RALEIGH, N.C. | The Washington Capitals are facing a new threat in the battle to re-sign several of their key players - an upstart Russian league hungry for NHL talent.
According to reports, Viktor Kozlov - one of the team's four unrestricted free agents - has signed with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League, which recently completed its first year of operation. Meanwhile, two others reportedly have been in talks with KHL franchises.
In the past two days, French-language sports network RDS has reported Kozlov's deal with Ufa as well as a two-year, $7.6 million offer to Sergei Fedorov from Magnitogorsk.
Washington general manager George McPhee said Tuesday afternoon he had no confirmation of Kozlov agreeing to a contract and offered no official update on negotiations with Fedorov.
"I try to keep from commenting on who we might or might not want back," McPhee said. "We just have to make the decisions that we feel are the ones that make sense for us. ... [The various reports] don't really impact what we want to do. We're not even as far along as [the media] because we don't read that stuff."
During the team's playoff run, Russian newspaper Sport-Express reported that Donald Brashear was on the verge of signing with Chekov of the KHL, the successor to the now-defunct Russian Super League.
Typically, the Caps would have until the July deadline to negotiate with their pending free agents, but the KHL's season is over, and teams are trying to build their rosters for next season. Last summer, KHL teams made overtures to several NHL players and landed free agents like Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin.
Ufa also signed Nashville's Alexander Radulov, who was under contract at the time with the Predators. The NHL and the Predators objected to the move, but Radulov ended up playing the season in Russia. There is no written transfer agreement between the leagues - just a tenuous gentlemen's agreement.
"I don't think it really forces anyone's hands," McPhee said. "If it doesn't work or make sense for our club, then we just have to move on. We can't worry about any outside forces."
Added Slava Malamud, a journalist for Sport-Express: "There has been a precedent set with the Radulov situation. If a KHL team can sign him even though he was under contract with an NHL team, then anything is possible. There is an agreement in place, but the KHL teams don't feel obligated to wait until a player is a free agent by NHL rules."
Fedorov defected from the former Soviet Union to play for the Detroit Red Wings and has scored more goals than any other native Russian in NHL history. He joined the Caps last year at the trade deadline and instantly became a team leader both on and off the ice.
He signed a one-year, $4 million deal to play this past season, but if the reported offer from Magnitogorsk is correct, the Caps probably would not be able to come close to matching it.
There are a couple of reasons Fedorov could be interested in moving to the KHL. His younger brother, Fedor, will play for Magnitogorsk next season. And joining one of the top teams in Russia might give him more of a chance to showcase his abilities to those in charge of selecting the national team for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"Anything to create headlines for the league is good," Malamud said. "The KHL is still a fledgling league, and they are still trying to create a culture in Russia. Any kind of publicity that will make headlines in the newspapers is a positive.
"Right now the KHL is positioned to sign mostly leftovers from the NHL, but with a guy like Fedorov, he is a well-known name and creates publicity. In the future the KHL wants to be considered a viable alternative to the NHL, but for now guys like Jagr and Fedorov might be expensive but help sell tickets and create headlines."
Note - McPhee said the Caps have decided not to renew assistant coach Jay Leach's contract. Leach was in charge of working with the team's defensemen. Both Dean Evason (forwards) and Dave Prior (goalies) will be back.
"It was a mutual decision. [Leach] is a great guy and a fine coach," McPhee said.
This decision likely will give coach Bruce Boudreau an opportunity to hire someone he has had more previous experience coaching with. Leach, Evason and Prior also worked with former bench boss Glen Hanlon.