The EIHL’s Lockout Lottery

I was planning not to blog again until Media Day for the Blaze on Tuesday-indeed the Blaze related Twitter feeds and all other club media over the weekend has been full of the arrival of the players from North America, reports of team meetings and players themselves tweeting about settling in. The first preseason game is in Cardiff on Wednesday, although the team will start the season one import down as Mike Danton’s visa issues mean he has been unable to travel.
However, my attention three days before the season starts, contrary to what you would think, has been focused not on my team’s preparations but outside the city and indeed the UK and what it’s found has made my thoughts run in an interesting direction, Elite League-wise.
Recently news has emerged that teams in two of the top leagues in Europe have agreed that there will be no part-season contracts offered to NHL players in the event of a lockout.
The teams in Sweden’s Elitserien and Russia’s KHL have made league-wide agreements that players signed at the season start will not be released in favour of NHL players who come looking for employment in the event of a lockout.
So far they are the only two leagues in Europe to take such a stance. One league that has already publicly shown its hand in opposition to this “NHLers all season or not at all” stance is the Swiss NLA. SJ’s Joe Thornton and New York Rangers’ Rick Nash have signed contingency contracts with HC Davos, which states that they will play for them in the event the NHL season is delayed or cancelled.
But there is a chance other top European leagues like Germany’s DEL, & Finland’s SM-Liiga could follow the Swedes and Russians. A poll by The Hockey News of Finnish NHLers reveals that most Finns don’t want to play in their homeland in the event the NHL shuts, adopting an “all or nothing” attitude.
All this leaves an interesting dilemma if you’re a coach in an import-limited, second tier Euro league, just like the EIHL. Especially if, like several teams, you have foreign-player spaces free on the roster still.
With NHL stars possibly being frozen out of most of their first-choice fallback destinations, is it worth gambling on being able to sign players far above the standard you could usually hope for-and if a lockout happens, how loyal do you stay to those imports who have committed to your club already?
This question may loom larger in Coventry’s mind over the coming weeks. The club has remained committed to bringing Mike Danton in despite his visa issues, both publicly and privately, but if the NHL doesn’t sort itself out before the CBA’s Sep 15th deadline and locks out, there will suddenly be a lot of players looking for jobs.
If Danton’s appeal drags on into late September and the Blaze start badly, loyalties may be tested by the availability of players both better and easier to get into the country.
Decisions will have to be made by Paul Thompson and other British coaches, particularly with a wider and deeper talent pool to choose from thanks to the Swedes and Russian teams ruling themselves out of the lockout cattle market.
The question is not-do EIHL teams want to sign NHL players in the event of a lockout? That answer is simple-Yes. Any team wants to get better if they can, and NHL standard players will have a huge effect in doing that.
The question is “how much are they willing to risk to do so?”
Personally, I can’t see any Elite League team not using all the resources they can-nor can I see any team holding over empty spots purely in anticipation of a lockout that may still not happen, even after the developments in other leagues.
Blaze’s loyalty to Danton, preferring to wait in hope of a successful visa appeal rather than sign another player or indeed leave the slot open is both laudable in the cutthroat world of British hockey and an example of the “better the devil you know” school of planning, even if it may leave the team weaker than planned at season start.
Other teams in Britain will probably take the same approach, for now. But I will be watching events across the pond even more closely over the next three weeks or so.
The recent SEL and KHL announcements mean that Paul Thompson and the other Elite League coaches will be doing the same, knowing that tough decisions could be on the horizon in the near future. and players coming into Britain will have to perform immediately. How both teams and the players respond to the questions posed in this article could be one of the most intriguing storylines in the early part of the 2012/13 season.

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