This season has certainly been good advertising for the quality of the top-end players in the KHL. While it's a definite gamble to bet on someone having a smooth transition from the KHL to NHL, we've seen examples this season of players that were playing at an elite level in the KHL and have been practically as good in North America.
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Artemi Panarin is the poster boy of that as the 24-year-old (23 when the 2015-16 campaign began) is demonstrating that it borders on unfair to the rest of the league to lump him with the rest of the rookies. After scoring his first career hat trick on Wednesday, he now has 22 goals and 57 points in 59 contests this season, which puts him in a tie for fifth place in the league.
Granted Panarin has benefited from playing alongside Patrick Kane, who has been by far the league's best player this season, but it's not like you could stick just anyone with Kane and they'd average nearly a point-per-game. Panarin deserves credit for his accomplishments and will almost certainly get the Calder Trophy, though if anything he demonstrated that the KHL should be regarded as a major professional league for the purposes of the Calder Trophy. After all, if Wayne Gretzky wasn't eligible because he had previously played for the WHA, should Panarin be? Well, yes, absolutely, but that's because it wouldn't be fair to change the rules midseason. Looking forward to 2016-17 and beyond though, that's where I think the debate is reasonable.
Panarin isn't the only young player making his former league look good though. The man he's tied with for fifth place, Evgeny Kuznetsov, is another KHL alumnus. He's a bit of a different case given that he needed some time to transition to the NHL, but still he's only roughly two years removed from his KHL days and he's already enjoying a season where he has 16 goals and 57 points in 55 contests. And this comes after Vladimir Tarasenko posted a 73-point campaign in 2015-16 roughly two seasons removed from his time in the KHL.
Of course, I'm cherry picking glowing examples of players that made it big after getting their start in the KHL, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but it does show that the best in the KHL might also be capable of being stars in the NHL. One thing all three of them have in common though is that they are all relatively young players that were still developing. Perhaps none of them are the hockey version of Ichiro Suzuki, who found immediate success in the MLB after years of playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball because Ichiro was already in his mid-20s when he made the jump. At the same time, we're likely not going to see much in the way of elite older veterans making the shift from the KHL to NHL because most of them will be lured to North America at a younger age than that, if they are to come here at all during their prime.
We briefly touched on Kane while talking about Panarin, but he's worth highlighting further because to an extent he's spared us of last season's narrative about the decline in scoring...which is funny because this campaign's actually so much better of an example for it. In 2014-15 there was a lot of talk about how scoring was down because the scoring race was rather unimpressive and ended with Jamie Benn getting the Art Ross Trophy with 87 points, making it the first time since 1967–68 that the award went to someone with a sub-90 finish (ignoring of course the lockout shortened campaigns). The thing is though that scoring wasn't down last season so much as it was more spread out.
In 2014-15 the average team finished with 2.73 goals per game, which was down from 2013-14's mark of 2.74, but up from 2013's 2.72 and in line with 2011-12's 2.73. In other words, the 2014-15 campaign was largely in line with where the league had been for years, it's just that the top end players weren't doing as well. This season though we're averaging just 2.68 goals per team per game. That's the worst it's been since the start of the salary cap era, but I haven't seen much in the way of stories about that. Why? My suspicion is because Kane has 83 points in 61 games while Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have a strong 64 and 63 points respectively. To be fair though, perhaps we'll see more discussion about the league's decline in scoring once it doesn't have to compete with the trade deadline.
Speaking of, there weren't any NHL trades last week, but there has been some news related to the deadline. Perhaps the biggest story in that vein was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman stating in no uncertain terms that Steven Stamkos won't be traded. Yzerman also reiterated his desire to re-sign Stamkos.
This move isn't surprising, but it is worth highlighting here because I have raised the possibility of the Lightning trading Stamkos in the past. The way I see it, the worst thing that could happen for Tampa Bay is to lose a player of Stamkos' caliber for nothing by having him walk as an unrestricted free agent. That's what Yzerman risks by holding onto him now. At the same time, I can appreciate the desire to hold out hope that Stamkos will re-sign - and to be fair, Yzerman would obviously know far better than me if there's still hope of that, so maybe Yzerman's refusal to trade Stamkos can be taken as a hint in that regard.
I can also appreciate that Tampa Bay is still in the playoff race and there's got to still be the hope that the Lightning can win the Stanley Cup with Stamkos on the roster. Frankly, this doesn't look like the makings of Tampa Bay's year, but stranger things have happened and the Lightning did get all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, so it's not like this team is running on nothing but blind faith.