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Photo Credit: Frolunda HC/Twitter

2021 European Free Agent primer

In the 2014-15 KHL season, Artemi Panarin, Nikita Gusev, Nikita Zaitsev, and Nikita Soshnikov were 4 of the top 5 u24 scorers. Gusev had already been drafted to the NHL, and by 2016 the rest were signed as Free Agents and in the NHL. While Soshnikov suffered from injuries, Panarin and Zaitsev immediately stepped into a big role in the NHL and changed the expectations for European Free Agents.

Every offseason since, NHL teams have been in search of young players thriving in European pro leagues who can step right into their lineup. Toronto and Chicago in particular have been able to lure high-profile European FAs by offering the most playing opportunities. I wrote about some of the most successful signings here, building a 20-man roster of European FAs.

2020 Leafs signings Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen both appear in that article, and Lehtonen has raised expectations since with 17 points in 17 KHL games this season. I would argue he’s the most coveted KHL D since Nikita Zaitsev, some people will be surprised by his poise with the puck. The difference between these two and European FAs of the past is that their 1 year ELCs expire UFA, as both Barabanov and Lehtonen are 26. That means both may need to be replaced, so we look ahead to the European FAs of 2021.

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I decided to profile my top European FA at each skater position, and include some honourable mentions at the end.

Center

Denis Alexeyev is a 5’11”, 190lb C playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL. At 23 years old he has spent parts of the past 5 seasons in the KHL, with 97 points in 189 career games to date. He has increased his production steadily each year, with almost no powerplay time on a deep Loko team.

In the 20-21 season, Alexeyev is tied for the team lead in scoring with 21 points in 30 games. He’s tied with Leafs prospect Egor Korshkov, who is actually a year older. The pair has 7 points more than anyone else on the team, and they’re playing on the 2nd line, again with little PP time.

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Alexeyev is mostly known for being a playmaker, he sinks into the offensive zone and waits for open ice. Once he’s below the circles he can draw a defender in and capitalize on the opened pass lane, often to Korshkov’s benefit. He has quick feet but doesn’t often beat a defender clean on the outside, preferring to look for the pass. Given his production I think Alexeyev could step straight into an NHL lineup in 21-22, but the main reason to sign him is his long-term potential.

In researching European FA’s I’ve built a database of ~160 forwards and ~120 defencemen across 6 leagues. I use the average p/g at a given age to ascertain how a player like Alexeyev compares to previous FA signings in that league. Sometimes there is a rule of thumb like scoring 30 points in an SHL season before you turn 25 that indicates a player is worthy of an ELC.

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In the KHL I observe the ‘Plotnikov-Tikhonov Barrier’ (PTB), two European FAs from the early days who didn’t quite succeed in the NHL. Since they closely resemble the average p/g of KHL signees across a 7 year span, players who outproduce them are generally ELC worthy. Players who produce less could be signed if they’re a depth player with size or a late bloomer, but it’s surprisingly accurate as a general rule.

I’ve included some friendly faces on this chart to demonstrate the rule. We can see that Nick Shore, signing after his age 25 season, was not going to be an offensive producer. Miro Aaltonen was promising as a 23 year old, but only in a 1 year KHL sample. Ilya Mikheyev in grey stayed above the PTB for 2 consecutive seasons, then stepped straight into the Leafs lineup on a 48 point pace.

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Alexeyev (in red) is certainly in Mikheyev territory early this season, add in the fact he’s playing on a line with Korshkov, and he seems like a custom fit for the Leafs. He will be eligible for a 1 year, $925k ELC when his KHL contract expires in April. He would then be RFA in the summer of 2022, not reaching UFA until 2025. If he steps in and produces similarly to Mikheyev, a team could sign him to a 2 year extension where he still expires RFA, and that team control is incredible value if he’s NHL ready.

If Alexeyev transitions well to North America I can see him being a playmaking 3C like Alex Kerfoot, for half the price. His offensive vision and chemistry with Korshkov could make him a plug and play option if Thornton/Spezza retire, it will just be a matter of rounding out his defensive game.

Left Wing

Konstantin Okulov has been in the NHL rumour mill for the past few offseasons, going as far as to narrow his list to 2 NHL teams before returning to the KHL on a 1 year contract last summer. The two teams left were the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.

He’s a 6’0″, 183lb left shot winger, turning 26 in February. He put himself in the same position as Barabanov, after his 1 year ELC he will be a UFA. The pair are like two sides of the same coin, each playing for CSKA or SKA for 4 seasons before going to the NHL. If Barabanov is the guy you sign to rotate on a checking 3rd line, Okulov is the guy you sign to rotate on a scoring 3rd line.

It’s taken some time, but this season Okulov (in red) has really stood out. His 29 points in 31 games leads CSKA, but Okulov is only getting 2nd line minutes. He gets some extra looks on the powerplay, but any way you slice it his production is impressive. I’ve included Mikhail Grigorenko for reference, who had 23 points in 75 games for the Colorado Avalanche the season *before* his stint in the KHL.

The guy can just flat out play. I think that Barabanov will win over a lot of Leaf fans with his work ethic this season, and signing Okulov for $925k would be an even more welcome follow-up. There will be plenty of competition to sign him, as whoever lands Okulov can probably count on him for 30 points in his first NHL season.

Right Wing

Julius Nattinen was drafted 59th overall in 2015 by Anaheim, the next two picks being Oliver Kylington by Calgary and Jeremy Bracco by Toronto. That was an incredibly deep draft, and Nattinen justified his selection by putting up 71 points in 52 OHL games as a 19 year old.

It was 2016-17 when doubt crept in on Nattinen, recording just 38 points in 58 OHL games that season. Some rumours surfaced about his work ethic and inconsistent play, but he was already signed to an ELC. He stayed in North America for a respectable AHL rookie season of 12 points in 55 games, but returned to Finland for 2018-19 after Anaheim agreed to terminate his ELC with 2 years remaining.

That decision proved a bit premature, as he quickly became a top player for his home Finnish club JYP. As a 22 year old Nattinen was over a point per game in Liiga, and since the turn of the century his only company in doing so is Jori Lehtera, Henrik Haapala, Mikael Granlund, and Antti Miettinen. All of whom played in the NHL.

His 55 points in 54 games in 2019-20 was also 3rd in all Liiga scoring, and his 33 goals were first in the league by 6. Just behind him with 53 points was Jesse Puljujarvi, 4th overall pick in 2016. There were plenty of rumours that Nattinen would return to North America for 20-21, but they were put to rest when he signed a 1 year deal in the Swiss NLA.

Through 10 games this season for Ambri-Piotta, Nattinen has 12 goals and 2 assists. His team as a whole only has 27 goals through 14 games, so without him they only score ~1 goal per game. At 6’2″ and 205lbs, Nattinen is a big, dynamic scoring threat on the wing. I’m reminded of another 6’2″ scoring winger who signed out of Ambri-Piotta, Dominik Kubalik. He had 57 points in 50 NLA games, then had 30 goals and 46 points in his NHL rookie season.

The comparisons between Nattinen and Kubalik really draw themselves. They both got drafted to the NHL and spent 2 seasons in the OHL, putting up disappointing numbers in the latter season. They then returned to their home leagues, improving until they surpassed 1.0 p/g then signing in Ambri-Piotta. It seems like the natural next steps for Nattinen would be to lead the team in goals and points, then sign an ELC with the Blackhawks.

I’m mostly kidding, but I would be astounded if the Hawks weren’t interested in Nattinen. His production in both the Finnish Liiga and Swiss NLA are at the top of his age group, and it appears that his consistency issues have subsided. It’s incredibly difficult to find players with such a natural affinity for scoring goals on the European market, even if he has struggled in North America before.

Since Nattinen has already had an ELC, he wouldn’t be subjected to the $925k max when signing. Considering Puljujarvi just signed for $1.175m Nattinen may be able to command more, either way it’s a modest price to pay for his RFA rights. Like Kubalik, I can see Nattinen being a 20 goal scorer in the NHL.

Right Defence

Jakob Stenqvist was a 6th round pick for Dallas in 2016, the Stars held his rights until this past summer. 6’2″ and 179lbs, he’s a Swedish right shot defenceman with a big frame. He had been bounced around every Swedish junior league you can name before he finally settled in the Allsvenskan in 2016-17. Allsvenskan is a pro league, the relegation league of the SHL, so Stenqvist is in his 5th pro season.

In 16-17 he was on a MODO team with a stacked blue line that included 2015 Leafs draft pick Jesper Lindgren and Carolina pick Jesper Sellgren. After signing with Frolunda for 17-18 Stenqvist was loaned to IF Bjorkloven, where he blossomed into the team’s top defenceman. He recorded at least 20 points in back to back seasons before moving to the Finnish Liiga for 2019-20.

He signed with Assat, where Leafs draft pick Roni Hirvonen was having a heck of a draft year. Not only did Stenqvist lead Assat Defencemen in scoring, he was tied for second in points amongst all skaters. 15 of his 32 points did come on the powerplay, but he was 6th in Liiga D scoring as a 21 year old. He outproduced Robin Salo, Axel Rindell, and Julius Honka, who NHL teams have shown much more interest in.

I’m not shy to say how highly I think of Mikko Lehtonen, but Stenqvist’s prolific production in the present season eclipses even Mikko’s Liiga numbers.

I’ve selected a few relevant Liiga guys for reference, but I didn’t just get rid of the examples with a higher p/g than Stenqvist. When the Habs signed Leskinen he had the highest p/g of any 21 year old Liiga FA D, and he played 5 NHL games last season. If Kivihalme and Riikola set the bar for a 7th defenceman, Stenqvist is on track to offer more upside than that.

Through 19 games this Liiga season he has 12 points, in the top 10 for D but just behind teammate and former Leaf Andreas Borgman. Stenqvist is obviously a top defenceman in a league that has some promising young blueliners. In my opinion it’s just a matter of time before he’s signed, I believe a team is going to look wise for offering him a 2 year ELC this summer.

Some highlights, a great slap pass:

Two goals, the second shows off some of his smooth footwork:

I don’t have a tonne of highlights from Stenqvist, but most of the comments from Stars development camp talked about how strong of a skater he was. I’ve watched a few of his games with Hirvonen, he has a smooth stride and can transition the puck well, but I didn’t watch enough to notice much else. Stenqvist is going to be eligible for a 2 year ELC beginning in 21-22, and he has the potential to be a solid bottom pairing defender. I’ve noted before that he generates a decent portion of his offence on the PP and he won’t get that opportunity at the NHL level, but he still has the tools to be a positive possession player at even strength.

For comparison Markus Nutivaara put up 22 points in 50 Liiga games as a 21 year old, Columbus drafted him, and he played 66 games in the NHL the next season. Stenqvist’s offensive output exceeds Nutivaara’s or Juuso Riikola’s for that matter, and those two both made a pretty smooth transition to the NHL.

Left Defence

This is where I’m forced to admit that points are not everything. I use points per game to identify players that stand out relative to their league and age group, but having the highest p/g does not make a player the best. Especially when it comes to evaluating defencemen, you can’t understand the nuances of their style without watching multiple games.

As much as I might enjoy it, I don’t have the time or resources to watch every European hockey game. Instead I try to use the data I have to identify who is worth watching, then use the film to build a profile of the player. Sometimes I’ll find a player with an excellent statistical profile, like Dominik Egli last season, but when I watch them play it’s clear they are not on an NHL trajectory.

Alexander Yakovenko is an interesting case study on this. He’s a 5’10”, 170lb Russian defenceman currently playing in the Finnish Liiga. He’s teammates with Leaf draft picks Axel Rindell and Mikko Kokkonen, and the trio of young defencemen are driving Jukurit’s offence. Yakovenko has 10 points in 16 games as a 22 year old, while Rindell has a team leading 12 points in 17 games at 20 years old.

Going back to 2014-15, Yakovenko represented Russia at the WJC-18, recording the most points on a blue line that included Mikhail Sergachev and Yegor Rykov. He would remain in Russia until he turned 20, but things got a bit turbulent from there. In the past 4 seasons Yakovenko has appeared in the Russian MHL and VHL, the USHL, Finnish Liiga, and Swiss NLA.

In my research I often find players that just seem to pop up everywhere. Mikko Lehtonen was one, as he put up good numbers at a young age in all 3 of the KHL, SHL, and Liiga. When Yakovenko was in the USHL in 2018-19 he had 52 points in 56 games, 3rd in scoring on a Muskegeon Lumberjacks team that included Nashville Predators 2nd round pick Yegor Afanaseyev and San Jose Sharks 3rd round pick Daniil Guschin. Yakovenko consistently seems to play up to the level of some really talented teammates.

When Yakovenko moved back across the Atlantic in 2019-20 to play in Finland, he had the 3rd highest p/g amongst u27 defencemen. In 4th would be the aforementioned Jakob Stenqvist. This season, Yakovenko’s 10 points in 16 games is almost identical to Stenqvist’s 0.63 p/g. I wish I could just slap Stenqvist’s scouting report in here and call it a day, but on the ice it’s a different story.

Obviously it begins with Yakovenko’s diminutive size, he doesn’t have the range or physical presence that Stenqvist does. He still records the odd hit but his physicality isn’t a core element of his game. When he recovers the puck Yakovenko is quick to make the first pass, and his passing really is central to his ability. He will tend to pass on the breakout rather than skate the puck, where he creates his offence is with his shot. He had 19 goals in the USHL in 2018-19, and he already has 5 goals this season with Jukurit. Yakovenko and Rindell lead the team with 70+ shots each, while 3rd place has 54.

The problem is that sometimes I’ll watch for Rindell and Kokkonen, and not notice Yakovenko at all. He’s inconsistent with his performances, and a player that puts up numbers like Yakovenko should be pretty noticeable. If he can be a little more aggressive in the defensive zone and hold a spot on Jukurit’s top pairing it would be tough for the Leafs not to notice him, as he plays with two of their prospects.

If he can put up 30 Liiga points as a 22 year old Yakovenko would make a strong case for a 2 year ELC, but it’s unlikely he would be an NHL contributor in 2021-22. Given what he was able to do in the USHL I doubt there’s any transition period to North American ice, and I would be really interested to see what he could do in the AHL. Swedish defenceman Sebastian Aho might be a good comparison, I think there are plenty of NHL teams that could use a guy like that. Certainly the NHL is trending in the way of smaller defencemen getting more opportunity.

Honourable Mentions

I tried to pick out the guys at each position with the best combination of potential and current ability, if I opened it up to older players I’d be screaming Teemu Hartikainen’s praises into the abyss. If I had just one SPC slot left I would probably go for Julius Nattinen for the potential, but the reality is that NHL teams still sign guys like Micheal Haley when you could list 50 European FAs you’d rather have.

One such player is Eemeli Suomi:

Also in Liiga are two Slovaks of interest, both playing for Lukko. 25 year old, 6’5″ RW Pavol Skalicky has 15 points in 19 games after finishing top 10 in Czech league scoring last season. Kristian Pospisil was once on an AHL deal with the Marlies but missed an entire season due to injury, then signed a 2 year deal in Finland. Now he’s approaching the end of that deal, and he’s off to a hot start with 9 points in 9 games. They project to be depth players at best, but they have the potential to replenish the pool of Slovaks in the NHL.

Extremely under the radar is 5’10” LW Alexander Petunin, 23 years old and leading Severstal (KHL) with 23 points in 31 games. I haven’t seen him play much, but that’s impressive production on such a poor team.

 

On defence, Stenqvist really stands out for such a young player. He’s close to NHL ready and still has room to grow, most other European FAs are one or the other. Daniil Miromanov might be one, he’s listed as a RW/RD from his time in the QMJHL. He has 17 points in 32 KHL games on a weak HK Sochi, 2nd on his team, so I was surprised to look at the roster sheets for every game and find him listed as a defenceman. He’s 6’4″ and 23 years old, but he’s just breaking out this season. I worry that he’s going to get locked up long term by Sochi, and become a top KHL RD.

I will likely continue to profile these players as their regular seasons come to a close, but this is already over 3000 words and I don’t know how to wrap it up other than to emphasize just how much potential Alexeyev has. This season he and Korshkov have been the heart of Lokomotiv, and Korshkov proved himself NHL ready to a lot of people before being loaned back to Russia. The thought of having Mikheyev – Alexeyev – Korshkov as the Leafs 3rd line in 2021-22 is really enticing, especially when the trio would make roughly what Alex Kerfoot does now.