Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Game Time" -- The Best Of Both Worlds

(originally published December 23, 2006)

In the last two editions of "Tomorrow's Blues," we've discussed the reactions of one European player (Magnus Kahnberg) to his assignment to Peoria, and we've addressed some of the issues that player raised upon his return to Europe. We also noted that, based on these experiences, and the Blues' experiences with other European prospects who spent time in major junior after being drafted, the course of wisdom seems to lie with getting European prospects over to North America as soon as possible after their selection in the draft.

The skill level and creativity of the average European-trained player is highly desirable in the modern NHL. The economics of the game, however, are such that most young European players can make considerably more money by remaining in their home countries and signing contracts with elite league clubs there, than they can by signing entry-level two-way contracts and starting their pro careers in the AHL. Staying in Europe offers the benefits of little or no professional risk to the player, and no adjustment to a new culture or a new language.

The lure of making good money to stay among family and friends is a powerful one, often to much for many young European players to resist. They are driven to achieve the highest level of competition in their home countries, and that's admirable, but the drive to do whatever it takes to make it to the NHL is not present in these players, as it is with young North Americans who are prepared to pay the price to achieve the highest level of competition that their home country has to offer.

But what of the young European player who willingly leaves his home and familiar surroundings at age 16 or 17, and journeys halfway around the world in search of the most challenging level of competition? For the most part, these are players who could remain in their home countries, play in the top junior leagues there, and be dominant in that setting. With modern scouting methods and communications technology, these players stand as much chance of being seen in Prague as they do in Portland. They could probably be higher profile players at home, in fact; big fish in smaller ponds, as it were.

What causes some young Europeans to cross the pond in their draft year, or even earlier, in some cases?

Character, that's what. Acceptance of the reality that the road to the NHL, for all but the most truly exceptional and gifted of young players, leads through such places as Syracuse, San Antonio, and yes, Peoria. By willingly coming to North America as teenagers, and acclimating themselves to the North American game and culture, these players are demonstrating a commitment to the National Hockey League dream, rather than the dream of being stars in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland or the Czech Republic. And that speaks volumes about their character.

It seems reasonable to assume that best chance the Blues have of getting skilled Europeans to play in Peoria, is to add skilled Europeans to the system who have already crossed the pond and are showcasing their skills in the top junior leagues. To that end, then, we present a brief look at a few Europeans already playing North American hockey, who should be on the Blues' radar screen come June.

We've already talked about Jakub Voracek of Halifax (QMJHL) in this space. A solid player with NHL size and skill, Voracek seems to have the early edge in the race for the first-overall pick this summer. If the Blues do end up with a lottery pick, as seems likely, Voracek is a player they would almost certainly be looking at very closely.

If, however, the Blues don't end up with a lottery pick, there are other top-notch Europeans who should still be available with later first-round selections. Out west, Michal Repik of Vancouver (5-11, 185, born 12-31-88) is a skilled stickhandler with a good shot, and his excellent speed and elite mobility have helped him to 15 goals and 33 points (plus-7, 28 PIM) in 33 games. There's also Oscar Moller of the expansion Chilliwack Bruins (5-11, 177, born 01-22-89), who has racked up 19 goals and 33 points (plus-6, 24 PIM) in 34 games with grit and determination.

On defense, Tri-City's towering Juraj Valach (6-06, 210, born 02-01-89) has four goals and 18 points, with a plus-4 mark and 26 PIM in 27 games. Another defenseman worth a look in the late first or early second round is David Skokan (6-00, 202, born 12-06-88) of Rimouski (QMJHL), who is an intense and determined player with good skating skills and a heavy shot from the point. Skokan has used those attributes to the tune of seven goals and 22 points, with 36 PIM, in 27 games so far this year.

Skokan's teammate in Rimouski is Russian forward Maxim Gratchev (5-11, 198, born 09-26-88), an effortless skater with soft hands and a willingness to battle for loose pucks. Gratchev currently leads the Oceanic with 14-23-37 totals (minus -7, 52 PIM) in 36 games. Another European forward with good hands and skating skills is Patrik Lusnak (6-00, 180, born 11-06-88) of the Sudbury Wolves (OHL). The young Slovak is still getting used to the North American game, but his 9-14-23 totals (plus-4, 21 PIM) in 35 games show that the adjustment isn't proving to be difficult so far.

There's also an interesting prospect in the USHL, Stockholm native Calle Ridderwall of the Tri-City Storm (5-11, 170, born 05-28-88) This is a player who knows where the net is; in 76 games with the junior "B" Chicago Chill last season, Ridderwall piled up 52 goals and 118 points. This year, he's leading the Storm with 13-15-28 totals in 22 games (24 PIM, plus-9, 7 PPG, 3 GWG), and he'll be attending Notre Dame in the fall of 2007. A late-round pick spent on this player just might pay big dividends for the Blues in five years or so.

Look for more on these players, and others, in future articles in this space, and on the Web along with archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com. Until next time, remember... "if we do not prepare for ourselves the role of the hammer, there will be nothing left but that of the anvil." Auf wiedersehen.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Great stuff. You really do the best analysis of the future Blues. Appreciate all your work.

I think "character" is the wrong word to use when discussing what young Europeans want. That implies that those who come to North America are "strong" and those who don't are "weak".

The right word is "commitment" or "desire". As you point out, the Blues have to do a better job of determining which Europeans want to play in North America and how their development can be enhanced.