Before we begin, I’d like to once again thank our good friend Patrik from EOTP for his invaluable input!
It can be hard to track progress of potential NHL Prospects. Especially nowadays, even in an age of information bombardment.
From Shot data to TOI data to even some basic stuff like points sometimes, it can feel like dredging up information on a 17 to 18 year old playing in Moose Jaw is a herculean task. It can get even more annoying in Europe, where players can feel like they’ve had five seasons in one and have such wildly fluctuating leagues who are either inconsistently tracked or require a VPN to adequately watch, it can feel a bit strange to properly understand just why certain players might be so highly touted if the numbers don’t seem to add up at first glance.
So I decided to create a simplified overview on how to best understand european hockey and the prospect system, and why certain prospects can end up ranked the way they are through their development tracks!
And the first thing that will explain a lot about how this works is...
Most European Hockey Pyramids model themselves off of Football (The soccer kind) Pyramids
Europe’s major hockey leagues (SHL, Liiga, Czech Extraliga, Swiss National League, DEL, Austrian First Liga, etc.) and their feeder leagues base themselves on a pyramid structure often seen in European Soccer leagues like Ligue One or the Premiere League, where relegation and promotion are always both threat and promise, and teams develop their own talent from within from a very young age in order to compete. This means that prospects are often deeply familiar with their systems, and also deeply aware of the stakes of their play. Most run their systems from an Under-14 to Under-20 junior system, that then feeds into the professional leagues. Some have their specific quirks, like split divisions for certain age brackets, but most follow a general formula.
This also means that a prospect’s development track, if they don’t quit or are injured, is more or less laid out for them throughout their hockey careers, as shown here:
This generally means that the closer to the Big League they are, the more promise they hold (usually).
The reason guys like Stanislav Svozil began turning heads when he was 16 is that he went to the Czech Extraliga, it’s highest level, as a 16 year old, playing against real-life men and being talented enough to hold his own. In the grand realm of European hockey, this kind of thing can happen at any time, as there’s usually a decent crop of young talent that ends up being far and away better than their contemporaries in their age group, and will often get bumped up the junior pyramid just to see how far they can handle.
For NHL-Bound prospects, it’s often their 17th or 18th year on this hell-sphere where they get their first crack at professional league action, but the truly exceptional ones can often break that mold and show up even earlier, though often at the end of seasons with only a game or two. That’s not to say there aren’t good players in say, J20 SuperElit, but the first round talent almost universally ends up playing their first top league game sometime before then.
It’s perfectly normal for prospects to get limited ice time, get sent down, or loaned.
Let’s use an actual player to discuss this particular phenomenon:
This is Oskar Olausson, a perfectly cromulent mid-to-late first round pick from the Swedish team HV71. Olausson was the second-youngest player on HV71 this year at 18, and put up 4 points in 15 games. Not an especially high number of points by any stretch of the imagination, but it suddenly makes a little more sense when you go to HV71’s stats page and sort by TOI per game played; Olausson, the youngest forward on the team, was averaging less than 10 minutes a night.
That sounds kind of bad at first, but let’s put it like this:
Olausson started his season at 18 in the J20 Nationell (which probably would’ve been a season with the J20 SuperElit but lmfao pandemic), and was over a point per game at that level. Then, he was called up to play 10 minutes a night on the fourth line of a men’s professional league team, often against players ten years his senior. When the team felt they could improve his development time but couldn’t find it on their own roster, they sent him on loan to SSK in the HockeyAllsvenskan, a league lower down the Swedish hockey pyramid, and he responded with a more respectable 6 points in 11 games. Not a bad start to a professional career, though still with plenty of room to grow! (And at 6’2, it’s not like he’s needed any additional help in that category). He even got valuable playoff experience in both a relegation series (for HV71, which they lost) and a Promotion series. (For SSK, which they could not gain. That’s gonna be awkward.) Olausson’s story is also definitely not unique for Swedish youths this year, as the J20 SuperElit’s closure for the year meant a lot of young talent needed a place to go, and so loans, an already prevalent part of their development, became even more prevalent.
Players in these systems often get moved at the drop of a hat all for that one purpose; development. Coaches at the pro and U20 level are very well acquainted with each other and form tight-knit relationships between the squads, to the point that the U20 and “Top team” often play the same system in order to make sure players understand it when they inevitably graduate out of Junior. This benefits these players immensely as even if the player isn’t picked in the upcoming NHL draft, it still means valuable development time not just for the player as a draft pick, but for that team, and so maximizing it is always considered a plus.
National Team selection also helps a prospect out a lot as well.
A lot of European players get their big day of real scrutiny and first real push of hype at the World Juniors or the U18 World Juniors, because that will be one of the biggest stages those players will be on all year, and naturally will be expected to perform against the best in the world.
While naturally any player would be enormously honored to play for their country, over in Eurasia they take that a lot more seriously than they do on our side of the pond, especially when it means that certain players will be fixtures of the national team for years to come, and those national teams don’t just convene for the major IIHF events; they often play friendlies throughout the season which pits these highly talented players against each other at a much more potent clip than say, playing for Canada’s U18 “black” squad might be. So it’s not just good to be selected, it’s even better to be invited back more than once! Of course, the max amount of times you can say, represent Switzerland at the WJC is exceedingly limited, but it does mean quite a bit for a prospect to be a mainstay.
Russia, of course, has to do things differently, because they don’t have time to work things out.
Oh dearest Россия, whatever would we do without you needing to do
Russia’s system is superficially close to the North American system: The Major League, three minor leagues, and two major junior leagues. Where it changes a lot is that prospects in Russia are completely at the mercy of the supremely goofy and extremely competitive world of the KHL, VHL, and MHL, which is famously quite difficult to leave. And not just for the reason of “going all the way around the world to play in a place where Russian is not even the eighth most spoken language”, but also because Russian prospects are on an exceptionally tight leash because of just how fierce the competition can be; not just with ice time, but also with their own compensation; there are more than a couple of cases of prospects having to buy themselves out of their own contract because their KHL team won’t let them leave on their own. Our friend Patrik got to speak to Gillian Kemmerer about this in much more detail in his podcast Habsent Minded (begins in detail at around 8:30 in).
All of those especially fun issues to drop on an 18 year old results add up to Russian prospects having to take a longer, more ponderous path to make it in North America, which usually drives scouts and General Managers nuts because they want them now, not when Magnitogorsk’s contract runs out. Of course, truly exceptional talent can bypass this, but for the most part, Russian players have an uphill battle to constantly make the show.
And there you have it! I hope this is in some way helpful for any future discussions of European players in this series, and in the future at any point!