The 2007-08 season has been underway for a while now in Europe, so it's about time we checked in. Prospects from past drafts- as well as the next two- are making plenty of noise in Sweden, Finland, Russia and everywhere in between... and a couple of blasts from the pasts are, too. Find out who they are- and learn a bit more about the developmental systems in each country- in today's Bugg Bytes.
Europe's model of player development is almost identical to the North American version: each age level is tiered, with movement possible both up and down the tiers throughout a player's career. But in Europe, the term 'home-grown talent' is rather literal. In many countries, a player can stay in their hometown for the entire duration of their career- teams of every tier at every level are available in one city. Many of these cities also employ an official hockey academy.
The tricky part, as always, is keeping track of the names of the leagues and what level they represent. Keep this cheat sheet of sorts handy- it'll be useful when checking on the progress of your no-name prospect throughout the year.
SM-Liiga: The SM-Liiga is the Finnish version of the NHL. The mandate here is the same: the best talent available is put on the ice for entertainment, and they're compensated well for it. However, a key difference is the ice-time available for young players. It is rare for a prospect to earn a top-six, top-pairing or starting role anywhere in a European men's league, and Finland is no different. That's why the following players are standing out.
Ville Leino, C- The early story of the young SM-Liiga season is 24 year-old Ville Leino. The undrafted forward actually broke out back in 2005-06 with a 43-point campaign for HPK Hämeenlinna. With his previous career high 19 points, the expectations piled on for 2006-07... and Leino exploded for another 40 points, doing it in six fewer games than the previous year. With two sensational seasons behind him, household names Jokerit Helsinki made a big push for the 6'0, 183 lbs star, and he hasn't disappointed. The league's leader in goals, points and +/-, Leino also sits tied for second in assists. While the youngster has managed to spurn NHL teams to this point, contract offers will come fiercer than ever. Best compared to Bryan Smolinski, the sometimes-center has 25-goal, 65-point upside in the bigs.
Janne Pesonen, W- When Dustin Penner departed Anaheim for the familiar Canadian winters of Edmonton, keen keeper league GMs immediately went on the search for his likely replacement. The no-namest, most-skilled forward prospect in the organization turned out to be Janne Pesonen, a 9th round draft choice in 2004. One of the league's most outstanding players in 2006-07, Pesonen underwent the same sort of breakout Leino did two years ago: after never hitting more than 30 points over a 56-game schedule, the 25 year-old busted out for 22 goals and 55 points, both big-time numbers. Those who managed to scoop up the hottest Finn since Eero Somervuori drooled while they waited for news of the gifted scorer to come over and thus make them genuises. Well... theyr'e still waiting. Pesonen failed to make the jump, and the star is back for his life-long team Karpat. Second in goals and fourth in pints league-wide, the 5'11 Finn's breakout year doesn't appear to be a fluke, and it is only a matter of dollars and cents that is keeping him out of the NHL. When he does get here, a Penner-esque 30-25-55 is a possibility.
Alexander Salak, G- It wouldn't be Finland if there wasn't a future star goalie somewhere. 20 year-old Alexander Salak is only four games into his SM-Liiga career, but he appears to be the heir successor to that title. In a league where almost every starter is 30 years or older, for Salak to get into a game is a huge accomplishment. However, toss in a 2.25 GAA and 0.918 Sv% and you have yourself a keeper of a keeper. A Czech native, Salak was buried in his country's developmental system despite a sparkling 1.24 GAA at the 2005 U18s, a 1.70 GAA in the Czech U20 leagues in 2005-06, and a shutout in the 2.liga, the second-highest mean's league in that country. With a resume like that, only one thing can stop such a player: size. Tiny, under-muscled and poorly built for the long haul, two years of hard work and a late growth spurt have paid off. Now a more solid 6'1 and 175 pounds, Salak is on his way to a long career.
Below the SM-Liiga is the Mestis. Once like European soccer in that the worst-performing SM-Liiga teams could be sent down to the Mestis, regulation and promotion are no longer possible. However, this system has remained open between the Mestis and Suomi-sarja, the ECHL of Finland. Similarly, the worst teams in Suomo-sarja can be relegated to the 2. Divisioona, the fourth and lowest professional level in the country. 55 teams plays in the 2. Divisioona, which is what you would get if the Central and United Hockey League were to join forces.
The biggest point of confusion in terms of Finnish hockey is bar none the junior system. In North America, we have become accustomed to using the terms Junior A, B and C to discuss the 'Junior' age of hockey- generally 16 to 21. However, in Finland, the letter designations refer to the age group, and not a tier of play. A-nuorten, or Junior A, is 18-21. B-nuorten is 16-18, while C-nuorten is 16 and below. The top league at each age level is typically referred to with the phrase SM-liiga or Sm-sarja after it; both are a form of the phrase 'championship league'. Below that are the I-divisioona, II-divisioona and III-divisionaa. Thus, the A-nuorten I-divisioona would not refer to the top league, but rather the second-highest 18-21 league in the country.
Elitserien/SEL: Perhaps the most well-known developmental system is that of Sweden's. The factory that has produced some of the finest players of the last 25 years has thusly received a great deal of attention. The addition of European leagues to EA's NHL video game series has helped make Swedish hockey even more popular. One of the more youth-friendly men's leagues overseas, the Elitserien usually boasts some terrific talent- and that's the case this season.
Victor Hedman, D- Remember how Gilbert Brule was discussed as a potential challenger to Sidney Crosby? The same argument is well underway for the 2009 draft. If there wasn't enough competition for the number one spot with John Tavares fighting off a plethora of future star forwards, Swedish defender Victor Hedman has also entered the frame. Standing an incredible 6'6 and 213 pounds, the 16 year-old- yes, 16 year-old- is playing an unprecedented role for MoDo, the club which he has been with since youth. Despite his size and incredible mobility for that size, Hedman was only expected to be a 6th/7th defenseman in the SEL for 2007-08. A truly terrific camp changed that, and Hedman now finds himself in a top-four role on a top team. With eight games under his (big) belt, Hedman leads all players under the age of 20 in SEL scoring. Compared feverishly to Chris Pronger, the big but smooth blueliner is a true star in the making.
Jhonas Enroth, G- The battle of the best 1988-born Swedish goaltenders looked to be won this summer. Previously undrafted keeper Joel Gistedt stole the show from 2006 second-round draft choice Jhonas Enroth when the former emerged as a SEL star in 2006-07. Enroth, for his part, spent the year in Division 1, the third-highest league in the country. However, 2007-08 has been a very different story. While Gistedt has been bombed for nine goals in just 98 minutes of playing time, Enroth, 19, leads all goaltenders with a ridiculous 0.938 Sv% in six games. His 2.02 GAA also happens to be the second-highest in the league. Blessed with great athleticism and speed in his pads, Enroth also boasts a fantastic glove. His development is on track, but he'll need to avoid a sophomore slump ala Gistedt if he is to jump to North America quickly. He projects as a #1A starter, but will be stuck behind Buffalo superstar Ryan Miller.
Daniel Fernholm, D- Victor Hedman isn't the only big defender making equally as big noise. While Daniel Fernholm is seven years older, the Pittsburgh Penguins won't mind. They're just happy their project pick is turning out at all. Scooped up in the fourth round waaaaaay back in 2002, Fernholm, 23, was chosen on the merits of his beastly 6'5, 225 pound frame, and allowed to mature overseas. However, when the Pens finally brought him over last year, the experiment appeared a failure. In 13 games, Fernholm popped home only three assists for the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. Pittsburgh sent him back home, where he promptly finished second in Djurgardens scoring among defensemen. That hot streak has continued, as Fernholm is second in the Elitserien with five assists and six points in just eight games. Watch for him to come back to North American in 2008-09. Fernholm's upside is that of a #4 defender who can crack 30-35 points and 100 PIM.
The leagues below the SEL have been well-mentioned in this column: the Allsvenskan is that country's version of the American League, Division I sits below that, and the junior leagues are arranged in U20, U18 and U20 brackets. The league that gives scouts the most fits is Division I. While six divisions may not seem like much- the NHL has as many- only two of them have just six teams. All in all, 46 clubs play in the league, with teams scattered 1,000 KM apart. To make matters worse, many of the teams share a border with one of three countries- Norway, Denmark and Finland- making language and cultural barriars staggering. The Detroit Red Wings have so far been the only squad to truly conquer Division I, utilizing an extensive network of contacts across the country. Prior to the Wings drafting Mattias Ritola, for example, head scout Hakan Andersson simply needed to phone a source at the prospect's hockey academy to check his progress. This type of work has resulted in two major finds: Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom.
RSL: The Russian Super League is the enigma of enigmas for hockey fans and team executives. With a land mass the size of several heavily-scouted countries combined, heavy crime and decaying infrastructure, foreign scouts can meet a deadly end if they choose to travel it alone. Issues with the negotiation of a transfer agreement have caused some teams to swear Russia off altogether, meaning some fantastic prospects are escaping notice.
Viktor Alexandrov, RW- 22 year-old forward Viktor Alexandrov is one superb example of scouting in Russia is all about. Chosen in the third round back in 2003, the now-22 year-old added height, weight and skill during his slow but sure development. The patience has paid off. The St. Louis draft pick had never scored more than 19 points in the RSL, but is just three away from that mark a mere 14 games into the season. Tied for tops in the league in points, Alexandrov has shown a desire to jump to North America. Look for an immediate impact in the neighborhood of 20-25-45, and a long-term ceiling of 75 points.
Vitaly Atyushov, D- Another example of having patience is in handling of Vitaly Atyushov. An RSL regular when chosen in the 9th round of the 2002 draft, the then-23 year-old had just finished a solid season for a poor Perm Molot squad. While he scored only ten points in 51 games, those ten points were the most among defenders on his team. In six years, Atyushov has come a long way. 15 games in, the offensively gifted rearguard has 15 points. With Ottawa's blueline in need of some more cheap talent, the 28 year-old could provide a big spark- a spark to the tune of 25-35 points and 80 PIM.
The Vysshaya Liga is Russia's AHL-lite. The top team in the Vysshaya replaces the 20th-place team in the Super League pending meeting requirements for promotion. At the minor hockey level, teams are based out of the same cities as Super League squads. These teams are divided by birth year- IE, all those players in Avangard Omsk's territory that are born in 1992 would play for Avangard Omsk 92.
Russia's system is one of the more frustrating in the hockey world. Young players are often left to stagnate for years in the higher leagues, or remain in the junior system and dominate with no marked improvement to their overall game.