by Adam Proteau
Thursday, October 26, 2006
A new International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) report says an overemphasis by the NHL on drafting and developing European players in North America has had serious and negative repercussions – including a large percentage of import players with little or no impact, as well as the decimation of European pro and amateur leagues.
The study recommends the NHL and Canadian Hockey League (which oversees Canada’s three major junior leagues) allow more European players to develop in their homelands, which, in doing so, will improve the level of play in European leagues.
“The top European leagues have lost in quality in the last years,” one European-based NHL scout told the IIHF. “There is no doubt that this is because of the stream of players going to North America, where players do not develop as they become career minor leaguers…I am convinced that this depleting will affect the quality of the European players that the NHL will recruit in the future.”
The IIHF’s report analyzed 1,289 European players who came to North America and considered their career trajectories and skill levels before assigning them numbers based on their overall value. It found that, of 621 Europeans playing in the NHL and/or minor leagues between 2000-2006, 62.5 per cent (388 players) were graded to be non-impact, marginal or below average.
Forty-six per cent of those players returned home to Europe without qualifying to receive an NHL pension (which requires a minimum of 400 NHL games played). If the players had extended stays in North American minor leagues (at least 100 games played), 88 per cent of them were categorized as non-impact, marginal or below average.
The study also concludes that, once a European player completes at least one season in the Canadian Hockey League, he has a better than 90 per cent chance of becoming a non-impact player.
In the eyes of the report's authors, the blame for those sobering statistics can be split between young players overeager for their chance at glory, and NHL teams too willing to gamble on whatever talent they can find.
“Far too many European players attempt to make the NHL when they are clearly not ready,” former Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets coach Dave King told the IIHF. “Most NHL teams indiscriminately sign (Europeans) in hopes that a change in scenery might make a difference…(T)hey bring him over to the American Hockey League and hope for a miracle.”
Instead of maintaining the current 70/30 split of North Americans-to-Europeans playing in Canada and the United States, the IIHF says an 80/20 ratio would help restore a higher quality of play to European leagues. Such a ratio would mean no more than 180-190 Europeans per year in the NHL (down from the present-day total of 260), and just 10-20 in the junior leagues (down from the 50-70 there now).
The report also says any young player, European or not, has a much greater chance of developing into an elite player in Europe, where practice time and skill development is stressed over game action. (North America takes the opposite approach.) And it quotes a highly respected NHL agent whose top clients made the decision to delay playing in North America so they could hone their talents at home.
“There is no question that significantly more NHL success has been achieved by those of my players who delayed coming to North America until they were NHL-ready,” said agent Don Baizley. “Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg are all clients who declined to go to the NHL at their earliest opportunity.”