2022 Olympics: Potential NHL Free Agents to Watch in Group C
Photo credit:© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
I’ll be honest with you, I planned on writing a full profile for each of the players (age 26 or younger) in the Olympics that I thought had NHL potential. I did that back in 2018, and I was correct on Artem Zub, Dominik Kahun, and Pius Suter. In the 4 years since then I have developed much better tools to compare European FAs, and I’m struggling to keep the list under 30 players.
The past couple years have forced every professional team to test out younger players, and in many European leagues those young players have proven to be difference makers. Obviously players under NHL contract being ineligible means there will be more FAs, but Russia, USA, Slovakia, and Latvia have especially young rosters. Long story short, there are more young players both drafted and undrafted than in previous Olympics.
With so many players still on an upward trajectory, I could write 10,000 words and not profile them all. That’s why I have sectioned this into three parts corresponding to Olympic Groups A, B, and C, in reverse order. (Yes, I did it that way because it spells CBA). In total I am looking at twenty-seven u27 players, and I think there are 5-10 hockey players participating in the Olympic Games that are likely to play NHL games in the next 1-2 years. It is a great opportunity to look at these players at a high competition level, and against the same teams.
Since most of these players are bound by the ELC system, NHL teams can add some of the top performers at the Olympics to their club for under $1m. Any player that can step into the NHL at that price point and contribute opens up cap space somewhere else, so there will be competition to sign them. Of the 27 players I detail, all but 4 Leaf prospects and 4 draft eligibles are NHL free agents. With that being said, some of them are under European contracts past 2022 (I will note that), every league but the KHL has a transfer agreement that allows those players to still sign NHL contracts.
In group C we have Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and Latvia. As always Sweden and Finland are quite strong, but they have only a handful of players under 25 between them, and Leaf prospect Pontus Holmberg is the only player on an NHL reserve list. Slovakia and Latvia will be fighting to improve their 9th and 10th place IIHF rankings. Both teams are on the younger side but I think Slovakia has the slight upper hand, and their most exciting players are draft eligible.
Buffalo Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson does have a brother that plays pro hockey, but it is not Fredrik Olofsson. Just wanted to clear that up, because Fredrik also has a brother, Gustav, who has played in the NHL. What makes it confusing is that Fredrik is a sniper much like Victor, and I think it won’t be long before both of them are in the NHL.
Olofsson was originally drafted by Chicago in 2014, playing 4 seasons in the NCAA but never signing an NHL contract. He’s been in Sweden for the past 3 years now, and has been a top scorer on IK Oskarshamn in back to back seasons. At 25 years old, the 6’1″ LW is hovering right around a point per game in the SHL. Sweden brings a great team to the Olympics, so I am curious to see what line Olofsson ends up on. He is on an insanely hot streak in the SHL with 13 points in his last 10 games, if he can carry that confidence on he will surely turn some heads. At the NHL level Olofsson could be a solid 3rd line winger with a role on PP2 on a rebuilding team. His SHL contract is up this offseason, and he would be eligible for a 1 year ELC.
Pontus Holmberg is a Leaf prospect, drafted in the 6th round in 2018. I wrote his 2020 Prospect Ranking, and since then his stock has skyrocketed. He started to win more icetime as the 20-21 season went on, and dominated the SHL playoffs with 14 points in 14 games as Vaxjo won the championship. He now has 28 points in 34 games as a 22 year old, in a low scoring league like the SHL it is extremely rare for a player that young to exceed 0.8 p/g. I will recommend the prospect ranking for more detail, but Holmberg is signed to an ELC through 2023 and it’s looking more and more like he can play NHL games on this contract.
I would like to see Holmberg playing Center for Sweden, but that is no guarantee. Wherever he plays, he will be a puck distributor for his linemates. I would describe him as a pass-first player, not the most efficient skater but he will inject some much needed youth into this Swedish lineup. He is the youngest on the team by 3 years, next being Olofsson. One reason Sweden may have taken Holmberg over some other talented young Swedes, is because he is so well rounded. I don’t want to get carried away with comparables, but purely from the way they play the game I see a bit of Jaden Schwartz in him, just constantly moving the puck in the right direction, and into higher danger areas.
Suomi is an older team this Olympics, with just two players under the age of 27. Fortunately both of those players were already on my radar:
Hannes Bjorninen is a player I really liked when he played in the Finnish Liiga. He’s a 6’1″ C who plays big, and made excellent plays with the puck when given the time. He was the Captain of the Pelicans from a young age, getting closer and closer to a point per game before he signed with Jokerit (KHL) at age 25. This season in the KHL he gets far less ice time and faces tougher competition, not doing nearly as well with 21 points in 43 games. Bjorninen is under KHL contract until 2023, I think the Olympics are a showcase for him as a potential NHL 4C when that deal is up. Back when he was playing for the Pelicans, Bjorninen was teammates with many drafted NHL prospects, so scouts might have some prior knowledge of him.
Niko Okamaki has the most goals in the KHL this year, and it’s not particularly close. With 29 goals and 43 points in 48 games, he is the clear offensive leader of Vityaz Podolsk. The team really lacked depth this year though, missing the playoffs in the now-truncated season. Since his KHL contract ends in 2021, Ojamaki would be able to sign an NHL contract for 21-22 with Vityaz’ permission. He could theoretically sign before the NHL trade deadline, and be eligible to play in the playoffs. Arizona’s Dmitrij Jaskin would be a good comparable for him, both led the KHL in goals at one point, wingers who love to score on the rush with their shot.
Ojamaki, similarly to Bjorninen, scored at a very high rate in Liiga. He also represented Finland in the WJC and WC before this Olympics, rubbing elbows with some of the top young Finns in the NHL today. Ojamaki is a bit of a clunky skater and a little undersized at 5’11” and 185lbs. He wouldn’t command PP time at the NHL level, and more than half of his goals this season came on the powerplay. I think any team with interest in Ojamaki are looking at his play off the puck in this Olympics to see if he can be an effective depth forward in the NHL.
The Slovak team is really interesting, with two prominent draft eligibles front and center in Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec. I will leave the analysis of them to the draft experts, but I’m a big fan of both of them going in the top 10 in 2022.
Milos Kelemen and Milos Roman are two young forwards to watch when Slovakia plays, both born in 1999 and beginning to take on major roles on Czech teams. Kelemen was off to a really hot start to the season when he jumped on my radar, but has cooled off a bit and now has 17 points in 39 games, playing 2nd line minutes. He’s a 6’2″ winger who came up through under-scouted Slovakian leagues, and could surprise some older opponents.
Roman is a later birthday, and spent his draft year in the WHL. The 6’0″ Center was drafted in the 4th round by Calgary in 2018, but never signed. This year he has 21 points in 41 games on HC Ocelari Trinek, where he won the Czech Extraliga championship last season. He represented Slovakia at the u20 WJC three times, and the u18 WJC twice more. I don’t think either Milos is ready to sign an NHL contract, but they’re on good trajectories.
This is supposed to be where I talk about future Leaf staple Kristians Rubins. He was one of three players initially named to Latvia’s roster when players on NHL contracts were presumed to be going to the Olympics:
In his absence, 6’1″ RHD Janis Jaks will be a player to watch for Latvia. At 26 years old he has 18 points in 41 KHL games on a really weak HK Sochi. Since they missed the playoffs, Jaks is a free agent once these Olympics are over and he’s going to be getting a ton of icetime. Another blueliner to keep an eye on is Patriks Ozols, he’s a 5’11” LHD in his last year as a draft eligible. He’s only got 4 points in 42 games for Dinamo Riga this year, but it can’t hurt your draft stock to play in the 2nd best league in the world and the Olympics as a 21 year old.
Rodrigo Abols is really going to stand out for Latvia, a 6’4″ Center who has developed into a first line player in the SHL. He’s 26 and signed until 2023, which is not conducive to making a 3rd attempt at sticking in North America. He was pretty good in the AHL with 23 points in 36 games as a 23 year old, but still chose to mutually terminate his contract and return to the SHL. This season he has 25 points in 35 SHL games, tied for 31st in the league. He will likely be Latvia’s top C and get a lot of ice time, I will be watching to see how he plays against the top teams at this Olympics to get a sense of what he might look like as an NHL 4C.
I use a model to evaluate potential European Free Agents based on their age and points per game. Extremely briefly, it compares to a dataset of nearly every FA to sign out of 6 European leagues since 2000, and outputs a standard deviation for a given player that can be compared across leagues and age groups. A player with a value of 0 has a p/g that is exactly the average for FAs signing out of the same league and at the same age. Generally, a player with a value of 1 will generate NHL interest.
In Group C, the biggest outlier is already signed to an NHL contract, and that’s Pontus Holmberg. It’s what you might expect, as we are comparing a drafted player to a dataset of mostly undrafted players. Still, Holmberg is having a standout year in the SHL that may hasten his transition to the NHL. The only other player in this group above 1 standard deviation is Frederik Olofsson, and a strong showing from him at the Olympics might be the final confirmation an NHL team needs to pull the trigger and sign him.
For the other 5 Forwards there are still plenty of comparables that have signed NHL contracts, but they’re either not ready for the NHL, or not suited for the role they would be limited to. Lighting it up at the Olympics could change my mind, but the numbers don’t favour them.
As for the two D, Jaks would probably have to be willing to play in the AHL to sign an NHL contract. He signed an AHL contract with Bakersfield out of College in 20-21, but didn’t make it through the season before heading to the KHL. It really depends what his ambitions are, but the Olympics could be an opportunity to showcase himself as a 7D. I don’t think Ozols will be drafted in 2022, but NHL teams do crazy things with their late round picks sometimes and he certainly wouldn’t be the craziest selection in recent years.
That’s 9 players down out of 27, Group B to come tomorrow!
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