Nine Euro rookies on NHL ice

Top prospects and late-bloomers crack opening-night rosters


18-year-old Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman (here against Canada's Colten Teubert) was the player with the most ice time in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first game. Photo: Phillip MacCallum / HHOF-IIHF Images

A group of nine Europeans was among the rookies when the NHL season started. It included three U20 players, like top-rated defenceman Victor Hedman, who have the talent to make it directly to the NHL, and six players who took a different path.

While 30 Europeans rookies have signed entry-level contracts with NHL teams – the lowest number in many years and a 44-percent decrease to last year’s 54 players – only nine of them were still with their respective teams when the season started in the first week of October.

Click here for the full list of NHL-Europe transfers.

Three players who came from Sweden were sent back to the Elitserien after the NHL camp; Andreas Engqvist (Djurgården), Henrik Karlsson (Färjestad) and Danish forward Philip Larsen (Frölunda). This to ensure them ice time at a high level and in their normal environment, as opposed to sending them to minor-league teams.

Three players were assigned to Canadian junior teams while 15 players were sent to the American Hockey League.

Since the report on NHL signings on August 7, eight new players had signed a contract, five of them from Russia. The lack of an international transfer agreement and confusion about the KHL rules on restricted free agents kept the NHL GMs’ hands off the Russian league for most of the off-season.

Also; there was only one Russian among the first 50 draftees in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft with Florida’s Dmitri Kulikov.

Another noticeable fact is that only three of the nine NHL newbies are U20 players while the other players are between 23 and 28 years of age and apart from one exception, they achieved their NHL maturity at home in European professional leagues. Some of them are classic late-bloomers who were even not considered for the junior national team during their junior career.

The nine new Europeans on the NHL rosters come from Finland (2), Russia (2) and Sweden (5).

Ilkka Pikkarainen, forward, born 1981, Finland, is still with the New Jersey Devils but was on injury reserve due to flu. He had his first shifts in the NHL on Monday when he got 6:41 minutes of ice times. Pikkarainen has never played at a World Championship or in the World Juniors but he had a breakthrough season with HIFK Helsinki in 2008-2009 as their top goal scorer with 24 goals.

Mika Pyörälä, forward, born 1981, Finland, is like Pikkarainen a late-bloomer. He had his breakthrough at age 25 with Kärpät Oulu when he made Finland’s World Championship team for the first time. He played in Sweden for Timrå the last two years, becoming the team’s scoring leader and a top-ten goal scorer in the league. He played in the Philadelphia Flyers’ first two games.

Dmitri Kulikov, defenceman, born 1990, Russia, was Russia’s only first-rounder in this year’s NHL draft. Until the age of 17 he played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s third-tier team before going over to Canada where he played one season for the QMJHL’s Voltigeurs de Drummondville, becoming defencemen of the year and rookie of the year in the league. Having had a rather defensive role at the World U20s and World U18s, he impressed with his talent as an offensive d-man last season and also in the Florida Panthers’ pre-season what earned him a contract on September 29. He logged an average 18:33 minutes of ice time in the first two games.

Sergei Shirokov, forward, born 1986, Russia, left CSKA Moscow with lots of noise. The famous army team was desperately looking to keep its young top scorer, who represented Russia in two World U20 Championships. However, Shirokov was looking to become released from his disputed RFA status to find another KHL team, but lost his case at the Russian sports court. He decided to leave Russia to try his luck in North America and was one of the most eye-catching newcomers in the Vancouver Canucks camp. He played in the Canucks’ first three games.

Johan Backlund, goalkeeper, born 1981, Sweden, was already signed in March by the Philadelphia Flyers. Backlund was originally sent to the farm team but was called up after just one game with the Adirondack Phantoms. He’s currently backing up the Flyers’ new starting goalkeeper Ray Emery after Brian Boucher has suffered a minor injury. Backlund never played at the World Juniors and didn’t have his first Elitserien game until he was 22. Three years later he made it to the leagues’ All-Star Team and became the number-one goalie for Tre Kronor in the 2007 World Championship. He played for Timrå the last three years with a save percentage of around 91 each year since 2005.

Jonas Gustavsson, goalkeeper, born 1984, Sweden, nicknamed “The Monster”. He made the highest Swedish league at the age of 23 when he transferred from second-tier team AIK Stockholm to Färjestad Karlstad. After two years he suddenly developed into a bona-fide star. His second year with Färjestad was his first as a number-one goalkeeper with a Swedish top team. He was one of the best players of his team that won the Swedish league last year. And he also became number one in his first World Championship this year, winning the bronze. He was chased by NHL teams after his meteoric rise and got a $2.5m contract as Toronto’s backup goalie. He replaced Vesa Toskala during the second Maple Leaf game, a 6-4 defeat in Washington.

Victor Hedman, defenceman, born 1990, Sweden, was the highest-rated European draft pick this year, selected second overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning after John Tavares. He’s one of the rare defencemen who combine size (1.98m / 6’6”) and speed. He was a tower in Sweden’s defence at the World Juniors while winning the silver both in 2008 and 2009, and he even played seven exhibition games with the men’s national team. He was the second-best defenceman in scoring with his native MODO Örnsköldsvik in the Swedish Elitserien and ranked third overall in the plus/minus stats with a +21 rating. Hedman could become a franchise player for the Lightning. He already had a record 26:27 minutes of ice time in the first game, and an assist point.

Erik Karlsson, defenceman, born 1990, Sweden, was Ottawa’s first-round pick in 2008. He stayed one more year in Sweden despite going through the CHL Import Draft to have a second year with the Frölunda Gothenburg organization and he became one of the top rookies in the Swedish Elitserien. He also won the Best Defenceman Award at the 2009 World U20 Championship. Karlsson is an offensive-minded defender who already had 17:41 minutes of ice time and an assist in his first game with the Ottawa Senators.

Viktor Stålberg, forward, born 1986, Sweden, was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in April following a career in college hockey. Stålberg, whose last junior team was Frölunda Gothenburg, spent the last three years at the University of Vermont where he studied business along with playing hockey. Not being seen as a huge prospect in Sweden for many years, he went an unusual way for a Swedish youngster, but he caught up in size, technique and most notably in skating during the past five years. He had an assist in his first NHL game against Montreal.

Adding to the 30 new players who signed an NHL entry-level contract, there were also 20 returnees from Europe to sign with an NHL team, however, only three of them stayed with their NHL teams after the rosters were trimmed for the season-opener.

Canadian goalkeeper Ray Emery became Philadelphia’s number one after his exile year with Russia’s Atlant Mytishchi following his ups and downs in Ottawa. Swedish forward Rickard Wallin is having a comeback in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs after four years back in Europe (Sweden, Switzerland). He was in the Minnesota Wild organization 2002-2005, playing 19 NHL games and 208 AHL games.

The third successful returnee is Canadian defenceman Mark Popovic. He was one of numerous try-out players in the camps who came from Europe, but the only who also got a contract when the Atlanta Thrashers signed him last week. He played the last season for SKA St. Petersburg in Russia. He spent three years each in the organizations of Anaheim and Atlanta before, but appeared in only 44 NHL games.





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