It’s obviously the consensus amongst hockey fans in North America, but I think most fans of European hockey would agree too: the NHL is the best league in the world.
Because of that fact, when there’s a lockout, most of us have a pretty predictable reaction: “oh man, when these NHLers join those lesser leagues, they’re going to own those guys – the KHL…ha!”
So when you pull up the Top 5 Scorers list in the KHL and don’t see any NHL players, you may have the same reaction as many others. “…Hm.”
Well, there’s Alexander Radulov, but he’s not exactly “an NHLer,” so…where are they? Kovalchuk has 10 points in a mere six games, which makes you wonder: what should our expectation of them be? Aren’t they supposed to be dominating like the CKSA captain?
A quick bounce around the other European leagues looks much the same. No player that we’d consider an “NHLer” is running show anywhere else. There were a few notable names (generous review) hovering around top 10′s, but nobody’s threatening a top spot – Linus Omark and Cody Almond are on the Swiss Elite League board, Filip Forsberg is on the Swedish second league’s (I know, I’m reaching), Alex Steen is in the mix in the Swedish elite league, Ville Niemenen is fifth in the Finnish league (again, reaching), but other than that…nobody. Not a single recognizable NHLer shows up as a top scorer in the German or Danish elite leagues. Frans Nielsen, where you at, homie? (Note: he has four assists in four games. I’ll give that a “meh.”)
During the last lockout, as I recently wrote, there were some success stories:
1) ECHL: Scott Gomez wins scoring title and league MVP
2) AHL: Jason Spezza scores 117 points, wins scoring title and league MVP
3) SEL (Swedish Elite League): Henrik Zetterberg racks up 50 points, wins scoring title
4) SEL: Henrik Lundqvist wins league MVP and Best Goalie award
5) DEL(Deutsche Eishockey Liga, AKA German Hockey League): Mike York (wait, who?), 2nd in league scoring
6) DEL: Eric Cole, MVP of playoffs
But I want it happening on a broad scale, and I want it happening now. Like most NHL fans, I hope for complete and utter ownership of those leagues. So, let’s first take a look at reasons why players may fare as they do, and then lay down reasonable expectations for our favourite players battling it out in other leagues.
* Adjusting to a new style
European hockey is, believe it or not, not North American hockey. North American hockey qualifies as a lot more of a “north-south” game that placing emphasis on driving the far post, finishing your check, taking the hit to make the play and getting pucks in deep (guh, what a terrible style). European play is more about puck possession (allow me to generalize here), more east-west, and more “don’t fire until you see the whites of their twine.”
That’ll take some adjusting for NHL players, as what they’re used to doing may not be as effective in a different style of play. Changes in the size of the ice in some places will have an affect on them too.
* Comfort level
While getting settled off the ice is one thing (and actually, a fairly sizable thing), getting settled on the ice matters too. Hesitating because you’re not sure of a new system, of new linemates, and a new language can hamper a player’s ability to be effective early on. There’s bound to be an adjustment period.
All three things mentioned so far really come down to getting used to what’s wanted and what’s not wanted within a hockey game over there. Ryan Hollweg is a bit of a thug, but 91 minutes in PIMs and a six game suspension – after three games in Europe – definitely means things are a bit different than they are on this side of the pond. Hell, his suspension play would’ve been two minutes in North America, had the ref decided not to call a dive on Petrovicky.
* They’re targeted
There’s a measure of pride to be upheld when the feriners (foreigners) come to your league and try to steal the show, so it’s likely NHL stars are seeing an extra spot of attention.
* Improved leagues
The KHL has easily seen the biggest influx in NHL talent (good hockey and they pay well), and it’s not like all the guys went to one squad. Most teams have a few NHL players that have improved their overall talent level from previous seasons.
* Oh yeah, those other leagues aren’t jokes
As much as I’ve enjoyed playing the “NHL RULES” card, the gap between the KHL and NHL is not what someone like Ryan Lambert would have you believe. There’s a number of quality hockey players over there, and the fact that some of the NHL players may be incrementally better doesn’t mean it’s going to be utter dominance every time they hit the ice.
Other players and leagues have been catching up to the NHL since the last lockout, so you can’t expect an NHL player to lead every league in scoring. What I also don’t expect, is maximum effort. Even last night, after I wrote my post on the stacked Alaska Aces, I heard news from people in Alaska that the NHLers on the team were flat-out not trying. They want to stay in shape, but proving their better than ECHLers is not a top priority for them, and it may be the same for, say, Joe Thornton in the Swiss elite league.
What I think is fair, is that our offensive stars playing in foreign leagues show up on page one of the points leaderboard. They should at least make it clear that they’re elite at that level. They don’t have to prove they’re the best, but c’mon guys, we have some face to save here. The NHL is embarrassing enough as is these days – please don’t pile on the North American hockey fans by sucking it up in Europe.