The best in the world

Tim Kolupanowich
November 20, 2012

It’s said that one’s trash is another’s treasure and leagues around the world are benefitting from the presence of locked out NHL players. Showcasing their skills for the entire world to see, these players are making leagues across the globe stronger, similar to how the AHL has never been better.

Evgeni Malkin (Magnitogorsk Metallurg) was the Hart Trophy winner and Ilya Kovalchuk (St. Petersberg SKA) was in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy until a back injury severely limited his effectiveness in the final. Both are happy to showcase their skills in their homeland, putting up 10-21-31 and 10-17-27 respectively.

Of course, they’re joined by other Russian stars such as Pavel Datsyuk (CSKA Moscow), Alex Ovechkin (Moscow Dynamo) and Nail Yakupov (Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik) whose 10 goals in 14 games thus far shows he could easily be tearing up NHL arenas. With 37 NHL players in total now suiting up for KHL clubs, it’s easy to see the draw of Russian hockey. If things go well for them, it’ll be interesting to see how many players decide to stay once the NHL and Players’ Association reach an agreement. You should expect top stars to want to return, but Russian-born players and B-level players who now have the chance to be the go-to guy might just want to stick around overseas.

Just to prove how good the talent is that usually fills NHL rinks, third line and depth players like Ruslan Fedotenko, Alexei Ponikarovski (both on Donbass HC) and Kaspars Daugavins (Riga Dynamo) are suddenly among the top players on their teams. Some could argue that it just shows how weak other leagues are, but the reality is these players, including the pluggers and grinders, are the best at what they do and that fact appears lost all too often.

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Stations such as ESPN and MSG Network are showing KHL games, an unlikely event had there been an NHL season. It’s no doubt that the league that was compared to the AHL (at best) during its first few years is now a true force, as each team has a genuine superstar. Intrigue is enough to bring fans in for a few games and a higher level of competition is keeping them there.

While the KHL may be getting most of the attention, taking many of the big stars and even a few slots on television, many of the smaller, lesser-known leagues are also playing host to North American players this season. The German Elite League (DEL) and Germany’s Second Tier League (2.GBun) have become the home to 10 NHL stars. While some have only played a handful of games, the rest are dominating.

German-born Marcel Goc (Mannheim Eagles) has three goals and 14 points in only 12 games – a point-per-game total he has never been close to before – and is already second in team scoring. Meanwhile, Christian Ehrhoff (Krefeld Penguins), who had a sub-par season last year in Buffalo, already has recorded eight goals and 14 points in 17 games, tying him for 10th in the league in goals. Jamie Benn (Hamburg Freezers) has seven goals and 15 points in 13 games, numbers he could have approached in Dallas had he been able to continue his career track this season.

All three are having impressive seasons, but they’re nowhere near the level of production of Philadelphia centers Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere, both of whom signed with the Berlin Polar Bears. Despite playing only half the schedule so far, Briere is sixth in league scoring with four goals and 20 points in 10 games while Giroux is seventh with four goals and 19 points in nine games. Both players are happy where they are even if it may not be their first choice, as the stars indicated after their first practice.

A lot of players are flying high in the Swiss Alps, in fact so many NHLers have flocked to Switzerland the phenomenon was covered in a recent issue of The Hockey News under the headline “Paradise Found.” The Swedish Elite League offers a wealth of talent and competitiveness before a picture-perfect backdrop of mountain ranges and lakes, which is why 25 NHLers have made their way to the tiny country just north of Italy.

Damien Brunner, last season’s scoring champion, leads the league in points once again, but a quick glance at the top-10 point producers yields many familiar names. Linus Omark (EV Zug) with eight goals and 29 points in 20 games, Tyler Seguin (ECH Biel) with 13 and 23 in 15 games, and Logan Couture (Geneve Servette) has seven and 21 in 15 games. They won’t be alone for long however, as others are storming up the charts. Patrice Bergeron (HC Lugano), Henrik Zetterberg (EV Zug), John Tavares (SC Bern) and Rick Nash (HC Davos) are producing at an incredible pace and will crack the top-10 in no time.

The best in the world are finally all over the world, giving fans everywhere a chance to see live the players they’ve only seen on highlight reels. Attendance is spiking across Europe and the DEL is expecting to break the record for largest crowd in Europe ever. As disappointed as we all are to see the see the season cancelled, it must be great for fans in Europe and as a greater interest in hockey and NHL players over there could mean a higher influx of European players in the coming years.

Contrary to popular belief, hockey isn’t gone, it’s just the NHL. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big a deal for a league where cancellations are fast becoming the norm, as it’s no longer the only place to catch a game – or play in one. Finland, Norway, the Czech Republic and many other hockey-mad countries are reaping the benefits of the lockout and the players, at least on the outside, seem just fine simply playing hockey somewhere they’re wanted.

The NHL and Players’ Association both need to understand they are dealing with the best of the best and all that their bickering and stand offs are accomplishing is keeping long-time, loyal fans from enjoying the sublime skills they have grown accustomed to watching. The players are getting cheered, playing hockey and having fun while allowing fans to finally encounter the best their own nations have produced. They’re the toast of the world, let’s not forget that.

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The Author:

Tim Kolupanowich