Wednesday December 17th, 2014

Off The Draw

Is this how the KHL ends? Not from a failed competition with the NHL but as a result of Saudi Arabia's confrontational oil production policies? That's the concern as league officials meet today to discuss an across-the-board salary cut and other dramatic measures in response to crushing economic pressures that are ravaging Russia's economy and the viability of the league.

The KHL is in real trouble here. The league has never had a practical business model, at least not one we'd recognize in North America where such things as cheap tickets and sparse attendance would eventually empty the coffers and put an end to the business.

Things are different in Russia. In that system, teams are propped up by “business arrangements” with local governments or national companies, including global oil giant Gazprom. Without that support, the math doesn't work and players don't get paid.

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That's the reality for many of them now as those localities and corporations have larger issues than local hockey clubs to deal with. The Russian economy is in tatters as a result of falling oil prices along with other factors, including U.S.-led economic sanctions enacted as punishment for Russia's military incursion into Ukraine. That's led to the abandonment of some sponsorship deals that has left three teams on the verge of collapse and others scrambling to deal with the new, and constantly shifting, economic picture.

Consider the involvement of Gazprom. That company pumped two billion rubles into the coffers of SKA St. Petersburg and Avangard Omsk just last summer. At the time, the commitment was worth $57 million in U.S. dollars. Today? It's just over $30 million ... if the entire sum ends up being honored.

The lack of funds has led to players and coaches missing paychecks and that's led to wildcat strikes. So far those protests have been short-lived, but the likelihood of them becoming something more damaging to the league grows if salaries are unilaterally cut today.

But while drastic cuts or missed checks may mean the exodus of lower-level foreign players, don't expect high-profile stars like SKA's Ilya Kovalchuk or CSKA Moscow's Alexander Radulov to come crawling back to the NHL ... at least, not yet. Even if their clubs suffer, players like them will be made whole because of their importance to the brand.

You have to wonder, though, what impact salary cuts will have on the quality of play in the league and whether home cooking will offer enough appeal to counter the prospect of facing ECHL-level competition night after night.

We could know more later today. Stay tuned.

What to watch tonight

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Bruins at Wild (8 p.m. EST; NBCSN)

“We played a pretty decent game against a team that has been pretty good,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Tuesday night's shootout loss in Nashville. It was a fair assessment of his team's performance and a damning condemnation of a group that doesn't seem to sense what desperate straits it is in. The Bruins have won just two of their last 10 games and while they're often competitive there's clearly something missing from this season's mix that can't be attributed to injuries or inexperience. Each passing loss then moves them closer to a shakeup of some significance. A loss tonight in Minnesota could be the last gasp for this group.

If anything is working for the B's lately it's the play of Reilly Smith. The inconsistent winger is on a tear, scoring four goals in his past five games including the tying marker that earned Boston a point last night in Nashville.

Minnesota is dealing with inconsistency issues of its own, but they bode well for tonight's game. After dropping a 5-3 decision to Chicago last night, the Wild have alternated wins and losses during their past 12 games. They also have a stunning historical advantage over Boston, winning 12 of 15 all-time matchups after a 4-3 win on Oct. 28 in Boston that saw Minnesota score three third-period goals to steal the victory on the road.

The Bruins will have to keep a close eye on Zach Parise, who has nine points in his last eight games, but Boston could get a break between the pipes. With both Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper fighting illness, the Wild may be forced to call up an emergency backstop from Iowa.

Rest of the schedule: Senators at Devils (7 p.m. EST; TVA, SN, MSG+); Stars at Canucks (10 p.m. EST; SN, FS-SW+)

What you missed last night

• Rick Nash continued to light the lamp as his Rangers torched the skidding Flames.

• How about those Maple Leafs? (Highlights)

• If you're going to the shootout, you might as well make it worth the record setting effort the Capitals and Panthers put in on Tuesday night. (Highlights)

• The injury bug continued to bite the Jets, who nevertheless laid a rout on the surging Sabres. (Highlights

• A couple of notable players sent headwear flying in their respective arenas.

• The Kings unveiled the threads they'll wear for their Feb. 21 Stadium Series tilt against the Sharks. 

The numbers game

• Someone (apparently in Latvia) loves them some Zemgus. For third week in a row Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons tops the 2015 NHL All-Star Game fan vote with a grand total of 1,089,865—and enjoys a hefty lead over Chicago's Patrick Kane (586,310). 

• Before the Panthers and Capitals went 20 rounds deep into their skills competition on Tuesday night, the NHL record for longest shootout was 15, and the Capitals were also involved. That time they were victimized by Marek Malik of the Rangers, who scored the decisive tally in the 15th round on Nov. 26, 2005. 

• In Tuesday night's epic shootout, records for most combined goals (11), most goals by one team (6, Panthers) and most saves by a goalie (Roberto Luongo, Panthers, 15) were also set.

Hot links

• Sidney Crosby was vaccinated against the mumps 10 days ago. So how did he end up getting sick anyway?

• SI.com's Sarah Kwak talked to Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and looked into another, more dangerous condition that has afflicted several NHL players in recent years: blood clots

• I've never seen a picture of a post-goal celebration quite like this one.

• Check out this video tribute to Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia last night.

• What would make an Olympic medalist turn down a career in the NHL? Love, of course.

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