In my last post you'll see I praised Gary Bettman for his ability to execute on the NHL's strategy for the game's growth in the U.S. However the counter point to that argument, as was mentioned in the comments, is that with three lockouts in his tenure Bettman has also done quite a lot to harm the game. It's a valid point, and one that is highlighted by all the recent drama surrounding star Russian players and their alleged desire to remain in the KHL.
What I'm going to prove in this post is not something wildly revolutionary -- I think it's something most speculate has been happening, but I have yet to see any hard statistics on the matter.
We've all seen the headlines where Russian players are supposedly considering the KHL as more than just a temporary stay during the lockout. It's all but been confirmed now that Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, both of whom were surrounded by rumours they wanted to remain in Russia, will in fact return to the NHL.
However, after watching some interviews, I find the players' tone and body language telling. Kovalchuk seems almost deflated. Also, both Kovalchuk and Datsyuk make repeated mentions to their NHL contract when stating that they will go back to the NHL. Almost like it's a mandatory pre-curser to saying they will go back. It is a bit concerning as it would appear the rumours hold a lot of a truth. They likely are strongly considering staying, or maybe returning to Russia to play in the KHL. For Datsyuk it sounded like something he would have to decide once his current contract is over.
Recently, Gonchar was interviewed on Sens TV where he made the usual points when Russian players talk about the KHL: it's great to play close to home in front of friends and family, good to be in your home country etc., but not the NHL. But he also made a point to mention the KHL has improved significantly from what he remembered in the last lockout (though at the time it was the Russian Super League). This last point is the most concerning for the NHL and for it's fans.
Let me point out, I have nothing against Russian players and I certainly respect their desire to play in their home country. If I were in their shoes, I would be weighing the same options. It makes a lot of sense; why leave your home country, learn a new language, live with new people, all for a shot at the NHL when you could potentially earn the same living closer to home without taking the same risks? It's quite easy to see the attraction, as I'm sure you all already knew.
But it is concerning for the NHL and for us fans mainly because we like to watch the best game possible and that means having the best players from around the world come cater to us here in North America. Selfish? Most definitely. Entertaining? Of course.
So let's take a look at what's been happening over the past 8 or 9 years to the makeup of the NHL. After looking at the nation of origin for NHL players from 2002-2011, something really stood out (besides what I mentioned about American players in my previous post). There has been a steady decline in the number of NHL players coming from some key European hockey markets. The Czech Republic, Russia, Slovakia and Finland have all seen a decline from 2002-2011. Here's the stats below:
Czech: -31 (-42%)
Russia: -25 (-44%)
Slovakia: -21 (-21%)
Finland: -8 (-60%)
Add all those up, and you have a decline of 85 players from these countries, meanwhile the number of Americans increased by 94. It would appear the NHL is becoming more and more dominated by North American players. So what's causing this? Are players from those countries simply not as skilled as they once were? It wouldn't appear so. Finland won Bronze over Slovakia in the 2010 Olympics, while in 2006 Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic won Gold, Silver and Bronze respectively. Meanwhile, at the World Juniors, Russia has won a medal in 8 of the last 10 tournaments.
What can this mean then, if there are still many skilled players coming from those countries while their NHL membership is in strong decline? It means that skilled players are opting instead to play in Europe and the level of skill in the NHL may be eroding.
Most telling of all however is what happened with Russian players in the NHL after the last lockout. From the 2003-2004 season to the 2005-2006 season, the number of Russian players in the NHL dropped by 17 -- that was a drop of 30%! Over the past few years it appears to have stabilized, but it will be very interesting to see what happens in the next 2-3 years as a result of this lockout. Though, the fact that the CBA is a 10 year deal may mitigate some potential erosion.
The bottom line though, is if fans, players, and the league are wondering if lockouts are having a long term negative impact on the quality of play in the NHL, the answer is unequivocally yes. This should be keeping league executives up at night.