Europe or North America?

Jury is out on whether Niederreiter makes the right decision

16.05.2010
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Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter battles with Italy's Michael Souza during game action at the 2010 IIHF World Championship. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

COLOGNE – To go or no to go? The question of whether Europeans and especially draft-eligible teenagers should stay home to hone their skills or pack their bags for Canada and the United States to play junior hockey is one that is hotly debated on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who think the Europeans should stay look at the ratio between the number of games in Europe versus the larger number of practices, and suggest staying at home is the way to go. The flip side, the pro-North America part of the equation, says more games equal better on-the-job training. It is an apple vs. apples argument, and the consensus at the 2010 World Championship is there is no exact answer; that is all depends on the player and the situation. “There is no right or wrong,” says Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “It is kind of tough. Kids have to know their own decision and they have to decide what they want to do,” adds Slovakia general manager Petr Bondra. “For somebody, it might get work while for others it might not work at all. “If I was a kid, I would have to know whether I can be independent, if I am ready mentally to leave my home for such a long time. It is not always the player agents (who push the kids to go to North America). The parents have to be comfortable their son is ready.” Take Nino Niederreiter, a forward for Switzerland’s national team here at the World Championship. He left Switzerland last summer for Portland of the Western Hockey League, which is one of the three major junior leagues in Canada that are a main feeder system to the NHL. Niederreiter is a top pick in the NHL Draft in June and will likely go in the top 12 overall picks. But there is no guarantee being a high draft pick translates into a great NHL career. Patrik Stefan was a teenager when he left the Czech Republic for North America and his dream came true when he was the first overall pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999. Stefan bombed in the NHL and finished with 188 points in 455 games before he went back to Europe and ended his career. Would Niederreiter have developed into a top pick had he stayed in Switzerland? Or did he improve his draft stock by playing the North American game? Ralph Krueger, the former coach of the Swiss national team, thinks Niederreiter made the right decision. “I don’t think that the leagues here for that age group have the right solution,” said Krueger, who coached the Swiss for more than a decade. What happens, says Krueger, are top club teams in Europe put their 18- and 19-year-old players on their roster and then don’t play them and don’t put them into positions or situations where they can learn. “They play 10 minutes every game whereas if they go to Canada with the age limits in junior hockey, they get responsible. That is a problem with European hockey. I do not think a player who is under 21 should go up (to the elite club team) unless he is a top two line guy.” While Stefan struggled in the NHL, there are plenty of examples of current NHL stars who didn’t cross the Atlantic. They were late draft picks have had great NHL careers. The list includes Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson and Jaroslav Halak of the Montreal Canadiens. Consider Peter Forsberg’s path to the NHL. He was the sixth overall pick in 1991 but remained in Sweden for three more years to polish his game. Then there is Nicklas Lidström, who was the 53rd pick in 1989, after being snubbed in the first year of his draft eligibility the year before. Rather than head to North America right away, he stayed in Sweden two more years to develop his skills. That’s the same Nicklas Lidström who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman six times. There is no shortage of examples of Europeans who had had a successful and long career but never played in major junior. Consider this: there are 22 Europeans who have played 1000 or more games in the NHL and not a one of them played a single game of major junior hockey. But going to North America wasn’t even on the radar back then. Depending on whom you talk to, Niederreiter made the right decision or all he is doing is damaging his chance to polish his skills. But for every Niederreiter, there is a Stefan and truth be know, there is two and three times as many Europeans who went to North America, got drafted, and were never heard from again. “We had three or four other players who went to North America and had average junior careers and came back to Switzerland no better than when they left,’’ said Krueger. Slovakia coach Glen Hanlon would keep the prospect at home if the decision were his to make. “As a father, you are much better off having your son at home at the ages 16 to 18. They are important developmental years and a child should not be 4,000 miles away,” said Hanlon, who coached the NHL’s Washington Capitals. “If that was my son, knowing what I know about hockey, if I could keep my son between the ages of 16 and 18, and get good training and nutrition, with all the ice time he would get in Slovakia, I think he would be better off.” The International Ice Hockey Federation conducted a study a handful of years ago about the European exodus to the NHL. It concluded that increased NHL signings of Europeans are undermining the quality of European leagues and the European development system and could reduce the number of good prospects coming out of Europe. The IIHF study reviewed 1,200 European players who either signed with NHL teams or with a Canadian Hockey League team from 1997-2006. The IIHF concluded that NHL teams sign too many non-NHL calibre Europeans; that too many Europeans who are potentially of NHL calibre but not yet NHL-ready are signed prematurely; the quality of European-trained NHL players remaining with their European clubs until they are NHL-ready is "vastly superior" to Europeans who spent significant time in the minor leagues or in the Canadian major junior system; and the recruiting of underdeveloped European players is a threat to the quality of the top European leagues and to the European development system because European clubs can't adequately replace the players. If the NHL Draft is the measuring stick, then the NHL has changed its ways. In 2000, 123 Europeans were drafted by the NHL but the number trickled to 36 in 2007 and increased slightly last year to 41, mostly because of a jump in the number of Swedes taken in the draft. What is interesting and concerning to both NHL and European officials is the drop in the number of players taken from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both longtime hockey countries. In 2008, there weren’t any Slovaks taken in the draft, and five were picked last year. There were three Czechs picked in 2008 and three 2009. It is worth mentioning that the Czech Republic and Slovakia had the most draft-eligible players over the last handful of years flee to North America of all the Euro hockey countries. Jari Kurri, the general manager of Finland’s World Championship team, is worried that more and more Finn teens might start looking to major junior hockey as a short cut to the NHL. “We have been talking about that in Finland and that is something I am worried about, they leave too early. They are still very young and they still need to train a lot,” he said. “There is no time to practice on the things you need to work on to become a better player. “But they get a contract offer, they get stars in their eyes and their dream could come true. Is it the right time? Will I get another chance?” The last word goes to Hanlon. He has Tomas Tatar on the Slovakia roster at the 2010 Worlds and Tatar is a forward who moved to the American Hockey League when he was 18. Right or wrong move? “In no way would we expect Thomas Tatar to stay and play junior hockey in Slovakia when he can play in the American Hockey League and make that much money,” said Hanlon. “We can’t do anything about the five per cent that have other opportunities. We have to worry about the 95 per cent.” ALAN ADAMS

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