NHL turns to Europe

Dramatic increase in transfers to North America

16.08.2010
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Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who represented Sweden in the 2010 World Championship, transfer to the NHL this year. Both were first-round picks in 2009. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

ZURICH – The National Hockey League takes a closer look to Europe. Not only will a record six teams open the NHL season in Helsinki, Prague and Stockholm, but more than twice as many European rookies have been signed by NHL teams compared to last year.

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

Prior to the 2009-2010 season the Europe-to-NHL transactions fell to a long-time low of 23 European rookies signed by mid-August, but this year the figures had a drastic increase.

NHL clubs have already either signed or transferred 57 European freshmen – the highest number in five years. Additionally, seven European returnees (three in 2009) and 11 North Americans who come back from Europe (12 in 2009) were hired by NHL franchises.

The transfers are again dominated by Swedish players. 27 out of 57 rookies were developed in Tre-Kronor-Land. Three of them most recently earned their money in Russia while two players went through the Canadian junior league and U.S. college respectively.

Finland (8), Russia (7), the Czech Republic (4), Germany (3), Norway (3) and Switzerland (3) where the other relevant producers. Denmark and Slovakia have one player each.

The Swedish Elitserien has become the biggest “hub” for Europe-to-NHL transfers. Apart from the many Swedes it also provides the NHL with the three Norwegians and the only new Danish player as well as one Swiss rookie and four North American returnees.

Sweden has lost around 90 players to the NHL since the lockout.

Especially for players from countries with little NHL-representation like Denmark, Germany, Norway or Switzerland the Olympic Games and the World Championship became essential platforms to show their qualities. All of the ten players from those four countries played at least in one of the two events in 2010.

Previous suppliers of talent that have disappeared from the stats are Belarus and Latvia, this since changing their hockey landscape by having a “national club team” in the Russian KHL league.

Since a few countries chose not to engage in an international transfer agreement between Europe and the NHL, the national associations and leagues from Finland, Germany and Sweden signed separate player transfer agreements with the NHL according to the same principle as the previous international agreement: NHL teams can sign any player, even if under contract, but the NHL pays a development contribution of 225,000 dollars per player.

Although NHL clubs can also sign players from other leagues that are free agents or have an out-clause for the NHL (as most relevant players do), these three leagues make up for 44 out of 75 transfers including returnees.

Sweden’s Frölunda Gothenburg (7) lost most players to the NHL followed by Djurgården Stockholm (SWE, 6), Dynamo Moscow (RUS, 5), Färjestad Karlstad (SWE, 5), CSKA Moscow (RUS, 4) and TPS Turku (FIN, 4).

On the other side, the Nashville Predators (7) and the Edmonton Oilers (5) transferred most players from Europe. Four players each were signed by Columbus, Toronto and Vancouver.

The numbers have grown for almost any involved nationality and there was a drastic change in the number of Russian players, too. While NHL teams had not signed a single Russian on the day one year ago, they have now seven Russian rookies under contract.

While one of them joins through Canadian junior hockey, six Russian rookies come directly from KHL clubs. In total, 16 players left the KHL to sign NHL contracts while ten NHLers (and ten AHLers, additionally) went the opposite way.

This is also a substantial change compared to last year when the KHL boom lured many world-class players to Russia and it was one of the reasons for the decrease of Europeans in the NHL.

The economic recession left only a few Russian clubs financially strong enough to bid for the likes of Kovalchuk and Nabokov. Some players, partly with disputed transfers, changed their mind and went back to North America including Nikita Filatov, Jiri Hudler and Nikolai Zherdev.

While the KHL had a +16 balance in NHL-KHL transfers last year, it is -6 this year despite some big names going to Russia with Maxim Afinogenov, Pavol Demitra, Denis Grebeshkov and Evgeni Nabokov heading east.

21 Europeans that had an NHL contract last year are returning to Europe. While ten of them played at least ten NHL games, the rest spent most part of the season on a farm team.

Totally 20 players who played ten or more NHL games go to Europe including North Americans. Ten of them join the KHL, four go to the Swedish Elitserien, three to the Swiss NLA, two to the Finnish SM-liiga and one to the German DEL.

Still far below historic average is the number of players from the Czech Republic and Slovakia transferring to the NHL. While Czechoslovak-born players formed a huge part of the Europeans in the NHL 10-15 years ago, the number is on a steady decline due to lack of prospects from that region.

What hurts those two countries much more than others is the trend of their players to leave their domestic programs as junior players.

While longstanding former or current NHLers like Bonk, Cajanek, Ciger, Demitra, Dvorak, Elias, Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Jagr, Lang, Hasek, Palffy, Rucinsky, Satan, Slegl, Straka, Stümpel – the list could easily be extended – turned pro in Europe, most prospects leave home as teenagers nowadays. They do not only leave a huge hole in the domestic junior league, but only few of them eventually succeed in North America.

Czechs and Slovaks account for more than 62 percent of the European players in the Canadian Hockey League (OHL, QMJHL, WHL), but only for a few of them the NHL dream becomes reality.

According to a recent study, a majority of European players in the Canadian Hockey League were even not drafted at all by NHL teams. Only 20 percent play at least one NHL game and only four percent become established NHLers.

Many Czechs and Slovaks have left for the CHL in the last years (more then 500 since 1997) under the pretext that major junior is the best way to the NHL. Very few players have succeeded and those countries’ junior teams have not got any better. (The last Czech medal at the World Juniors dates back to 2005.)

This year, only five players from the Czech Republic and Slovakia were signed to NHL contracts and all of them spent at least the last season in Canada.

The trend by NHL clubs, however, goes in a different direction than bringing players over as early as possible. Since the constant decline of European rookies over the last few years, NHL managers and scouts began to take a closer look at their prospects’ performances in European professional hockey and seem to opt for quality rather than quantity.

The average age of European NHL rookies signed this year is 21.9 years (22.3 years without players that joined through North American teams), which means that the average player was given three to four years time to develop in Europe before signing an NHL contract. With eight of the 57 European rookies it’s already agreed in advance that they will spend one more year in Europe “on loan”.

Even the youngest signed players are at least 19 years of age and were drafted in 2009 or earlier. No European player who has become draft-eligible in 2010 has been signed to a contract so far.

MARTIN MERK

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