PITTSBURGH — When hot-shot prospect Nail Yakupov came to North America to play in the Canadian Hockey League, he didn’t know English well enough to get around. He leaned on an American friend who knew Russian, teammate Alex Galchenyuk, for translation as long as he could.
Galchenyuk knew Yakupov was adjusting to the English language as he read menus in restaurants perfectly well and had an up-close look at his seamless on-ice adjustment with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
And while it’s not the easiest thing in the world for European players to leave their homes for the draw of playing Canadian junior hockey, many elite prospects are taking the leap with the hope that it’s a path to the NHL.
“I think that there are more of the top-end players from Europe using the junior route just to get that exposure, that experience,” said Dan Marr, head of NHL Central scouting. “There’s an argument that it may be a fast track to the National Hockey League. Always that’s what the player’s geared toward is to a fast track because then all the eggs are in one basket.”
Scouts traverse Europe to find the best prospects, but many of them are coming to North America because, as Marr and Washington Capitals director of scouting Ross Mahoney conceded, it’s easier to evaluate them. Junior leagues are more akin to the NHL than those in Europe.
“It’s a fast track to scout and draft a player. What it does is it exposes a player to what it’s going to be like as far as playing an NHL schedule and a bit of a pro lifestyle. They get more exposure to that in the junior environment,” Marr said. “Guys, their development is accelerated. Some guys rise to the occasion and others fall by the wayside.”
Several have risen to the occasion. Over the past two seasons, six European prospects playing in the CHL have become first-round picks. As many as five, Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Radek Faksa, Olli Maata and Martin Frk, could be first-rounders Friday night at Consol Energy Center.
And while several of those players called the language barrier the biggest hurdle, the allure of playing in the best league in the world was worth it.
“I think if someone wants to go here and they left family from home, it’s his dream to play [in the] NHL,” Faksa said. “I think it’s better for him go here because if he wants to play NHL, it’s better him go for CHL and play here.”
While the top examples of this trend span Russia, Sweden and Finland, Mahoney said the majority of Europeans playing Canadian junior hockey are coming from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That’s due in large part to the weakness of those nations’ junior leagues and the unenviable choice of needing to either take less playing time competing against men or not facing the challenges needed to prepare for the NHL.
But once European players make the decision to play in the CHL, or even the United States Hockey League, they get not only the exposure of more scouts and general managers at games but a preview of what professional life could be like.
“They’re playing a North American game. They’re playing in smaller rinks, they’re playing by North American rules. So it’s more consistent with what’s required at this level,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “So you get a better feel for those players, and it’s obviously good for them because they’re learning all new things about the new culture and trying to assimilate that way. They learn to speak English better and everything else. So in all kinds of ways it’s a good experience for them and helps NHL clubs evaluate.”
Maata, a Finnish defenseman whom Dale Hunter discovered and drafted to play for his London Knights, explained that he was forced to adapt his game to a North American style: “Making the decisions faster, becoming more physical, being ready to get hit,” he said. “It probably makes it easier to make the jump to the NHL.”
Last year’s No. 2 pick, Gabriel Landeskog, proved that to be true. Physically mature as a teenager, the Colorado Avalanche forward won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
But Marr made it clear that while Landeskog has experienced success, it’s not a path that’s fit for every European prospect with his sights set on playing pro hockey here.
“What you don’t hear about is all the players that came over [to] North America that didn’t get drafted very high or drafted at all or didn’t make it. They far outnumber those that do make it,” Marr said. “It doesn’t matter what draft or how you view things: The National Hockey League is a tough league to get to and play in and only the very best make it. It’s a place for the very best players to accelerate their development, but for the rest of the guys it might not necessarily be the best move.”
It looks like coming to North America at a young age was the right move for Caps prospect Stan Galiev, who starred for Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He left Russia at age 16 to play in the USHL, too, and Mahoney said those four years and the chance to play in two Memorial Cup tournaments greatly helped his development.
Galiev exemplifies what time and patience can do for prospects, and though it’s not the “fast track,” the 20-year-old wing turns pro this fall and isn’t far from his NHL dream.
A few more European players will take another step toward that during the first round of the draft Friday night, widening the path for more to follow. But it’s far from the only way for the best in the world to get to this point.
“If you’re good enough, you’re going to make it whatever way that you take,” Mahoney said. “We know that players take different highways to arrive at the same spot.”