Right now, we’re in a bit of a lull when it comes to transactions. With the trade deadline passed, the focus shifts to the playoffs, with the only meaningful movement coming in the form of emergency call-ups and auditions for 2020-21 roster spots.
But with European leagues starting to wrap up (NHL, take note on how to make a proper hockey schedule), we’re getting closer to discovering which overseas free agents will make the trek to North America for 2020-21. Last summer, Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev, Edmonton’s Gaetan Haas, Anaheim’s Jani Hakanpaa and Calgary’s Alexander Yelesin were among the European free agents signed to NHL deals, with Mikheyev putting up the best numbers with 23 points in 39 games before he suffered a hand injury in December.
We’re still a bit away from official signings – KHL contracts won’t expire until April 30th, for example – but Europe is full of hidden gems who can provide value for NHL teams in the near future. It’s not uncommon for an NHLer to head back home for a few seasons to rekindle their career before heading back. Florida’s Evgeni Dadonov and Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen are two examples of that. A similar situation is almost certainly going to take place this summer with a handful of the most intriguing European free agents having prior NHL experience.
With the free agent season quickly sneaking up on us, here are 10 European free agents who could strike a deal with an NHL club ahead of next season:
Mikhail Grigorenko, C, 25 (KHL)
Is it time for another crack at the NHL? Grigorenko, who was selected 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2012, struggled to establish himself during a five-year NHL stint and landed back home in 2017-18 with CSKA Moscow. Since then, Grigorenko’s 116 points are the 13th-most in the KHL and only scoring-whiz Kirill Kaprizov has more points for CSKA (153). Without Grigorenko, CSKA would have had a tough time winning the KHL championship a season ago and Russia has benefited from his play internationally. Overall, he’s a much more mature, complete player than the one we saw during his NHL tenure. Grigorenko has value as a playmaker, but can he survive in a middle-six role again?
Artyom Zub, D, 24 (KHL)
A quick 6-foot-2 defender, some may remember Zub from his strong performance with the Olympic Athletes from Russia two years ago. He finished with four assists in a pivotal top-four role en route to a gold medal. In late January, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that at least three teams were interested in Zub’s services, including the Ottawa Senators. Zub’s offensive game has flourished this season and he’s posted 13 goals and 22 points, but if he does sign in the NHL, it’ll be to provide depth, not put pucks in the net. NHL teams are interested in his well-rounded defensive game. Think Nikita Zaitsev.
Julius Nattinen, C, 23 (Liiga)
Nattinen’s game has come a long way in the past few seasons. The 23-year-old was taken in the second round by Anaheim in 2015 (59th overall), but despite a promising junior career, Nattinen was relegated to depth duty with the San Diego Gulls and went back home. It’s been a successful reunion for Nattinen with his boyhood club JYP. He leads the league with 31 goals and 52 points – a huge step up from his 23-point output one year ago. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he has plenty of size and could contend for a third-line center role next season. If there isn’t a perfect opportunity on an NHL team, however, it’s doubtful that he would be willing to have another go in the AHL.
Pius Suter, C, 23 (NLA)
Suter’s contract with the ZSC Lions runs until 2023, but a report from Swiss Hockey News says Suter has an NHL out-clause that kicks in this summer and he has reportedly received interest from teams. An OHL champion with Guelph in 2014, Suter has carved out a career for himself in the Swiss League since getting passed over at the 2015 draft, highlighted by a career-high 30 goals and 53 points this season. Suter does many things well and is a particularly dependable defensive player, but even with his offensive uptick this season, he’ll fit better as an energy guy who can contribute in the neighborhood of a dozen goals per year.
Johannes Kinnvall, D, 22 (SHL)
After a promising campaign in his first full season, Kinnvall has seen his production bump up from 22 points to 38 points this season with HV71. That may be enough for Kinnvall, a small but mobile two-way defenseman, to earn an NHL deal. Kinnvall has been linked to a few teams over the past few years, including the Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames (with whom he skated at development camp last season). So, after a strong run back home, there’s reason to believe Kinnvall will make the move to North America.
Dmitrij Jaskin, RW, 26 (KHL)
Ready for round two? A second-round pick in 2011 by St. Louis (41st overall), Jaskin finished the KHL regular season two points behind Vadim Shipachyov (65) for the league scoring lead and wasn’t afraid to mix it up physically, either. Will that be enough for Jaskin to earn another deal after a rather quiet seven-year run with St. Louis and Washington? A powerful forward with good hands, Jaskin could fill a depth role in the NHL again if he’s willing to take that on, but it’s hard to believe a player his age significantly improved in one year away.
Alexander Barabanov, RW, 26 (KHL)
Barabanov’s stats were unspectacular with SKA St. Petersburg this season, but there’s still a lot to like about his game. Barabanov had 46 points in the KHL last season and has been a jack of all trades for Russia in international play the past few years, so it’s understandable why teams have taken an interest in bringing him over. Barabanov was linked to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes earlier this season with others also believed to be in the running, so expect him to move over to the NHL next season and fight for a spot on a team that needs extra speed and two-way reliability.
Nikita Nesterov, D, 26 (KHL)
Starting to sense a trend? Here’s another CSKA player with NHL experience who could land a spot back in North America next season. Nesterov has been a star in the KHL since leaving the Canadiens following the 2016-17, and the biggest question is whether he’ll want to reprise his bottom-pairing role in the NHL again. The opportunity to provide blueline insurance to a playoff contender could be enough to pry Nesterov out of his home country.
Timur Bilyalov, G, 24 (KHL)
Talk about a dominant season. Playing in just his second full season in the KHL, Bilyalov has posted a 19-4-4 record with a 1.45 goals-against average and .943 save percentage and even had a five-game shutout stretch earlier this season that set a KHL record. Statistically, Bilyalov is a no-brainer to receive interest from an NHL team, especially as teams have started to put extra emphasis on goaltending depth. The biggest knock, though, is Bilyalov’s 5-foot-10, 174-pound frame. He would be the smallest goaltender in the NHL and teams don’t tend to take many chances on small goalies. Still, Bilyalov has made Ak Bars Kazan a Gagarin Cup favorite and it’s hard to believe an NHL team won’t take a shot on him this summer.
Alexey Marchenko, D, 28 (KHL)
Another one. Sport-Express journalist Igor Eronko said there was a chance the Canadiens could bring Marchenko over along with Alexander Romanov, one of Montreal’s top prospects and Marchenko’s defense partner with CSKA. Marchenko, a seventh-round pick by Detroit in 2011 (205th overall), filled a depth role for the Red Wings for a handful of seasons before finishing off his initial NHL tenure with Toronto in 2016-17. Since then, Marchenko has seen improvements in his two-way game and has been a good mentor for Romanov. If Marchenko is brought in on a one-year deal to help ease the transition, it might be worth it.
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