By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — The 2015 NHL Draft is considered stronger than the impressive Class of 2013 (Nathan Mackinnon, Sean Monahan, Seth Jones) and has the potential of being on a par with that of 2003 (three All-Stars in the first 14 picks, Shea Weber in the second round).
A lot of that impression has to do with the mortal-lock top two picks, franchise centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, but there is also exciting depth at all positions. In 2003, the back end of the first round included future standouts Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry and others. Meanwhile, Weber highlighted a second-round group that also featured David Backes and Joe Pavelski. (The Flyers didn’t have a second-round pick in 2003, but netted Jeff Carter and Mike Richards at No. 11 and 24, respectively, in the first round.)
Notice what is missing from those names?
They are easy to pronounce. They are all of North American – Canadian or US – origin.
While once-in-decade talents McDavid (Canadian) and Eichel (American) will make the 2015 draft (June 26-27, Sunrise, Fla.) historic, even if followed by 13 busts, the depth – projected to have first-round talents still into the second round and second-round talents well into the third – comes from a notable collection of European players.
It is not simply that they learned to play hockey in Europe. Some of the best players in the world spent all, or most, of their career overseas.
Finnish legend Raimo Helminen played 117 games in the NHL early in his career, as compared to 977 in Sweden and his native Finland, which he represented six times in the Olympics. Dieter Hegen and Udo Kissling (one NHL game) each appeared in five Olympics for Germany. Petterr Thoresen never played a shift in the NHL but is considered a hockey legend in Norway, having played in five Olympics.
And then there were all the former greats from the USSR squad that won seven gold medals from 1956 to 1988, with the only interruptions coming in the United States in 1960 and 1980, who never got to play in the NHL because of the Cold War.
Top-end European talents began to appear on NHL rosters in the 1970s – with Toronto setting the pace by importing Swedes Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom – but the NHL didn’t really reflect the best the world could offer until the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Ever since professionals were allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics, Canada has captured three gold medals (2002, 2010 and 2014) and the USA two silvers (2002, 2006). The Czech Republic claimed a gold (1998) and bronze (2006), Sweden has taken gold (2006) and silver (2014), while Finland (silver in 2006 and bronze in 2010 and 2014) and Russia (silver in 1998, bronze 2002) are always in the highly competitive mix.
A scan of World Under-18 and Under-20 tournaments shows similar results, with the likes of Switzerland (fourth last year in the Under-18 fray) skating into the picture to further spread the wealth.
What, then, in the difference in more recent drafts – particularly in 2015?
NHL teams are less reticent to pull the trigger and invest in a high pick on Europeans. Why? They are less fearful that the picks would go wasted if European players that were not ticketed for superstardom (i.e. Peter Forsberg, taken fourth overall in 1991 by the Philadelphia Flyers, only to be the key piece in a trade for Eric Lindros, a Canadian) decided to play their careers overseas in leagues like the SEL (Swedish Elite League) and KHL (Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League) instead of accepting two-way contracts to toil in the minor leagues of North America in hopes of climbing the ladder to the NHL.
Draft-eligible Europeans, at age 18, are showing their willingness by increasingly playing Junior Hockey in Canada and enrolling in potentate NCAA schools in the United States. An example is Sweden’s Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson of Sweden. A likely second- or third-round pick this year, Forsbacka-Karlsson will be playing next year at powerhouse Boston University to help fill Eichel’s void. If he were playing in Sweden, there is a chance his draft stock would not be as high.
As a result, 36 of the top 100 players for this year’s draft –as rated by the Hockey News – are of European origin.
The group includes a fair share of Russians, Swedes, Czechs and Finns. But there are some notable additions to enhance the depth. Ranked No. 13 is Swiss winger Timo Meier.
Meier and man-child Russian forward Yevgeni Svechnikov might be the first two players draft out of the same Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QBJHL), where it was once an oddity for even a North American not of French-Canadian descent to lace up the skates.
But there is more, enough to prove 2015 is more the kicking in the door of a trend than an oddity.
The family of winger Daniel Spring, ranked 25th, moved to Canada from the Netherlands so he could focus on hockey. One of the top-rated goalies, at No. 61, is Matej Tomek of Slovakia. Fellow Slovakian, winger Radovan Bondra, is ranked No. 81.
Before the seven rounds are complete, don’t be surprised to see Danes, Germans and Austrians have their names called.
And the net is only going be cast wider in years to come. An example is David Levin, who was born in Israel and was sent to live with relatives in Canada to develop his skills. He was recently drafted first overall in the OHL junior league, making him a hot name to watch come 2018.
This was once considered a situation where the risk portion of risk-reward of overloading on Europeans was simply too great for some teams to take. But not anymore.
It is a matter of survival, of staying competitive.
One of those teams was the Flyers, who have remained fairly xenophobic – as compared to other teams – until recently reaching across the pond to pad their roster with more venerable Europeans (Austrian Michael Raffl in 2013, Frenchman Pierre-Edoard Bellemare in 2014 and Russian Evgeni Medvedev this offseason).
In a bitter irony, the first NHL team to draft a Russian (“Soviet” at the time) was the Flyers, who tabbed Viktor Khatulev 160th overall in 1975. He ended up not knowing he was ever drafted until years later and was allegedly murdered in 1994, at the age of 39.
Since then, the Flyers – while employing their share of Swedes and Finns – shied away from Russians and Czechs in the draft. They paid the ultimate price, getting swept in the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals by a Detroit team led by five Russians and four Swedes (the Flyers had zero Russians, one Swede who played in more than 34 games, one Finn and one Czech who played in more than 18 games).
In a recent Hockey News article about the tragic life and death of the volatile Khatulev, who lost his wife in a car accident was left to raise a young daughter while battling alcoholism, former Flyers star center and general manager Bobby Clarke denied any discrimination against Russian players, explaining it was more business that personal for the same guy who broke the ankle of the Soviet star Valeri Kharlomov with a vicious slash during the 1972 Summit Series.
“It was a time when you didn’t know if you could ever get them out of the country,” said Clarke, who added he didn’t know Khatulev was a draft pick of the Flyers until they met during a 1979 exhibition game that ended in a 4-4 tie. “The Soviets were producing some great players, but the next level below the greats was below mediocrity. We just thought we’d be better off with Canadians.”
But, just as Iron Curtains fall, times change.
The Flyers have gone 0-6 in Stanley Cup Finals since Clarke led them to their second in a row in 1975. That was 40 years ago. They have the seventh overall pick this year and could very well end up with Russian defenseman Ivan Proporov or Czech center Pavel Zacha, both of whom played junior hockey in Canada last season – and no one will give it a second thought.