Relocating European prospects a developing issue for NHL



TORONTO — Darcy Regier seemed conflicted.

The Buffalo Sabres general manager understands the importance of bringing drafted Europeans to North America, where he can oversee their development and get them acclimated to the NHL game. But he realizes that by doing so, he and other general managers run the risk of depleting an important talent pool.

That was the issue Regier wrestled with Tuesday as he and other delegates discussed world junior development at the World Hockey Summit.

It was a topic that Canadians have not had to think much about. In the last nine years, the country has finished no worse than second at the world under-20 championships. And Canada has won 13 of the last 15 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournaments for players who are under 18.

But with more and more youngsters leaving Europe, other countries might not be as healthy.

“If I seem conflicted up there, it is because I am,” Regier said. “We’re working in a system where we’re competing with other teams in the National Hockey League and we’re trying to figure out how to take the system and best utilize it for our purposes of winning hockey games.

“As soon as you make that investment and you draft that player, now you have two years to sign him, and once you place your bet on that individual you want to take control of that individual more often than not.”

Taking control usually means taking the prospect out of Europe.

The effect is that the European leagues lose talent and the level of competition can decrease. That could affect the development of other players. And some speakers Tuesday argued that having a Swede or a Slovak play his formative years in Canada might rob him of his uniqueness as a European.

“What is the real advantage in bringing young teenagers over to Canada to make them prototypical Canadians before they can play in the NHL?” asked Murray Costello, the vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

“If you look at the guys who stayed over there they bring so much to the game. If we leave them there long enough to develop in their own way they bring a distinct style and distinct flavour to the game, all of which is thoroughly enjoyed by the ticket-buying public. Why would we want to change that?”

The difficulty is that the collective bargaining agreement places a small window on getting a drafted player into the NHL.

In the past, once an NHL team drafted a player out of Europe, the team could take however long it wanted before signing him. But the league’s CBA now has a two-year limit on signing the player to a three-year, entry-level contract.

That puts pressure on an NHL team to quickly get the most out of its investment. And some players are being rushed to the professional level before they are fully developed.

“We are trying to get our players as quickly as possible,” Regier said. “In the old system, we had a chance to draft them and watch them and make a determination of when they were ready to play in the NHL and then sign them at that time.”

The result is that more draft-eligible players are reportedly leaving Europe to get a head start on their professional careers.

According to Slavomir Lener, the director of the Czech national teams, 527 Europeans were drafted into the Canadian Hockey League from 1997 to 2005. Of those, less than half (255) were drafted into the NHL, with only 4.2 per cent having played in at least 400 games.

“Players who break their line of development at home very often lose their national characteristics and they become hybrids,” said Lener, who coached the Czech Republic to a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics. “They are just OK. They haven’t even been great.”

Czech-born Jakub Voracek might be one of those hybrids. The Czech-born forward left Kladno to play for the Halifax Mooseheads during his draft year and was selected seventh overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007. Since then, he has scored a combined 25 goals and 88 points in two NHL seasons.

“I thought he was going to be a top-calibre player,” said Lener. “Whether he gets there or not, it’s too early to tell.”

It still might be too early to tell whether what the world is witnessing is cyclical or an actual problem.

Because, as Costello reminded everyone Tuesday: “Ten years ago, people wondered about Canada’s skill.”

National Post

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