Photo: Elsa/Getty Images
St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka has signed a three-year contract with the KHL’s Avangard Omsk. It’s been reported by iSport.cz and translated to Russian by Sports.ru that Sobotka has a clause in his contract that would allow him to return to the NHL during any offseason. Reports of his salary have varied: the initial report by iSport had Sobotka’s salary at $4 million per year. Andy Strickland of CBS Sports Radio St. Louis tweeted that according to his sources Sobotka will be making $4.3 million average throughout the life of the deal. Sobotka’s agent Darryl Wolski tweeted that his client will be making just $2.8 million per year.
There’s even more confusion as to whether he could return to St. Louis or any other NHL team.
The following is based on a Twitter discussion with Tyler Dellow aka @mc79hockey. Even though I’m an Avangard fan, I have no horse in this race — since Sobotka may be gone next year anyway, I have no rooting interest in him remaining a Blue or joining any other NHL team, unless it’s the Capitals.
Sobotka signed a KHL contract while an NHL restricted free agent. At 27, he would become an unrestricted free agent in the NHL had he signed a one-year contract with St. Louis.
In most cases, signing a contract overseas doesn’t affect player’s UFA age. Leo Komarov was an unrestricted free agent this year after playing for Dynamo Moscow this past season. Viktor Tikhonov will be a UFA next year despite spending the last few years with SKA St. Petersburg.
But Sobotka is a special case. The Blues filed for club-elected arbitration, which practically means a player is a lock to play for them next year since he’s not eligible for offer sheets and neither side has a right to walk away from the deal.
However, until the contract is signed, the player remains a free agent as far as the international player movement is concerned.
Even though KHL regulations describe a similar situation (just reversed), they, unlike the NHL CBA, also provide a solution: if a current club of a player under 21 years of age offers him a certain raise, he would no longer be eligible to receive offer sheets from other teams. However, according to the KHL legal regulations, if such a player moves to another league, the player’s current club holds his rights only until he reaches unrestricted free agency age. Therefore, the player’s obligation to sign with a club doesn’t affect when he reaches the unrestricted free agency.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong said Sobotka owes a year of service to the Blues and will fulfill it when or if he returns to the NHL.
But what are the NHL’s options in regard to this situation?
Solution 1: Sobotka’s contract with the Blues is registered by the NHL. They give him “defected” status, which means he will have to fulfill his contractual obligations with the Blues before hitting open market. The NHL expects Sobotka to report to the training camp and play for the Blues. If– or once— he doesn’t report, he will be suspended and his contract will be tolled (paused until Sobotka comes back to America). It has happened before with Jiri Hudler, who was awarded a contract with the Red Wings after leaving to sign with Dynamo Moscow in 2009.
Obstacle: Such actions would violate the KHL/NHL Memorandum of Understanding (which didn’t exist at the time of the Hudler signing). The memo states, “Both parties recognize and support the main principle: players under contract with a club from one league cannot fulfill any obligation to a club from another league during the term of the player’s contract.” While, according to the same Memorandum, each side reserves the right to act as they see fit should negotiations between the leagues not lead to a consensus, the KHL has a precedent of a legal victory negotiating with NHL. That’s what happened when Nikolai Prokhorkin’s contract with the Los Angeles Kings was terminated due to an existing contract between Prokhorkin and CSKA Moscow. That situation, however, is different in the sense that Prokhorkin had no obligation to sign with the Kings like Sobotka will have following an arbitrator’s decision.
Solution 2: Sobotka’s contract with the Blues is registered by the NHL, but the league doesn’t expect him to play. He will still be considered “defected” and his contract will be tolled.
Obstacle: While it could be argued that since there’s no “obligation to a club from another league” the MOU hasn’t been broken, it’d create a precedent that’s dangerous for the NHL and the NHLPA: a standard player’s contract (SPC) that is a part of CBA and cannot be amended (as per CBA Article 11.1) explicitly states: “The Player further agrees… to report to his Club’s Training Camp… to play hockey only for the Club.” Such a violation of league’s basic rules could lead to a situation in which sides would no longer feel obligated to follow the terms of the contracts.
Solution 3: The league does not register the Blues’ contract with Sobotka.
Obstacle: As stated above, neither side has walkaway rights when it comes to the contracts handed out as a result of a club-elected salary arbitration process. Therefore the league that does not register the contract would violate CBA Article 12.5, which calls the arbitrator’s decision “binding on the parties” and states that “[t]he Club and the Player shall sign an SPC promptly thereafter.” By not registering Sobotka’s contract due to his existing deal, the NHL would stand in the way of its own rules while complying with MOU. Sobotka would then become an unrestricted free agent next year.
Solution 4: The Blues loan Sobotka to Avangard.
Obstacle: While there’s no rule preventing it, it definitely kills the purpose of arbitration for the Blues. During the loan, player’s contract keeps on running as if no such loan took place and Sobotka’s contract is likely to be just one-year long because the player selects the term in the club-elected arbitration. The best case scenario for the Blues is to get Sobotka some time right before or during the playoffs once Avangard is eliminated from the postseason. Next summer, he would become an unrestricted free agent.
There’s no perfect solution for this case. Either way, the NHL will have to break some rules, either the letter or the spirit of it. I fully expect to handle Sobotka like they did with Hudler — suspend him and toll his contract so he can’t come back as a free agent.