Sunday, January 3, 2010
He's Out of My League: Jagr's Like the Wind
So now that Jaromir Jagr has spent a couple of seasons in the KHL, I think it gives us ample time to understand the quality of this upstart league. Through 88 games played for Omsk Avangard, Jagr has posted 39 goals and 80 points (and 92 penalty minutes). The team itself was middle-of-the-pack in the KHL, with mediocre offense and a mediocre defense to match it. Jagr had played with Omsk before; add that to about 7 million other untaxed reasons a year and that's your explanation for why he would want to play there, in the heart of Siberia. At the time, at least one blog suggested this would be a great opportunity for him to tutor Rangers 1st rounder Alexander Cherapanov, and we all know how that panned out.
It's also possible he wanted to sow his wild oats as he had done before in Omsk, even though last time he threw down in Siberia he got his ass handed to him. Twice.
Aside from Jagr's unusual story, most of the players in the KHL are viewed as second-hand players, guys who either didn't draw enough interest from the NHL, didn't want to leave, or had played their way out of North America. Yet what we see is that guys like Jagr, who ended the 2007-08 NHL season with 25 goals and 71 points (and was only one year removed from a 96 point season), are hardly putting up a point per game in Russia. Jiri Hudler, fresh off a 57 point season in the NHL, is under a point-per with Moscow Dynamo, one of the best teams in the league.
At the same time, you have guys like Alexei Morozov, Marcel Hossa, and Mattias Weinhandl, all failed NHLers, near the top of the KHL scoring leaderboards. So I temper myself when I suggest that this isn't just another European league. But I do think that the KHL is stronger than what we've seen overseas. Some of the guys who couldn't hack it in the NHL can't over there either (Viktor Kozlov, Oleg Kvasha, Oleg Saprykin). Nikolai Zherdev has only 25 points in 39 games.
Some of this low scoring is actually a problem for the entire KHL; the league has a large number of goalies with at least 15 games played and a GAA under 2.20 (9). And really, the goalies are where you see a lot of the disparity between the NHL and KHL; Robert Esche, Martin Gerber, Michael Garnett, and Karri Ramo have all found success there (though Tyler Moss, Mikael Tellqvist, Martin Prusek, and Nolan Schaefer have not).
One of the curiosities of the league is that the PIM leaderboard is filthy with former NHLers. Last season, the top 5 PIM leaders were:
1. Chris Simon
2. Martin Grenier
3. Tomas Kloucek
4. Darcy Verot
5. Branislav Mezei
Now these guys were no saints, but they also didn't join Russell Crowe's "Fightin 'Round the World." The first Russian on the list had 120 fewer PIM than Simon. This season, Verot is already on record pace, with one less PIM (262 PIM) than Simon had all of last year, despite playing only half the number of games. You know, maybe these guys do deserve it.
All in all, Jagr's moderate success and the above observations indicate that the KHL has a lot of the same quirks and challenges of the NHL. With these statistics, I'm inclined to believe that the best team in the KHL could give at least one of the top 10 teams in the NHL a run for its money, which is saying a lot for a league in its second year that was formed out of an NHL feeder-league over 10 years old. For every naysayer that points to Kevin Dallman's success over there (he of 154 NHL games and 31 points), I could counter with Alexander Radulov being its best player, a scenario he could have played out here, too. For every Robert Esche shutout (he has 4 this year, and had 9 last year), I could identify four former NHLers that can't hack it there (Fedor Fedorov, Nikita Alexeev, Niko Kapanen, Trevor Letowski). So let's give credit where it's due: this is a strong league, Putin-judo-skills strong, and will only get stronger as the contracts match the NHL's and a generation of European players see it as a legitimate option.
And for Martin Kariya's sake, let's hope they don't get hurt.
P.S. Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze.
http://en.khl.ru/ - Take a look for some of the delightful stats I've mentioned above.