Next season the Toronto Maple Leafs will rely on multiple undrafted players to play big minutes in the NHL, most being European Free Agents. Pending a new contract, Ilya Mikheyev will be on the welcoming committee for new joiners Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen. Calle Rosen may provide cheap depth on the blue line as well.
It seems that every year the Leafs are interested in a new “free wallet” player, and why not, there is virtually no downside. At this point though the league is catching on, and there is more competition for every player. I wanted to see what the net benefit of signing these free agents has been, why the strategy has garnered so much attention.
Instead of just listing off the most successful European FA signings, I decided to put together a lineup. It’s a mix of players who provided the most single-season utility, and players who found consistent success in their roles. In one form or another all of these players were playing in European leagues, free to be had for any NHL team that could negotiate a deal with them.
Panarin – Dadonov – Zuccarello
The first line of the European FA team packs some punch. Artemi Panarin had a 22 year old season in the KHL that was only exceeded by Jan Kovar and Alex Radulov. That has since been matched by Kirill Kaprizov (look out for that guy when he moves to the NHL), but Panarin was a superstar in Russia. He represents what every team is searching for overseas, and he scored 151 points on his 2-year ELC in Chicago. The Blackhawks were also able to trade him for a coveted asset, a common theme amongst Euro FAs. In 2019-20 he put up 95 points in 69 games, and he’s averaged over a point per game in his NHL career.
Evgenii Dadonov was drafted by Florida in 2007, briefly playing 55 games for the Panthers before returning to Russia in 2012. He was an unrestricted free agent by the time he decided to return to Florida in the 2017 offseason. Dadonov has been a borderline 1C for Florida, contributing to a strong powerplay. In his 2nd iteration of three seasons with the Panthers he has produced 0.81 P/G, great value on a $4m cap hit.
Mats Zuccarello was one of the first and most successful European FAs, signing with the Rangers back in 2010. He signed after recording 64 points in the SHL, only matched by Kristian Huselieus and Hakan Loob at that age. Thus far in his career Zucc has 392 points at a .68 P/G rate. Originating from Norway he is already unique in the NHL, being 5’7″ makes it all the more fascinating that he has found such success and made over $30m in the NHL. His best season was 2015-16, recording 26 goals and 61 points.
While this trio would be on the low end of NHL first lines, teams would jump at the chance to add a player of this calibre for free. Panarin and Dadonov even have some existing chemistry, playing together on SKA St. Petersburg in 2014-15.
Kubalik – M. Karlsson – Kahun
While Dominik Kubalik was drafted by Los Angeles in 2013, you could say any team that wanted him could have him. Any team with a 5th round pick, that is. You know that NHL teams would bend the rules to add a 30 goal scorer, so I will too.
Kubalik managed to lead both the Czech league and NLA in u30 scoring before signing an NHL deal. He’s only 24 so there is still plenty of runway left, but leading all rookie forwards with 46 points in the NHL is a good sign.
Melker Karlsson would ideally be the 3rd line center, but he’s shown staying power at the NHL level. He signed with San Jose after getting red hot in the SHL playoffs, with 12 points in 14 games for Skelleftea. In his firs two NHL seasons he recorded 51 regular season and playoff points for the Sharks. Since then he has surpassed 100 points, and is set to enter unrestricted free agency in 2020.
Dominik Kahun was nearly a point per game in the DEL as a 22 year old, but it was the Olympic Games where he got noticed. The 2nd youngest player on the team was 2nd in scoring for Germany, falling just short and collecting Silver.
In two NHL seasons Kahun is 1 point shy of 0.5 p/g, and he hasn’t celebrated his 25th birthday yet. Much like Panarin, the Hawks traded Kahun for an asset they felt could improve their team.
This line has fire power on the wings, but it would be a test for Karlsson to produce at a 2nd line rate up the middle. From a cap perspective that may be forgivable, as the whole line cost under $4m for 2019-20.
Mikheyev – P. Suter – Barabanov
Leaf fans should be familiar with Ilya Mikheyev, and to a lesser degree Alexander Barabanov. In 2018-19 that pair was 4th and 5th in u26 KHL scoring, and the season prior Barabanov was a member of the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” team that defeated Kahun’s Germany for gold.
Mikheyev is the lone player on this line with NHL experience, recording 0.59 p/g in his rookie season with the Leafs. At 6’3″ Mikheyev is rangy, paired with his speed he can cover a lot of ice on defence. When he has the puck, Mikheyev creates movement in the neutral zone and generates much of his chances on the rush. Unfortunately viewing was limited as Mikheyev suffered a laceration on his wrist, but if he can continue to produce at the same pace he would be a coveted Euro FA signing.
Barabanov is also a great skater, but in a different way. He has terrific straight line speed and edge work, covering the large KHL ice very well. I cannot point to any NHL statistics as a measure of success, but if you don’t think he can play on a 3rd line I encourage you to read up.
At center is Pius Suter, another participant in the 2018 Olympic Games. He was the youngest player on Switzerland, and led the team with 3 goals and 5 points in 4 games. That season he had the same points per game as Kubalik in the NLA, and in 2019-20 Suter led the entire NLA in scoring. He also played with Leafs draft picks Fabrice Herzog and Auston Matthews back in 2015-16.
Suter may be the least familiar name on this list, partially because he just turned 24, but he has been dominating a top level pro league for 3 years. He’s proven himself against top level competition, in international tournaments, and he’s been better than many former NHLers who try their hand at hockey in Switzerland. So why isn’t he in the NHL?
The first thing that comes to mind is that he’s under 6′. One inch under, to be exact. When looking at players that have signed from similar European leagues, any player that has approached Suter’s production and has a height beginning with 6 signed an NHL deal. There is more to consider, though. The NLA has not had a transfer agreement for the past few seasons, so just like with Russian players NHL clubs must wait until NLA contracts to expire before they can sign players from Switzerland.
Since Suter played in North America after his draft year, he was eligible to sign in the NHL before his age 22 season. However, after his performance in the 2018 Olympics and during the 2018 season, Suter signed a 4 year extension in the NLA. This contract did have an NHL out-clause, but exercising it would mean signing a Two-Way ELC that could potentially see him earn a maximum of $70k in the AHL. Since his NLA contract would pay much more than that, Suter would likely need an offer that guarantees him a stay in the NHL. If he were to sign, it would be a 1-year ELC.
Any NHL team would be wise to give him that guarantee. Suter is not the prototypical North American player, he uses the stick check before the body check, but his production is undeniable. In his age 23 season he outpaced former Leafs Marc Arcobello and Daniel Winnik, and had a higher points per game than Logan Couture did playing in the NLA during the NHL lockout (at the same age). I’ll admit that the league was much different during the lockout, but Suter has staggeringly similar results to Kubalik, who went on to have a 30 goal rookie season in the NHL. Suter also closely matches the Olympic performance of Kahun.
Here is how Suter’s p/g compares to players in similar leagues (Liiga, Czech), who signed ELCs.
It’s impossible to say how this line would fare in the NHL, but I’m confident that each player can carve out a role in the big league. On the wings are two Russians with great skating, and up the middle a Swiss two-way center with great production in Euro leagues. All three have experience and applicable skills on the Penalty Kill, to make up for their lack of experience in North American pro hockey.
Raffl – Kampf – Brunner
This line turns back the clocks a bit, with both wingers playing their first NHL games in 2013.
Michael Raffl is 3rd all time in NHL points scored by an Austrian player, trailing only Michael Grabner and Tomas Vanek. He started out in EBEL, moving to Sweden when he was 22 to play in the relegation league, Allsvenskan. He finished 5th in the league in scoring, which led the Flyers to sign him to a 1 year ELC. Raffl immediately made an impact at the NHL level, scoring 21 goals in his sophomore season, and has not played fewer than 52 games in any of his 7 NHL seasons. He has been reliable and productive in his role, a versatile player that can Penalty Kill and play in the defensive zone.
David Kampf is a depth center with size at 6’2″, with mostly unremarkable production. However, he has 3 NHL seasons and 7 pro seasons under his belt, and he turned 25 in January. The Blackhawks secured the first 4 years of his NHL career for $1m or less, and he will be an RFA in 2021. Any time an NHL team can find a 4C that young for that price, it’s a great signing from Europe.
Damien Brunner was a flash in the pan, but was it ever bright. He joined Detroit in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, scoring at a 22-goal, 48-point pace. He followed up with a respectable season in New Jersey, but didn’t complete his 2 year contract with the Devils before returning to Switzerland. Since he only played 121 NHL games, entirely in his prime, his career p/g of 0.48 was too good to leave off the roster. He could be a great teammate to Suter on this theoretical team, they both represented Switzerland at the 2018 Olympics.
If this line includes 2013 Brunner, it would be a fantastic 4th line. Both Raffl and Kampf can step onto a 3rd line in a checking role, and Brunner provided middle 6 scoring during his brief NHL stint.
E. Gustafsson – Zaitsev
Despite his large contract, Nikita Zaitsev is undeniably one of the most successful European FA signings. The Leafs and multiple other teams were in discussions with Zaitsev a full year before his KHL contract even expired. The next game he plays will be his 300th in the NHL (playoffs included), and he still has 4 more years on his contract. His rookie season total of 36 points is still his best season, 10th best amongst all rookie defencemen in 4 years he’s played. When the Leafs signed him out of the KHL, Zaitsev immediately became one of their top 4 defencemen. That perspective has very much shifted, but at a different price he would still be seen as a valuable depth defender.
Erik Gustafsson, signing with the Blackhawks a year after a defenceman with the same name left the Flyers, did not have a similar immediate impact to Zaitsev. For 3 seasons Gus split time between Rockford and Chicago, but in his 4th he recorded 60 points for the Blackhawks. Over the past 5 seasons, that’s between names like Karlsson, Josi, Doughty, and Subban. Admittedly part of his production was the availability of ice time and PP time in Chicago, but defencemen don’t score 60 by accident.
This isn’t what you might consider a shutdown pairing, but there is a tremendous amount of offensive upside. As Free Agents, both players provided much utility for their signing teams. Zaitsev was the best RHD on the Leafs for multiple seasons, and Gustafsson was traded by the Blackhwaks for a 3rd round pick this year.
Kempny – Rutta
He was a late bloomer, but Michal Kempny stepped into the NHL immediately after signing with the Blackhawks. He played in the Czech league until he was 24, then spent a year in the KHL, where he gained NHL interest. At 26, he joined Chicago on a 1 year ELC. Kempny was not a prolific point producer like Gustafsson, but he was a positive possession player. Similarly, Kempny was traded for a 3rd round pick at the trade deadline. He went on to form a great pairing with John Carlson, playing big minutes en route to the Capitals first cup.
Jan Rutta also came up through the Czech league and signed with the Blackhawks when he was 26. While he produced points in Chicago, it was his trade to Tampa Bay that enabled him to become a coveted player. The Lighting gave up former 1st round pick Slater Koekkoek and downgraded from a 5th to a 7th to land Rutta. The 6’3″ RHD stepped up in the absences of Hedman, Girardi, and Cernak, but the Lighting were disappointed in round 1 of the 2019 playoffs.
This pair has a lot of similarities, well rounded Czech defencemen born in 1990 and signed by the Blackhawks as UDFAs. Both were eventually traded at the trade deadline, and played a bigger role on their new teams while top defenders were injured. Both have had seasons as very positive possession players, but average just over 50% of shots going on the other team’s net while they’re on the ice. They’re probably below average as a 2nd pair, but ultimately they could be 4th/5th defencemen.
Riikola – Lyubushkin
Juuso Riikola made the NHL somewhat unexpectedly after signing with the Penguins, his Liiga production was similar to a player like Teemu Kivihalme. Still, he impressed in camp in 2018, and played a significant portion of his games while Justin Schultz was injured. He did not have a positive impact on possession until this year, when he posted a 53.7 CF%. In the right role, he seems to be a player that can transition the puck well.
Ilya Lyubushkin has been unremarkable in his NHL career to date, with 0 goals and a career high of 4 points in a season. Still, he’s a 6’2″ RHD that just turned 26 and has nearly 100 GP. He’s been able to handle himself as an average possession player on a middle of the pack Coyotes team in all situations. He’s not going to win your team any games singlehandedly, but he can slow the game down and not get scored on while the top offensive players rest.
I’m not much of a goalie expert, but his $10m Cap Hit speaks for itself. He signed with Philadelphia out of the KHL back in 2010, and he’s played over 500 NHL games. He’s been an All-Star multiple times and won multiple Vezina Trophies. This team would need goaltending, and they’ve got their starter.
This Bulgarian-born goaltender signed with the Rangers out of the Finnish Liiga. He’s been so good in New York, as Leafs fans should know, that he’s put “The King” Henrik Lundqvist’s job in danger. He’s pushing to become an NHL starter at 24, already playing 77 NHL games for under $800k. Having him as a backup means the goaltending extremely solid, cost-controlled, and there is a successor in place if the starter moves on.
I chose Kampf as the 4C because he broke into the league at a young age and stuck around, but Par Lindhom and Gaeten Haas are playing effectively in that role. In Edmonton with Haas is Joakim Nygard, who seems promising as a bottom 6 scoring forward. There’s also Tomas Nosek who has cemented himself as an effective bottom 6 player in Vegas. Nikita Soshnikov entered the NHL with a bang, but struggled with a concussion and other injuries before returning to the KHL. He recorded the 7th most points in the KHL this season, and with his skillset he may end up in North America again.
On defence, there are multiple Leafs in the honourable mentions. They’ve scoured Europe for solutions to their defensive issues, and found short term and potentially long term solutions. First there was Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen, both LHD from the SHL. Borgman played 48 NHL games in his rookie season, and looked like a solid option down the road. He suffered from his injuries in the AHL, but is still in North America for now. Rosen was involved in the Nazem Kadri trade, but was eventually re-acquired by Toronto. His smooth skating makes him a strong option for the blue line of the future.
There is also Igor Ozhiganov and Mikko Lehtonen, who were signed out of the KHL. Ozhiganov was a 6’2″ RHD that played 53 games for the Leafs, but returned to the KHL for this season. Mikko Lehtonen was signed after the NHL season went on pause, but has grand upside, having scored 49 points as a Defenceman in the KHL this season.
As for European D that didn’t sign with the Leafs, Lawrence Pilut is one of the top candidates to take a spot on this roster. He turned 24 this season and has 46 NHL games under his belt, but could not find a permanent spot on a crowded, complicated Sabres blue line. Pilut signed in the KHL for next season, but he’s too talented to not come back to the NHL. On that breath Nikita Tryamkin has the potential to return to the NHL, but his game would need to improve in order to make this team.
I’ll add Johannes Kinnvall as a dark horse, a RHD who signed with Calgary after the NHL went on pause. At 22, he was 2nd in the SHL for scoring by a defenceman this season.