Undoubtedly, the NHL is the best hockey league in the world—by far. But in 2008, Russians decided to stop this dominance by creating a new, more competitive league.
With a new financial power, it is no surprise that some former NHL stars signed with teams of the Continental Hockey League (KHL).
Now, with nearly two KHL seasons finished, I prepared a ranking of the ten best former NHL players who made it over pond in recent years.
But have in mind that there is not just the KHL as an important major hockey league in Europe. Some of the players are doing well in other leagues than the KHL.
To be included to my ranking, a player had to play an important part in both the NHL and his new league. I put the players name, his NHL time, and his new team in Europe in the headline of each slide.
NHL Totals: 12 seasons, 236-313-549 in 977 games
with San Jose, Anaheim, New Jersey, Washington, Calgary
Jeff Friesen left the NHL in 2007 and played just five AHL games the next two seasons due to an injury. In summer 2009, Friesen went to training camp with the Berlin Polar Bears of the German major league DEL, after Marco Sturm made contact between him and the German team. Although he has not been on ice for more than a year, Berlin signed him to a one-year contract.
At the age of 33, Friesen is doing great for his new club, which is top of the DEL league with a healthy margin. At present, he leads his team in both points (12-24-36 in 35 games) and penalty minutes.
A native of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, he was very popular in Berlin from the beginning. “He knows always where he has to be on the ice,” his new teammate André Rankel said.
“I really enjoy playing with Berlin. There are very good players in our team,” Friesen said about his club.
But there is also a point he does not like. “I would like to have my family over here,” Friesen said, who lives alone in the German capital. “But I am glad to play hockey after this long time of injury.”
Jeff Friesen made it to the top ten of my list because he staged an impressive comeback in a new league and kept his scoring ability over two years of injury.
NHL Totals: 5 seasons, 61-94-155 in 306 games
For a totally different approach, Czech center Jiri Hudler left the league. He upgraded his salary from $1.15 million to $5 million a year when he signed a contract with Moscow Dynamo of the KHL.
Furthermore, Hudler wanted more respect and more ice time in Detroit. With the Red Wings having not much cup space left, Hudler signed with Moscow and is doing a good job there.
At the age of 25, Hudler is a very young player in this ranking. He ranks second in his team with 37 points in 40 games.
Although rumors have it that Hudler is likely to return to Detroit after his contract is over in 2011, he made it to my list.
NHL Totals: 9 seasons, 38-133-171 in 576 games
with Buffalo, New York Rangers, Phoenix
The Russian defender became a free agent in 2009 when there was no further interest by an NHL team. So he decided to go back to his home country and now plays for top team Ufa of the KHL.
Known as a stay-at-home defender, Kalinin recorded a remarkable 10-8-18 record in the first 42 games. Furthermore, he was named the defender of the month in October when he posted a plus-10 rating and scored 7 goals in 12 games.
A native of Chelyabansk, Russia is a rock solid player without ups and downs. He is one of the reasons why his team ranks third in a very tough league.
NHL Totals: 2 seasons, 49-54-103 in 155 games
Alexander Radulov has just played 150 games with Nashville in the NHL before heading to Russia.
Nevertheless, Radulov called attention when his transfer to Ufa was announced. Although he had one year remaining on his Nashville deal, the right wing signed with Ufa of the KHL.
However, the IIHF decided to allow the transfer. The 23-year-old was very successful in his first year when he recorded 48 points in 52 games when he ranked third among forwards in his team.
At present, Radulov leads the league with 51 points and a plus-28 rating in just 41 games played.
As one of the KHL top scorers, Radulov has to be included to the ranking.
NHL Totals: 7 seasons, 33-32-65 in 251 games
with Montreal, New York Rangers, Phoenix
Marcel Hossa left the NHL in 2008. The Slovak signed with Riga of the KHL and became the top scorer of his team in the 2008-09 campaign with 44 points in 52 games.
Despite the little success of his team, Hossa stayed in Latvia and now leads the league with 24 goals. He plays at a very high level, whereas his team ranks near the bottom of the league.
Furthermore, Hossa was named to represent his home country at the Olympics along with his brother Marian.
NHL Totals: 8 seasons, 0.900 SPct, 2.75 GAA in 206 games with Phoenix, Philadelphia
The only goalie in my ranking is Robert Esche of Saint Petersburg.
Esche did not find a new NHL club in summer 2007, after his contract with Philadelphia was over. When he was still a free agent in October, Esche decided to sign with Kazan of the former Russian Super League but played as little as 18 games.
He eventually regained confidence in the 2008-09 campaign, after he was traded to Saint Petersburg of the KHL. He finished the season (1.87 GAA / .91 SvPct) as one of the leagues top goalies.
This year, Robert Esche leads KHL goaltenders in wins with 21 and ranks among the top five in save percentage and GAA.
NHL Totals: 15 seasons, 202-505-707 in 1012 games
with Boston, Los Angeles, Florida
Another player with more than 1000 NHL games, Stumpel signed with Astana of the KHL in 2008.
The native of Nitra, Slovakia played a pretty solid first season with his new Kazakh team and recorded 34 points.
The 37-year-old center has already collected 38 points in 44 games so far this season and leads his team in points.
NHL Totals: 16 seasons, 176-712-888 in 1232 games
with New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Dallas
Sergei Zubov, the long-year Dallas top defender, missed most of the 2008-09 campaign due to an injury. In 2009, he left Texas after 12 seasons to sign with Saint Petersburg of the KHL.
A native of Moscow, Russia he has continued his outstanding defensive play so far this season. After 40 games, he has already recorded 29 points. Additionally, Zubov was named defender of the month in November 2009.
Zubov continues playing at top level even at the age of 39. Therefore, he ranks third among former NHL players playing in Europe.
NHL Totals: 12 seasons, 348-460-808 in 895 games
with Ottawa, New York Islanders
In 2007, no NHL team showed interest in Yashin. Therefore, he left the NHL and played with Yaroslavl of the former Russian Super League from the beginning of the 2007-08 campaign.
In two years with this team, the center recorded 122 points and led his team to the Gagarin cup finals last year, which they eventually lost in game seven against Kazan Bars.
In 2009, Yashin was traded to Saint Petersburg SKA and now leads the KHL in assists with 35.
Alexei Yashin finished second in this ranking because he was outstanding player in both North America and Russia.
NHL Totals: 14 seasons, 283-504-787 in 1060 games
with Pittsburgh, Ottawa, New York Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles, New York Rangers
The 37 year old Straka left the NHL in 2008, after more than 1000 NHL games, to end his career with his hometown club Plzen HC of the Czech Extraliga. In his first year, he recorded 52 points in 51 games and was eventually named player of the season.
But this was the easier achievement when he was back in the Czech Republic. Straka prevented bankruptcy of his new club with private funds. Furthermore, he was elected the new Plzen HC president and became general manager as well.
But this did not keep him from staying on ice.
Straka is still very valuable and in the process of advancing his last years record as he went 17-26-43 in 35 games so far this season.
Martin Straka is an outstanding personality both on and off the ice. He deserves to be on top of my ranking.
Jaromir Jagr, Matthias Weinhandl, Josef Vascicek, Branko Radivojevic, Alexei Morozov, Martin Gerber