(originally published December 21, 2006)
Previously in this space, we looked into some comments made by former Peoria Riverman Magnus Kahnberg upon his return to Sweden at the beginning of December. The speedy winger was apparently dissatisfied with a "slow, static" style of play by the Rivermen, and was negotiating with the Blues about going back to Sweden even while telling Peoria in the papers that he wasn't looking to get out.
In an interview, part of which was excerpted here, Kahnberg raised some issues about Peoria and the Rivermen, issues that deserve a serious look. In today's column, we'll take that look and talk about what the Rivermen are doing right, and what they could perhaps be doing differently.
As previously mentioned, Kahnberg is not the first Blues' prospect of European descent to pass on the opportunity to ply his trade in central Illinois this winter. Second-round selections Carl Söderberg (2004) and Alexei Shkotov (2002) also balked at assignment to Peoria from the Blues' training camp, and both are currently playing in their home countries (Sweden and Russia, respectively).
Söderberg's decision to return home wasn't completely unexpected, as he had said last season that if his hometown team (IF Malmö Red Hawks) was able to work their way into the Swedish Elite League from the Allsvenskan (Division II), he wanted to play at least one year in the SEL, in front of his hometown fans and family. Shkotov had various family issues in Russia, and never even showed up for camp.
Söderberg is better than even money to be back next year, and will probably challenge for an NHL roster spot based on his play in Sweden so far. Shkotov, on the other hand, does not appear to be interested in coming back at all, and based on what he's done in Russia so far this year, that might not be any great loss. Still, however, the question remains: what, if anything, are the Blues doing to get their European prospects interested in coming over and paying their dues in the AHL, and more importantly, what are they doing to ease their transition when the Europeans do make it across the pond?
In a couple of interviews with the Swedish media, Kahnberg mentioned that there was little for the players to do off the ice in Peoria, and implied that the organization had left him on his own, more or less, to find his own way in America. That may well be because Kahnberg, at 26, was no green kid just off the reindeer farm in Sweden... but if the Blues' organization is also leaving the younger Euros to fend for themselves when coming over, that could be a problem.
There have been no reports of the young Europeans being left on their own, but the Blues would do well to create and publicize a program whereby new young players who don't speak English as a first language are enrolled in English classes even before stepping off the bus in Peoria for the first time, and assigned a "host" family who speaks their language and/or is familiar with their native culture. The Booster Club would be a great resource for the "host" families, as booster clubs at the minor-league level are generally populated by younger single adults and families who are eager for any chance to spend time with "their" players, and genuinely want to do whatever they can to help the team and promote them in the home city.
That's just one suggestion for helping the Europeans make the transition when they get here, but can any improvement be made in the process of getting them here in the first place? At first glance, it might seem that the Blues as an organization are chronically deficient in getting top European prospects to come to America, but in reality, the Blues currently have four young Europeans playing at Peoria -- LW Michal Birner, D Roman Pola'k, G Marek Schwarz, and RW Konstantin Zakharov -- and all have been making contributions.
The common thread with each of these players is that all four of them came over from Europe the year after being drafted by the Blues, and played at least one season of major junior hockey in the CHL. Birner started in Barrie of the OHL in 2004 before being traded to Saginaw midway through his first season. Pola'k and Schwarz each played the 2004-05 season in the Western League, with Kootenay and Vancouver respectively, before returning home in 2005-06 to play in the Czech Extraliga. Zakharov came over in 2003 after being chosen by the Blues 101st overall that summer, and racked up 33 goals in 55 games with Moncton of the QMJHL.
The time spent in North America prior to turning pro can not have been anything but beneficial to these players, in terms of helping them make the adjustment to a new language and a new way of life. Based on this admittedly small sample, the conclusion is reached that the best way for the Blues to get their European prospects prepared for the road to the NHL is to get them over to North America immediately after drafting them. This was the plan for 2006 draftee Tomas Kana (31st overall), who was verbally committed to Owen Sound of the OHL before doing an about-face and going back to the Czech Republic to play in the Extraliga for Vitkovice.
Other European prospects like Juhamatti Aaltonen of Finland, and Russians Viktor Alexandrov, Konstantin Barulin, Nikolai Lemtyugov and Nikita Nikitin have been playing the last two seasons in the elite leagues in their home countries, and are now of age to come directly to the AHL (Barulin, at 22, is the oldest). The transition for these players will probably be more difficult because they have had little or no exposure to the North American game or way of life, choosing instead to develop through their late teens and early 20's at home. Based on the Blues' experience with other European prospects, the odds are against any of these players ever making an appearance in the American League, and subsequently on the Blues' roster.
When it comes to Europeans, the Blues as an organization are fond of their talent and skill level, so it would seem that the plan needs to be to draft them and place them with a major junior team right away, in the season immediately following the draft in which the player is chosen, if at all possible.
There is, however, an alternative, one which the Blues have yet to avail themselves of during the Jarmo Kekalainen era. We'll look at that alternative in greater detail in the next edition of "Tomorrow's Blues." Until then, check out archived "Tomorrow's Blues" articles and other prospect-related content on the "Future 'Notes" blog at http://futurenotes.blogspot.com, and 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.