You can’t be an NHL fan anymore without knowing that the KHL exists. But you sure can get by knowing nothing much about it. Rumours, myths and stereotypes persist, and many fans, even fans of teams like the Leafs with multiple former KHL players, are not sure what the league is all about.
It’s in Russia, right? And the names on the jerseys are all in Cyrillic, and no one speaks English or ever gets paid. In Soviet Russia joke makes you. Right? Well, no.
Let’s tackle those persistent myths first.
The KHL, short for Kontinental Hockey League, is mostly Russian, but it has teams in seven countries and offers up its website in Russian, English and Chinese.
Because there are teams all over the non-Russian speaking parts of Europe and now in China, and because the games are televised widely, the names on the jerseys have always been in Latin script. They generally use a different transliteration for the Russian names to what the NHL uses. That doesn’t make one “right” and one “wrong”, but it does lead to confusion because the English-language twitter account and website don’t always use the same forms.
Nikita Zaitsev was Zaytsev on his jersey, but not on the website. Vadim Shipachyov is about to become Vadim Shipachev.
The rumours of money problems in the KHL are partly true, and partly exaggerated. There is a plan in place now to deal with the issue, and it’s complicated, but likely will succeed in stabilizing a league that expanded rapidly and then faced a catastrophic drop in the value of the ruble that plunged even some very well run teams into chaos.
The KHL is not about to collapse as many Canadian and American media like to report every summer as the league deals with delinquent teams. The fans gleefully imagining strip mining the league and “getting all those good players” while ignoring the rest as irrelevant aren’t going to get their wish.
The Soviet days are long past, and while many remnants of the old Soviet league that formed the genesis of the KHL linger on, mostly in team names, the league is a collection of individual businesses, just like the NHL. Some teams are very, very wealthy, and some are not, just like the NHL.
Now for some details.
The league stretches over a huge portion of the Earth, and travel times are onerous in some cities.
Scroll down to the interactive KHL Geography map and see the spread of teams from Slovan in Bratislava, Slovakia in the west to, not Kunlun Red Star in Beijing, like you might have expected, but Amur in Khabarovsk, Russia. That’s the scope of the league.
CSKA (Moscow, Russia)
Dinamo Minsk (Belarus)
Dinamo Riga (Latvia)
HC Dynamo Moscow (Russia)
HC Sochi (Russia)
Jokerit (Helsinki, Finland)
Lokomotiv (Yaroslavl, Russia)
SKA (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Severstal (Cherepovets, Russia)
Slovan (Bratislava, Slovakia)
Spartak (Moscow, Russia)
Torpedo (Nizhny Novgorod, Russia)
Vityaz (Moscow Region, Russia)
Admiral (Vladivostok, Russia)
Ak Bars (Kazan, Russia)
Amur (Khabarovsk, Russia)
Avangard (Omsk Region, Russia)
Avtomobilist (Yekaterinburg, Russia)
Barys (Astana, Kazakhstan)
Kunlun Red Star (Beijing, China)
Lada (Togliatti, Russia)
Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia)
Neftekhimik (Nizhnekamsk, Russia)
Salavat Yulaev (Ufa, Russia)
Sibir (Novosibirsk Region, Russia)
Traktor (Chelyabinsk, Russia)
Ugra (Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia)
That’s a lot of teams. It’s too many, and eventually the league realized they had grown too large. They cut a few this summer, teams that were underperforming in attendance or losing too much money. The plan for the future is to cut two or three teams per summer for the next few years. This is supposed to be decided primarily on attendance, but other factors such as financing will be taken into account.
At the same time new teams will be added. The expectation is that these teams will be in China or Europe.
Along with this contraction and expansion to better markets, a salary cap mechanism with some teeth in it will be brought in, with the goal to distribute the pay to the players in a better way. This post has a great deal of detail on the situation and expands on how the payment system will be altered, and how contraction will occur. Ultimately, the goal is to stabilize at 24 teams that are successful.
The KHL tries to have teams in countries outside Russia keep their national character. Jokerit’s players are mostly Finns, Dinamo Riga is mostly Latvian, etc. This is less easy with Kunlun Red Star, and the makeup of that team is a work in progress.
But the absorption of European teams from existing leagues, like Jokerit, and the overall pace of expansion has led to large numbers of foreign players on the Russian-based teams. Once a rarity, Canadians and Americans are becoming more prominent in the league.
Elite Prospects lists 15 countries of origin for players signed to the KHL for the coming season. Most, 632, are Russian, but there are 47 Canadians, 27 Czechs, 24 Swedes and 16 Americans. From countries with teams in the league, there are 42 Finns, 32 Belarusians, 34 Kazakhs, 30 Latvians and 19 Slovaks (signed for the current season as of now, does not include goalies).
For a lot of teams, English is widely spoken as a second language, and the more that is true, the more players from countries like Canada and Sweden will go to the KHL to play. Mike Keenan might be the most famous non-Russian coach in the KHL to NHL fans, but he’s not the only one. For a full rundown on who is behind the bench on KHL teams, Patrick Conway has a list of them at his blog sorted by division.
The KHL season begins in the summer. Pre-season games begin in July, with regular season action starting in August. The playoffs are in the spring, with the Gagarin Cup handed out a couple of weeks before the IIHF World Championships in May.
The KHL is taking an Olympic break from late January through most of February this year, making that league an attractive destination this year for players hoping to be named to their national teams. They have cut the schedule to 56 games to help make that happen.
The playoffs begin a few days after the return from the break.
The playoff format is very familiar to NHL fans. The top eight teams in each conference playoff until a champion remains, and then they play for the cup.
It’s a very attractive cup.
The VHL is the farm team league, and is somewhat analogous to the AHL. The KHL is made up of teams, many of which are older than the league itself, that are part of a European-style sports club system. The club may have a soccer team, a hockey team, a bandy team and any number of other divisions, including women’s teams, junior teams and a VHL team.
The VHL is run by the Russian Hockey Federation, not the KHL. As the KHL has contracted, and will continue to do so, the VHL is absorbing some of those teams, while its own unprofitable teams are either dropped down a division or dissolved.
The dissolution this year of Dynamo Moscow’s VHL club, after winning the championship last year, was due to internal money problems at that club after a change of ownership. Eventually, the KHL team restructured to the point they can continue.
The MHL is the junior or U20 league, and most of the teams in the league are feeder teams for the KHL system. Unlike in North America, the junior system in Europe keeps a young player within a club from a young age to the top team, if they're lucky. Many top players move up at around 16 to better teams. Yegor Korshkov moved from Kazakhstan, where his father played, to Yaroslavl, and has played in the Lokomotiv system ever since.
Style of Play and League Strength
Everyone asks this: What’s the playing style like and how is it different to the NHL. This along with where does the league fit with other leagues is a very hard question to answer, and is controversial. Some North American fans sneer in angry disdain at the idea that the KHL is better than the AHL.
First, imagine answering this question the other way around. How good is the NHL? What do they play like? Are you going to answer based on the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Colorado Avalanche, the New Jersey Devils or the Chicago Blackhawks? Is the NHL fast or slow, offensive or defensive, good or bad?
It is undisputed by anyone but the biggest homer fan of another league that the KHL is the best league in Europe. But the worst teams in the KHL might well be nowhere near able to compete in the Swiss league. The best teams, the very few elite top playoff teams that have money and top players are, in my opinion, far and away better than any AHL team.
The KHL is, in general, a faster, more shooting and passing based game than you see in North America. For players coming over to the NHL, some things are very different, and I’ll quote myself from last summer’s Top 25 Under 25 comments on Nikita Zaitsev.
Now, my main concern about him: that easy glide up the neutral zone with the puck. He’s a good skater, handles the puck well, but he’s always done this on wide ice, with opposing teams who tend to fall back more and concede the zone if not the o-zone entry itself. That is not how NHL teams play. Well, the Stars do, but imagine hitting the New Jersey Devils neutral zone meat grinder when you think you’re just out for a skate? Or the Kings or the Red Wings or it just goes on and on.
When CSKA failed against Magnitka, it was because Magnitka pressured early in the neutral zone and stripped the puck off of them. This is systems stuff, and I am not saying that he cannot play how Babcock wants him to. I’m saying I don’t know because CSKA never did.
With very few exceptions, the neutral zone is easier to get through in the KHL than it is in the NHL. This is also an issue with offensively-high-flying AHL teams when they hit one of the elite level teams that defend well. So it’s partly a question of skills gap in a league that’s too large, and also a style of play that evolved on bigger ice.
One other thing I have noted over the years is that players with NHL experience shoot more. Whether this is a style difference or a skills-gap is, again, hard to say, but it looks like the general KHL style is to pass the puck until a higher-percentage play opens up.
Smaller players can have huge success in the KHL, particularly small defencemen who aren’t quite good enough for the NHL. The idea that there is no physical play in the KHL is wrong, however, board battles and corner work are much less important than in North American hockey.
Older players also succeed in the KHL. Last season a clutch of 35 year olds were leading the league in most categories outside of goaltending. The length of the season and the number of breaks and days off might explain that. 60 games with several week-long breaks is a lot easier than an NHL grind.
If you want a look at the KHL without navigating their site to pay for the games, although they are inexpensive, watch the Olympics this year. You’ll see KHL players on every top team, and you might be very surprised at how much fun they are to watch. Just, you know, be prepared for Russia to win it all.