHL and other medium-to-big name players followed suit.