Of Stars and Playoff Berths
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Yes, it's amazing to watch the Phoenix Coyotes vying for first in the west. Folks will be reading this as a comment on the coaching and ownership abilities of Wayne Gretzky, and you can see why.
But in terms of departed star power and its results, it's hard to look past the Atlanta Thrashers, who seemed to be giving up on their season when sniper Ilya Kovalchuk was dealt to the New Jersey Devils but instead have now closed to within one point of an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
The Thrashers swept the stumbling, goaltender-less Flyers over the weekend after beating both Buffalo and Ottawa last week and are hot on the trail of eighth place Boston. While ex-Leafs may be killing the Calgary Flames — could you believe Vesa Toskala got the start last night in Minny? — they're powering the Thrashers' playoff drive as Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina play key roles.
GM Don Waddell took the public hit for not signing Kovalchuk, but the reality was this wasn't a team that could pay one player $9- or $10 million a season and hope to flourish. Now, without Kovalchuk, they're playing better hockey.
So much for star power.
Meanwhile, Kovalchuk's future as an unrestricted free agent will be fascinating to watch. He didn't exactly light it up last week when he came to town with the Devils. Despite all the talk that the KHL will come calling with an offer of $15 million a season, some attendance numbers out of the IIHF this morning provided some sobering news about just how big the Russia-based league actually is.
St. Petersburg leads the KHL in attendance and they only draw about 9,400, sixth best in all of Europe and less than half of what the top European team, Bern in Switzerland, draws. AK Bars Kazan, one of the better known franchises, has average attendance of around 5,000 a game. Avangard Omsk employs Jaromir Jagr and attracts about 9,200 per match.
Given these numbers — the KHL is ambitiously looking to expand to the Czech Republic and Sweden — you have to wonder about exactly how real the threat is that somebody is going to come calling with huge money to throw at Kovalchuk. His agent, Jay Grossman, is no doubt thrilled to have the KHL as leverage, but it will be interesting if he can use a Russian team to create a bidding war for a player only a handful of NHL clubs — if that — will care to throw big money offers at.
The dwindling number of Russians that are in the NHL seem inclined to stay here. That includes Nikolai Kulemin of the Maple Leafs, who in a story by Paul Hunter of The Star on the weekend said he's not looking to jump back to his homeland as a free agent this summer.
Right now there are only 26 Russians in the NHL, about a third of the number there were a decade ago. Whether the KHL actually ever becomes a rival league to the NHL is a story that has yet to play out.