European League Veterans NHL Teams Should Be Monitoring
The St. Louis Blues are bringing Joakim Lindstrom back to the NHL, the MVP of the Swedish league this year. Last summer, it was Carl Soderberg who made the leap, and he tallied 48 points in 73 games for the Bruins. Which European league veterans might be next?
The toughest part of answering that question is keeping the list to just 10 players. Considering only those who are at least 26 years old helps a little bit, as does avoiding players whose recent NHL action already has them on the radar, like Leo Komarov and Roman Cervenka.
Don't be surprised if the list includes a lot of KHLers, because that is where the best Europeans generally wind up. That Russian league is of the highest quality in Europe and certainly has the highest-paid players.
Do remember that 10 is a very small number, take note of the additional names mentioned in the slide texts and feel free to use the comments to ask about other players. This list is not ranked and begins in alphabetical order on the next slide. Let's begin!
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
Patrik Hersley, Leksands (SHL)
Winner of the Borje Salming Trophy as the league's best defenseman in 2013-14, Patrik Hersley set a single-season record in goals by a defenseman with 22. The potent sniper led his league's defensemen in goal scoring on three other occasions.
Magnus Nygren won the Salming Trophy the year before with an equally impressive cannon, but he's not old enough to make this list. The Montreal Canadiens have his rights, while Nashville possesses those of Johan Alm, another young Swedish league defenseman likely to make the jump to the NHL.
Hersley has a cannon of a shot, and a valuable right-handed one at that. He would be an ideal upgrade on the power play.
The 27-year-old is not a liability defensively and uses his big 6'3" frame to play a reasonable game physically.
His short time playing North American hockey was marred by injury, and he managed just nine points in 47 AHL games. He's more ready now and has an upside of over 30 points.
Hersley was drafted by Los Angeles in the fifth round of the 2005 NHL entry draft. He was subsequently traded to the Flyers in the summer of 2008 and then to the Predators in 2009.
He just completed a two-year deal with Leksands.
Bud Holloway, Skelleftea AIK (SHL)
When looking for the next Joakim Lindstrom, how about considering his teammate Bud Holloway? He was voted the league's best player in 2012-13, a season in which he scored 71 points, a single-season total historically bested only by the legendary Hakan Loob.
Skelleftea AIK is really the Swedish team to watch. They've produced back-to-back championships and also boast players like Jimmie Ericsson and Oscar Moller, the former of whom would be a great choice for this list in his own right.
Holloway is a well-rounded player who would be an excellent third-line winger. The 26-year-old is a hard-working character player who can kill penalties and provide some solid secondary scoring, especially on the power play.
He has never previously played in the NHL, but he led the AHL's Manchester Monarchs with 47 points in 2009-10 and with 61 in 2010-11.
Holloway was drafted by Los Angeles in the third round of the 2006 NHL entry draft but didn't accept a qualifying offer in 2011.
He has been signing one-year contracts, presumably to keep his options open. He was negotiating to return to the NHL last summer and is likely still interested.
According to the Berner Zeitung (via SwissHockeyNews.ch), he could be headed to Switzerland if such a deal can't be reached.
Petri Kontiola, Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Petri Kontiola led the Bronze-winning Finnish Olympic team at this year's Winter Games in Sochi with five points in six games, finishing fourth among the team's forwards in ice time. The Finns outscored opponents 8-2 when he was on the ice, according to the data at Extra Skater.
The 29-year-old playmaker finished second on the Finnish team with nine points in 10 games in the recent IIHF World Championships, one of only two players on the team to score more than six. Kontiola previously scored 16 points while serving as the assistant captain on the 2013 world championship team, doubling the scoring totals of but a single teammate.
In the KHL, Kontiola has 173 points in 258 games in the past five years. He led Chelyabinsk with 37 points last year, six more than Andrei Kostitsyn. The two previous seasons, he finished second to Evgeny Kuznetsov and led Magnitogorsk in scoring his last year before joining Chelyabinsk. Kontiola also won the 2013 KHL playoff scoring race.
Kontiola could be a No. 2 playmaking center, threatening around 40 points if given enough time on the power play. Not being an especially big, physical or defensive player, his value to the team would be dependent on how effectively he could unleash the scoring potential of his wingers.
He has only 12 games of NHL experience, scoring five points for Chicago back in 2007-08. Kontiola was an AHL All-Star, however, producing 130 points in 147 AHL games.
Drafted by Chicago in the seventh round of the 2004 NHL entry draft, Kontiola was traded to Anaheim with James Wisniewski for Sami Pahlsson for a prospect and a pick.
Kontiola signed a two-year extension in the KHL last summer, leaving him one more full season with Chelyabinsk.
Vasily Koshechkin, Magnitogorsk (KHL)
The KHL's goalie of the year was Magnitogorsk's 6'6" netminder, Vasily Koshechkin. The 31-year-old posted a .940 save percentage in 2013-14, followed by .934 mark in the playoffs, which was his fifth time in six seasons atop .930.
In 2012-13, Koshechkin posted a .923 save percentage, which was good enough to play in the KHL All-Star Game but actually the second lowest in his six-season KHL career.
Koshechkin is a workhorse who has played 51 games in each of the past two seasons.
It is notoriously difficult to predict how goalies will perform when moving from a European league to the NHL and vice versa.
That being said, Koshechkin is as good a gamble as anyone to step in and serve as at least an NHL-level backup.
Koshechkin was drafted by Tampa Bay in the eighth round in 2002, but he has never expressed interest in signing with an NHL team.
He is currently a free agent in the KHL, opening the door for an NHL squad to take a gamble, if he's interested.
Jori Lehtera, Novosibirsk (KHL)
Jori Lehtera is a scoring machine, bagging 12 points in nine games at the recent IIHF World Championships, which was double all but one teammate, Petri Kontiola. He also scored four points in six games in Finland's bronze-medal performance at the Sochi Olympics, helping his team outscore opponents 4-0 when he was on the ice.
The 26-year-old Finn has been a top scorer everywhere he's been. He initially tore up the top Finnish league with 158 points in 169 games over his final three seasons, winning the Lasse Oksanen Trophy as regular-season MVP and the Golden Helmet as the league's top player in 2009-10.
Lehtera then moved on to the KHL, where he has recently amassed 118 points in 125 KHL games in three years with Novosibirsk, leading the team in scoring by at least 10 points in each of the past two seasons. He placed fifth in KHL scoring last year.
Lehtera would probably fit in best as a shootout specialist and scoring-line playmaker but carry concerns with his skating and defensive play. Despite his size, he's not a particularly physical player, although he has dropped his gloves on two occasions in the KHL.
His KHL scoring rate, which is similar to that of players like Jiri Hudler and Jaromir Jagr, suggests a 50-point upside.
Lehtera was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the third round in 2008 and subsequently played seven games in the AHL.
He turned down a generous deal last summer to remain in the KHL, as reported by Andy Strickland of TrueHockey.com (via Mike Halford of ProHockeyTalk). The Blues will lose his rights when his current KHL deal expires at the end of this coming season.
Sergei Mozyakin, Magnitogorsk (KHL)
The KHL's league MVP for the second consecutive season is 33-year-old Sergei Mozyakin.
The 5'10" forward led the league in scoring for the fourth time in six seasons, further padding his lead as the KHL's leading all-time scorer with 391 points in 321 games. He has now played in all six KHL All-Star Games.
Mozyakin was also the captain for coach Mike Keenan's Gagarin Cup-winning team, scoring 33 points in 21 playoff games. He played no small role in helping Iron Mike win his second straight coach-of-the-year title, nor in the great seasons of teammates Jan Kovar and Denis Zaripov, the latter of whom wouldn't be out of place on this list in his own right.
If he's so great, then how come Mozyakin wasn't chosen for the Russian Olympic team? Good question. There may be concerns that he is too slow and one-dimensional.
Though he may not be strong defensively, nor particularly big and physical, he is without question one of the world's most talented offensive players. Even at 33, he could establish himself as a 60-point player in the NHL if given the right linemates and sufficient time with the man advantage.
Mozyakin was originally drafted in the ninth round in 2002 by the Columbus Blue Jackets but never signed a contract or showed any interest in coming to the NHL.
In fact, Mozyakin recently signed a six-year extension with Magnitogorsk late in the 2012-13 season, keeping him in Russia for essentially the balance of his career.
Ilya Nikulin, Kazan (KHL)
Ilya Nikulin is arguably the KHL's best defenseman, competing in the All-Star Game in four of its six seasons while amassing 189 points in 305 games. That places him second behind Kevin Dallman, another strong candidate for this list.
Nikulin has spent the entire six seasons with Kazan and currently serves as its captain. The club won the Gagarin Cup in 2009 and 2010, and he was the playoff MVP in 2010.
Last year, he finished second among the team's defensemen in scoring behind Shaun Heshka, another candidate for this list. He has otherwise led the team's defensemen in all but one of the previous five seasons, usually in a tight battle with Yevgeni Medvedev, who is yet another option for this list.
Nikulin was on the 2010 and 2014 Russian Olympic squad and served as captain of Russia's world championship teams in 2012 and 2013.
The 32-year-old is a tough defensive player and could serve as a responsible two-way, top-four defenseman who can help out on the power play.
Nikulin was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the second round of the 2000 NHL entry draft, and his rights would transfer to the Winnipeg Jets, assuming they've retained them.
If he came to the NHL, he could potentially be a fit in Washington to play with his friend Alexander Ovechkin, who is the godfather of his son.
Nikulin signed a five-year deal back in the summer of 2010, giving him one more year in the KHL.
Alexander Radulov, Moscow (KHL)
Alexander Radulov is arguably the greatest scorer not currently in the NHL—possibly without having to make an exception for Ilya Kovalchuk.
Radulov's scoring achievements in the KHL are staggering. He has 356 points in 292 games and a number of single-season and all-time league scoring records.
And his success isn't limited to the KHL, as Radulov also had a highly decorated season with Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts in 2005-06, when he won the scoring title and was named both the player of the year and the Memorial Cup MVP.
Radulov solidified his reputation in Sochi this year, where he finished one back of Pavel Datsyuk for Russia's team scoring lead. He was second among the team's forwards in ice time, and Team Russia outscored opponents 8-1 when he was on the ice, according to the data at Extra Skater.
In the right situation, Radulov has the potential of taking a legitimate part in the NHL scoring race.
He is a tremendously gifted player offensively with an upside that goes far beyond his 102 points in 154 games with the Nashville Predators.
Radulov is a very tough and gritty player, but he is known for taking bad penalties, much as he did in Sochi against the Americans. There are also some questions about his team commitment given his suspensions from the Predators for both contract and curfew violations.
Radulov was drafted by Nashville in the first round, 15th overall, in 2004. He is currently halfway into a four-year deal for approximately $9.2 million per season. He'll be 30 the summer that deal expires and would obviously have to take a huge pay cut to return to the NHL.
There is some speculation that he could be reunited with Patrick Roy in Colorado, according to Hockey Buzz.com's Eklund. That doesn't seem particularly likely to me.
Curtis Sanford, Yaroslavl (KHL)
Curtis Sanford may be 34 years old and stand just 5'10", but the long-time AHLer could be an ideal low-cost backup option.
The Sandman has had a lot of success in the KHL. He posted a .938 save percentage last year, earning a spot on the first All-Star team and boosting his career average to .934 in 64 games.
No KHL goalie ranks higher than Sanford analytically, as per a study I completed this past December for Hockey Prospectus. If you're combing the KHL for goalies and are comfortable with someone Sanford's age, there's also Alexander Yeremenko. Younger options include Alexander Salak or Konstantin Barulin.
Sanford posted a .911 save percentage when we last saw him in the NHL, in Columbus in 2011-12. That may sound fairly average, but it was much better than Steve Mason's .894, and he's certainly doing fine.
He had a lot of success in the AHL prior to that, enjoying a .930 save percentage and a spot on the second All-Star team in 2010-11. He also helped the Hamilton Bulldogs earn the Hap Holmes award in 2009-10 for the AHL team with the lowest goals-against average.
Sanford has .904 NHL save percentage in 144 career games.
The undrafted goalie was initially signed by the Blues and subsequently played briefly for the Canadiens, Canucks and Blue Jackets.
Sanford signed a one-year extension this April to remain with Yaroslavl.
Viktor Tikhonov, St. Petersburg (KHL)
St. Petersburg has a whole roster of players to watch, including former NHLers Ilya Kovalchuk, Roman Cervenka, Patrick Thoresen, Dmitri Kalinin and Kevin Dallman. The player most likely to return to the NHL and be successful is 26-year-old second-line winger Viktor Tikhonov.
Tikhonov, who is named after his legendary grandfather, led the recent IIHF World Championships in scoring with 16 points in 10 games. He played two games in the Sochi Olympics, registering a single assist. He has 106 career points in 158 KHL games.
Tikhonov scored 16 points in 68 games for Phoenix in 2008-09 while playing on the third line and serving on the secondary penalty-killing unit. He proved himself to be a hard worker with a natural hockey sense. He also added 44 points in 82 AHL games.
He has continued to improve since then, developing his skating and his physical game. Tikhonov would be a solid checking-line option who could step up into a top-six role as required.
Mike Burse recently wrote a fantastic summary of Tikhonov for The Hockey Writers. He also discovered that he makes the equivalent of about $3.3 million in the KHL, meaning that Tikhonov would have to take quite a pay cut in order to make his NHL return.
Phoenix selected Tikhonov in the first round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, 28th overall. He was subsequently re-signed, and the Coyotes have retained his rights, making his a restricted free agent.
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