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In ultra-competitive times, NHL teams continue to look to Europe for diamonds in the rough

What’s with the glut of signings? You can never have too many assets and with many of these players being in their early to mid-twenties, they’ve still got a lot of upside to them.

While the World Championship is dwarfed by the Stanley Cup playoffs in the hearts of North American hockey fans, perhaps they should have paid closer attention. A slew of players from Europe have been signed in the aftermath of the latest tournament, which Sweden won in a shootout over Canada (and yeah, it was a pretty good game).

The most recent is Czech defenseman Libor Sulak, who is now property of the Detroit Red Wings. Just before that we had San Jose inking fellow Czech blueliner Radem Simek, as well as Swedish center Filip Sandberg – who did not play at the worlds, but did win an SHL title with HV71.

Before that, we had the Toronto Maple Leafs filling up on Swedes by signing free agents Andreas Borgman of that same HV71 squad, and Calle Rosen of Vaxjo, the SHL’s regular season champs. And the second signing ever by the Vegas Golden Knights was Vadim Shipachyov of Russia, one of the top scorers at the worlds this year. And there’s more to come.

But what’s the deal with the glut of signings? Are we not in a golden age of youth, where players such as Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun are jumping straight to the NHL alongside “sure things” such as Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine?

Well, you can never have too many assets and with many of these players being in their early to mid-twenties, they’ve still got a lot of upside to them. Here’s how one NHL exec put it to me:

“Do you go with a college free agent, about the same age, or a potential world-class talent?”

That’s what Chicago got in Artemi Panarin, and Toronto did well with Nikita Zaitsev (not that I’m comparing him to Panarin).

The key is fit. North American hockey is different enough from the European game that the smaller ice surface can really trip a player up. Get one over here early enough and you mitigate the problem.

“I put a lot of stock in the early experiences of North American hockey,” said the exec. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Perhaps that explains why players such as Roman Cervenka and Jaroslav Hlinka couldn’t stick in the NHL; they were too set in their ways. But then look at the success Montreal’s Alexander Radulov had upon his return to the NHL this season. Radulov may be older, but he already had extensive NHL experience and even played his junior hockey in the QMJHL. He knew what to expect.

While the KHL may have drawn away some talent from the NHL, it hasn’t seemed very formidable of late and the ‘Russian Factor’ seems to be dwindling. Along with Panarin and Zaitsev, you also have Shipachyov jumping over from the KHL to become one of Vegas’ first-ever signings and there may be more Russians to come. The key, according to the exec I spoke with, is that these KHLers understand the economics of the salary cap. Because in some situations, those top talents will still be tethered to entry-level deals. But if they succeed, those players will earn themselves lucrative second contracts while continuing their quest for a Stanley Cup.

As for Swedish players, many have shown a preference to develop back home in the SHL or second-tier Allsvenskan – and since those leagues do a great job developing talent, it’s not a problem for NHL teams to wait. Sure, you have to fend off rival franchises for a free agent’s services, but that’s the nature of the game. Or you can do what Nashville did and take a smaller kid in the draft who had already been passed over a couple times but showed a lot of potential: Viktor Arvidsson. Thinking about Arvidsson, it’s hard not to parse Doug Wilson’s assessment of new San Jose signing of the undersized Sandberg:

“Filip is a very creative player who sees the ice well and can create offense in limited space. He plays a high-pressure, puck-pursuit game and his battle level is something we have been impressed with, especially against older players.”

Sounds kinda Arvidsson-esque, no?

The important thing is identifying talent – something that often spans the entire schedule and features visits to international tourneys and club team games across Europe – and locking it down. From there, the courted player must recognize that the NHL is the hardest league in the world and for all involved, some time in the AHL may be the best course of action.

If everyone’s on the same page, your team could get a top player without even using a draft pick. And in these ultra-competitive times, that’s a huge win for an organization.




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