There's been a bit of a buzz around a European netminder the whole postseason so far. It started with Henrik Lundqvist, who won three games essentially on his own, but the attention quickly moved to Russian youngster Simeon Varlamov, who has stepped in and led the Capitals to a 1-0 series lead in Round 2.
Now onto Jonas Hiller, who was — but for one ugly goal against — terrific in a triple overtime win by the Ducks on Sunday night.
European netminders playing a starring role in the playoffs isn't really a new phenonmenon — we saw it often with Dominik Hasek, for one, during his career — but one trend that's seeming to take hold lately is that more and more teams are turning to undrafted European league stars in their mid- to late 20s for their most important position:
- The Wild brought over Niklas Backstrom three years ago at age 28, and now he's a Vezina finalist
- The Ducks pursued Hiller at 25 after he led Davos to a Swiss league title, and he's been a big reason Anaheim's had any success this season
- The Kings signed on Erik Ersberg, then 25, in 2007-08, and he posted a .927 save percentage on a team that was dead last in the West that year
- This past fall, Chicago brought aboard 25-year-old Antti Niemi, who is considered a lock for a role with the Blackhawks next season after playing in the AHL all year
And then there are many others like the Predators' Pekka Rinne, who was deemed worthy of a late, late round draft pick while in his 20s back in 2004.
The NHL draft is a crapshoot when it comes to any position, but given scouts are looking at 17- and 18-year-old players, goaltenders are even tougher to project. They're often at that point only backups, playing every fourth or fifth game, and in my mind, that's part of the reason you see so few taken in the first round. Of the top 10 netminders in save percentage this year, for example, only Luongo was picked in the top two rounds. Of the rest, Backstrom and Hiller were undrafted, and five others — like Rinne — were taken in the eighth or ninth rounds (which no longer exist).
Add in the fact that European players are, in general, not as heavily scouted as those playing in the CHL or NCAA, and it makes sense that some elite netminders in other countries fall through the cracks only to emerge six or seven years down the road.
The news, then, that the Flyers are perhaps looking to sign Ray Emery for next season made me wonder if, instead, the real search should be on for the next Jonas Hiller or Niklas Backstrom. After all, Emery wasn't the KHL's top goaltender this season — or even the top one on his own team — and his skillset (and salary expectations) when it comes to the NHL have been established. It very well may be that there are more gems playing in the European leagues worth taking a flier on.
Among regular starters from the KHL and Sweden and Finland's top leagues (which should be relatively comparable in terms of netminders' skill level) here are the save percentage leaders from this past season:
|6||Koskinen, Mikko *||Blues||FIN||33||1,91||93.2|
A few recognizable names for North Americans on there, with Emery being the main one. Note too that Robert Esche and Johan Holmqvist, who essentially played their way out of the NHL, have emerged overseas as solid keepers.
As for the unknowns, Jonas Gustavsson is the man getting a lot of attention these days, what with the Leafs, Stars and several other teams looking to sign him after the world championships. He has the numbers to back that up.
Jacob Markstrom, meanwhile, is only 19 and was a second-round pick by the Panthers at the draft last summer. He starred for Team Sweden at the world junior tournament, and is one of those rare European netminders on the radar from an early age.
Another in that vein is Mikko Koskinen, a 6-foot-7 youngster who is expected to be picked in this summer's draft. There's some real buzz building about him given his size and athleticism during a breakout season in Finland.
Others on the radar include: Modig, who was drafted by the Ducks in the fourth round in 2007. The Preds, who seem to like this route, took Lassila back in 2003 and then Lindback last year, while the Stars drafted Kilpelainen. None of these 'tenders have come over to this point as all have likely preferred to star in their home leagues rather than work their way up through the AHL. (There are generally few European goalies in the minors each season.)
The rest of the players on this list, however, are relatively unknown in North America despite playing at a high level in their respective leagues.
Rather than look to an Emery, and the baggage that comes with him, would it not make more sense to pursue one of the other European league standouts from this past year?
My guess is there's a couple more Hillers on this list we haven't heard from yet.